• Discouraging Smartphones from Disrupting Students’ Focus in Class


(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*

Research has found that students who multi-tasked with emails, text messages, and social media during class had lower scores on tests than students who did not multi-task.

I wanted to share that research with my Writing students, but, instead of just giving a lecture, I incorporated it in a fluency writing activity (I’ve described the step in a fluency writing activity in a previous posting Fluency writing: reading, speaking in triads, and listening culminating in a writing task. )  It involves reading, speaking, listening and writing.  In brief, students in groups of three, each having a different part of an article, read their part to their partners, and then, individually paraphrase the entire article.

I’m attaching the complete fluency activity about smartphones below in case you’d like to try it with your students.

Fluency Smartphones 

A Smartphone Policy that Seems to Work for Students

As a result of that research and from experience observing my students constantly being distracted by smartphones, I set a policy: Students cannot use their smartphones during the class (from 1:30-3:20), but they can leave the classroom anytime they want to use them. 

(For more about organizing  Writing class to make this policy possible, see • ESL Writing Workshop: Tremendous Benefits for Students and Teachers)

Last Monday, I received a comment (unsolicited) from an Indonesian student about my smartphone policy .  He said that on the first day of class three weeks ago, when he first heard the policy, he felt upset about it.  But after a couple of classes, he was surprised to see how focused he could be in class because he wasn’t constantly distracted by thoughts about his smartphone.  And he said he’s been able to get a lot more work done as a result.  So he said that now he really appreciates the policy and recommends it for future students.

This has generally been the response by most of the students.  I think that it works for them because they have the autonomy to decide whether it’s worth the time and effort to leave the classroom to use the phones.  At the same time, they are not constantly reminded of their smartphones by other students suddenly checking theirs.

David Kehe

*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.

2 thoughts on “• Discouraging Smartphones from Disrupting Students’ Focus in Class

  1. Lynn R Schaefer

    Hi, David–I just read about your cell phone policy. I have a terrible time with students using cell phones in my class. I guess I like to play devil’s advocate, so I was wondering what you do if you see a student using his/her phone in your class instead of going out to use it.


  2. commonsenseesl Post author

    Hi Lynn,
    Isn’t amazing how much we are needing to deal with something that none of us could have predicted just a few years ago? After a lot of trial and error, I came up some techniques that seem to work for almost all the students.

    During the first class, I explain my policy and include the quote from my former student that I included in this posting.

    The first time I notice someone looking at their phone while I’m explaining a lesson to the whole class, I’ll try to tease them a bit and mildly embarrass them by saying something like this: “Is Jin looking at her phone?” or “That’s not your smartphone, is it An?” “Chen, are you checking your messages?” For most students, they get the point.

    If someone does it again, I’ll talk to them one-on-one and tell them, “When you look at your phone during class, it reminds the other students of their phones and they start to want to check their messages, too. It’s not fair to the other students.”

    And if those steps don’t seem to work, I have the “nuclear” option, which I rarely have had to use. At the start of almost every class, students give me some kind of homework assignment. After class, I mark these in some way; sometimes I’ll indicate grammar mistakes with a code in the margin, and/or indicate some way to improve it, and/or mark a content mistake. And almost always, I at least indicate something they did well by underlining it in green. (It could be a good word or expression or idea or technique.) I return these the next day. That is my “carrot” that I can give them or withhold.

    This is nuclear option. If a student continues to look at his/her smartphone, I don’t put any marks on the homework that they handed in that day. And I attach a note like this:

    Dear M****ki,
    I want to help you improve your skills in this class. But on Wednesday, you continued to play with your smartphone during class and didn’t pay attention while I was explaining the day’s lesson. Thus, I won’t mark your homework. I gave you credit for doing the assignment, but I won’t help you with it.
    If you don’t look at your phone during class, I will be happy to help you with your assignments in the future and help you pass this class.


    Lynn, this nuclear option has been very effective for those few students who just don’t respond to my other “techniques.” The key, though, is having a “carrot” that can be withheld.

    I’d be greatly interested in hearing how you (and others) have approaching this.

    Thanks for writing,




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