Using Cell Phones to Increase Student Achievement and Engagement with Reading and Writing

Using Cell Phones to Increase Student Achievement and Engagement with Reading and Writing

Cell phones are a terrific tool to support student engagement and achievement in reading and writing. To follow are some ideas explaining how teachers are doing just that by using cell phones in the way they are most commonly used among youth -- for texting and group texting. We will also look at a newly emerging trend...using cell phones to write novels.

Our students are reading and writing more than ever. In the 21st century, this reading and writing often takes place through the lightening fast thumbs of teens. Although some parents and teachers complain that text messaging is ruining the language, research is showing that it is, in fact, a benefit to students phonemic awareness, spelling, and use of words (Yarmey, 2011; Plester & Wood, 2008, Malson & Tarica, 2011; Fresco, 2005; Dunnewind, 2003; Miners, 2009; McCarroll, 2005; Elder, 2009). When we rethink and revision what is happening when our teens and tweens text, all sorts of learning possibilities emerge.

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Texting has become the shorthand of the 21st century. When writing first drafts, allow students to draft on their phone or laptop if they choose and use text abbreviations to get their thoughts down. Encouraging the quick, free flow of ideas in a format they prefer can help young writers capture, compile, and create new ideas. These can be translated as they edit and revise resulting is a final draft that is written in standard language.
  • Translate difficult passages of poetry, classic literature, or even content heavy textbook passages into textese in order to aid students interactions with the material and understanding. These create great summaries, which is a research-based teaching strategy (Marzano, Pollock & Pickering, 2003)
  • Have students journal through texting or answer each other’s discussion questions through texting, which results in more writing due to their preference of the medium. When the audience changes to others then their peers, have them use standard English, which educates about writing for a particular audience.

Text Talk: Classroom Stories - Sandy Riggs, Biology Teacher "I never see this with hands," was Sandy Riggs response to all the text messages she received when she asked her freshman Biology students to text her what they thought DNA precipitation meant. Riggs teaches at Collegiate High School in Texas. Texting has increased her student's confidence and allowed them to participate without embarrassment.

Through the ease and time saving means of group texting, educators can connect with groups of students for many literacy activities such as vocabulary development, questions about assigned readings, polls, or summaries. Tools like Celly a code for students to text in and become part of a group, or cell. The teacher can set up one way messages with reply only to sender, curated chats, or open chats. All texts sent and received are documented on the website. This adds a great deal of structure and documentation to communicating with students through the reading and writing of text messages.

Ideas for the Classroom

  • To encourage homework reading, a teacher sends out a critical thinking question to the students in the evening and reads their responses the next day (phone or computer) and records grades.
  • Put students in cooperative learning groups and have them interact and discuss questions through an open group chat. The teacher then reads the chats within the Celly site. The teacher gets to be a part of every group and every student has a voice.
  • Have students set up a Celly for themselves and use the @me feature for easily taking notes, writing questions, or making connections while reading at school or on the go (no paper or pencil required - they always have a in their pocket)

Text Talk: Classroom Stories - Sandy Vickrey, Math/Science Teacher

I had learned the benefits of cues and questions to activate prior knowledge in my college education classes. In my school, however, class time was very short and I always had to start the lecture, play the video, present the lesson immediately in order to finish by the end of class. I rarely took the time to cue students, ask questions, or discuss prior knowledge. Wait time did not seem to exist. When I learned about free group texting services, I began using a group text for a cue or a question before school to all of my morning classes and at lunch to all of my afternoon classes. This really helped students come to class aware of the lesson content and ready to learn more. However, when using it for the cell movie, right out of the research my friend shared with me, I looked at the Wiffiti screen and one of my students had responded to the question, "What do you know about cells?" with "Well, my dad lives in one." You never know for sure what response you will get, but now that student can make the distinction with his new knowledge about cells in science.

Not only are people using cell phones to send texts, they’re actually using their phones to write novels! Textnovel is a free, fun way for students to read, write, and revise serial fiction in their basic text enabled cell phones (or computer). With Textnovel you can give students a real audience and the ability to read and write on the go, in class or at home. Students create an online serial story – a novel, journal, poetry, whatever. Textnovel is set up so they can invite classmates, friends, or family to rate, subscribe or write with them. With tools like Textnovel the incentive to write comes from more than just a grade. The site offers cash prizes to winners and publishing opportunities. Keep writing projects going as homework with the updates on stories sent to subscribers by email or text. Readers will enjoy voting for their favorite stories.This is not just reading or writing via cell phone, but a whole new genre of literature, perfect for Generation Text called the cell phone novel. Cell phone novels offer short chapters full of cliffhangers, dialog, and dramatic plot twists which get students engaged in their reading. Writing cell phone novels challenges students to show narration, poetry and even visual art by choosing line breaks, punctuation, white space, and rhythm.

Educators choosing to use Textnovel will need to become very familiar with the site and the settings where the stories are given movie type ratings. More information on Textnovel can be found in Teaching Generation Text.

Ideas for the Classroom

  • Even if cell phones are banned in your school, choose a cell phone novel and have students read it for homework. Choose a G rated story and encourage them to comment.
  • Collectively write a cell phone novel as a class project, or within cooperative learning groups. The social nature of the site will bring students together to create, revise, and develop their stories.
  • Use the Textnovel site for journal writing that will never get lost or destroyed. The entries are online and students are already texting constantly, now they can also journal through texting. They simply send their entries to their journal where the teacher can comment. Updates are sent via text or email. The journaling process can become an ongoing conversation.

Text Talk: Classroom Stories - Krystal Swarovsk - High School Like most students, high schooler Krystal Swarovski was never given an opportunity to write for a real audience in school but with Krystal has a large fan base and was awarded the Text Novel Editor’s Choice award for her story Slices of Pie. Here is an excerpt from Krystal’s bio from the site which provides a glimpse into what contributing to the site has meant for her.

So, most people on this site put their writing career to date in their about me section, but since i'm in high school, my writing career to date has been a short story (B-), a collection of poems(A+), and many many many informational essays and literary criticisms, grades ranging from C+ to A+. More on the A side though... :) Anyway, point is, the only writing I have ever really done has been for school, with varying degrees of success. However, last year, a good friend of mine (whose pen name here is Anabelle) was telling me all about her story and this fabulous website during study hall, and she convinced me to get an account on textnovel, and that's where I started writing. I have to say I am surprised by the amount of votes my stories have received. I didn't think I would get over 20! ;) So thanks to everyone that's read what I've written. :D


For helpful information about using these tools and for more ideas checkout our website and book at

Cross posted at The Innovative Educator.

Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Tech & Learning.  

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.