Emojis in English

Tina Alderson talks about the waves her OTLA project has been making this year, in conversation with Sue Lownsbrough.

What first prompted you to consider using Emojis in your English sessions?

I recognised learners’ disengagement and disbelief in their English skills. Walking in the learners’ shoes, I believed emojis were familiar to all as a universal language and I questioned if facial expressions of emojis could be used by learners to demonstrate understanding of the text. I wondered if this familiar emoji concept would engage, motivate, and develop learners reading and writing skills.

Also emojis are freely available online.

What kinds of teaching + learning activities do you do that use Emojis?

When we asked learners if they liked emojis, the answer was overwhelmingly YES! We supported the learners to create an emoji glossary that they could refer to. Here are some examples of teaching and learning activities:

In reading, after introducing learners to text in the usual way, to engage and motivate them to continue reading (DARTs – Directed Activities Related to Text), we then introduced the lessons learning topic in this case inference and modelled what we wanted them to do: First read, read without annotation; Second read, learners annotate their text with emojis and emoticons, replacing the usual highlighter pen, underlining or margin words which in the past learners have struggled to us; Following this, I model how to interpret the emoji in answering a question;  Finally, I provide them with a question which they can then refer to their emoji annotation to answer it. This approach can be used for a range of reading activities for example the authors point of view, the impact it has on the reader and a comparison of texts.

In writing, the learners develop their planned response to a written task (mind map or bullet points), by adding emojis to prompt them to add develop additional or expanded sentences. Learners are then encouraged to proofread their piece, annotating with an emoji to identify emotive persuasive writing as a summative assessment of deep learning.

South Lakes Community Learning are using emojis to develop vocabulary with entry-level ESOL learners. The learners identify words that go with a particular emoji, then they use them in example sentences. They are also used to respond to a reading text, similar to Kendal College. Both methods support the development of vocabulary, speaking, listening and communication.

We also use emojis to assess how a learner is feeling about the progress of a particular topic or task. Learners are also encouraged to write a blog or diary entry on the impact emojis have on their learning.

As learners progress, the need to use emojis will diminish.

What do learners and other teachers think about using emojis?

At first, teachers were reluctant, however agreed as people use emojis in everyday life, quickly realising they could learn together. This empowered the learners.

I was inspired by the learner feedback:

‘I didn’t know writing could be so much fun and that I could express how I feel about something, it gives me more chance to be creative.’

‘That annotating with emojis in English helped me understand and remember what the writer/author is saying in a paragraph, without reading through again.’

When comparing two texts:  ‘I put them at the end of a sentence or paragraph, so I know whether it is happy or sad. It is a universal language.’

‘Emojis is something we use in our everyday life and the emoji explain what you want to say but in a different way.’

Teachers passion shines through:

‘We are motivated! Learners are also motivated by emojis which is evident in the work they have produced and their reaction in class.’

‘I think using emojis/symbols to annotate texts and plan creative writing help the student get over the fear of the blank page or getting it wrong. There is a playful element to using emojis that lessens the intimidation of getting it right first time.’

‘Learners have demonstrated ownership of their learning as they use emojis effectively in other parts of their lives.’

‘Learners can now model how to use the emojis to plan and when reading a text, which they can now do independently.’

‘Some learners have built independence and no longer need to use the Emojis in English concept.’

It was empowering to view #EmojisinEnglish posts far and wide across the country following National Presentation Days, an example being ‘Students loved it for GCSE Paper 2.’

What has been the impact on learners’ English skills?

The use of emojis has helped learners overcome barriers to learning. Emojis are fun, relatable, and current which lessens the intimidation of getting it right first time and in turn increases their motivation, use of language and achievement.

Emojis in English has provided a different, less conventional approach to learning:

Holistically, relationships between teachers and learners has improved, increased engagement in the lessons which has resulted in improved attendance, taking away the stigma of ‘learning English’.

Learners have stated they ‘feel more confident at achieving a grade four in their GCSE’, which is echoed by Functional Skills learners.

ESOL tutors have stated learners have made links between words associated with a particular emoji that they ‘feel would have been difficult to draw out in another way.’ I believe the use of the emoji keyboard is revolutionising the skills gap as it provides an easily accessible visual dictionary to build vocabulary.

I am very proud of the learners’ improved engagement, enthusiasm, growing achievements and the drive we share as a team to move the project forward focusing on learner responses.

Sue Lownsbrough


Sue is the Regional Specialist Lead for NW England.

On the #OTLA programme, she is also a Research Group Lead and supports mentors and their project teams in the NW region.

Tina Alderson


Tina is a Functional Skills teacher at Kendal College. She is also a project lead for her OTLA 7 practitioner action research project: ‘Emojis in English’


Outstanding Teaching, Learning + Assessment

Practitioner action research projects facilitated by ccC on behalf of the ETF. Access OTLA 3, 4 (digital), 6 (English) resources and appendices, here.

Follow updates from the projects on Twitter #OTLA and read the latest mailout on Wakelet.