To emoji or not to emoji?

18th May 2018 at 00:00
That is the hotly debated question, with educators’ opinions differing wildly on the use of the popular symbols in their classrooms. But, love emojis or hate them, is there any hard proof of their effect on pupils’ learning? Kate Parker finds out

"At my secondary school, emojis are embedded in all of our schemes of work…Everyone in the English department is using them,” reveals Charlotte Hodgson, an English teacher at Avonbourne College in Bournemouth.

“I’ve had classes plot the entire summary of a scene in emojis and then they put them on to a graph to show the tension the characters are feeling, and they find quotations to illustrate this, so it builds to become higher-level learning as well.”

How controversial you believe this to be places you on a specific scale in education: the emoji scale. It looks a bit like this: [crying face emoji] to [smiling face with heart eyes emoji]. Hodgson is at one end of that scale. Meanwhile, Clare Sealy, headteacher at St Matthias School in East London, is at the other.

 

“As educators, we have not a single minute to waste teaching trivia, such as emojis,” she says. “How will such learning help bridge the word gap? How can we help disadvantaged children gain the sorts of powerful knowledge that children in, say, the top public schools have? Not by devoting precious curriculum time to the detritus of youth sub-culture. That would be fiddling while Rome burns.”

There are, of course, plenty of teachers floating around the middle of this scale, bouncing between [pouting face emoji; grinning, squinting face emoji; loud, crying face emoji] and [thinking face emoji].

Some use them regularly, some dabble, some don’t use them but are happy for others to, while some are too scared to try. Some don’t actually know what an emoji is. But can any of them claim hard proof that their own view is the right one?

Culture shift

That emojis are deeply embedded in our culture is indisputable. They originate from Japan, where the first one was invented by a man called Shigetaka Kurita in 1999. He worked for mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo and realised that digital communication was void of the ability to convey emotion. The emoji, which combines the Japanese words for “picture” (“e”) and “character” (“moji”), was born.

Almost 20 years later, they are a global language used, according to Facebook, more than 60 million times a day. As of June 2017, there are 2,666 emojis in the Unicode Standard worldwide computer character coding system.

And in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) named the emoji “face with tears of joy” as “word of the year”, while Hollywood has even made a movie about the symbols (The Emoji Movie, 2017).

That’s not to say everyone loves them. But they are arguably more recognisable to the general population than the leading sports, music or film stars, and they cross cultures, age ranges and personal interests. Does that mean they can be useful to educators?

In a Tes podcast recorded last year, renowned memory researchers Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, who run the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, explain that relating information to something students already know assists retention and recall. They talk about connecting classroom learning to student interests and, arguably, emojis fall into that category. The majority of pupils are already familiar and comfortable with emojis, many using them on a daily basis: could they therefore help pupils reach a higher level of learning

“Past some early point in life, all new learning is a matter of linking it up and relating it to what you already know,” says Robert Bjork in the podcast. “If you’re a teacher, the kids that you are working with are going to come in with very different sorts of backgrounds in terms of what they already know and don’t know in the field that you’re teaching, and that can be an important guide for how to individualise learning.”

Bjork goes on to say that one characteristic of a gifted teacher is the ability to understand the things that their students are interested in and tailor their lesson material accordingly. He says that teachers should ask, “How do I link up this material and make it seem relevant, important and understandable?”

It’s not just aiding memory where emojis may be useful. The symbols have the backing of some high-profile linguists, who champion the power of the emoji to facilitate and develop language and communication skills. In a Tes article last summer, Vyvyan Evans, a linguistics professor and author of The Emoji Code, argued that teachers should be encouraged to take emojis seriously (bit.ly/TesTalksEvans). He suggested that teachers had a responsibility to understand how opportunities to communicate more effectively are being revolutionised by virtue of digital language, and asserted that emojis have changed the way in which we communicate. In some teaching quarters, his comments caused outrage.

They also sparked a huge discussion: in a Twitter poll, 3,343 votes were cast in three days, with 49 per cent of respondents agreeing with Evans, and 51 per cent coming out against the use of emojis in an educational setting.

Nearly a year on, Evans stands by his comments. He says that, in the same way that punctuation represents how written language is spoken, emojis put the emotions we experience in face-to-face, spoken interaction into written communication.

“Emojis are replicating that aspect of communication in the digital space and without them we are poorer communicators,” he argues. “Try conveying irony in a text message without using an eye-roll or a high-five emoji. Humour cannot be communicated effectively without these digital cues. It would be like talking to someone in the street with a deadpan tone of voice without smiling or showing any facial expression.”

Engaging content

As well as advocating studying the importance of emojis linguistically, and exploring how they came to be and how they work as a means of communication, Evans also believes that emojis can be used to convey results or aid understanding of difficult texts.

“There is a range of ways in which things like emojis can be used in the curriculum...not necessarily in terms of the necessities – spelling, punctuation and grammar – but in terms of actual content,” he says.

“For example, for feedback, some schools use emoji charts to signal how well students are doing. Although that was received dimly, there are ways in which ideas can be conveyed more effectively with emojis.

“There was an abridged version of an ‘emojified’ Shakespeare text that caused absolute horror for some, but in terms of helping understanding of content that can be slightly inaccessible at times, I think there’s a role for emojis.”

 

Hodgson agrees. She says that emojis have been a brilliant help in getting her Year 7 class to engage with Shakespeare. “I’ve just taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, when we’ve read a bit of the scene, they summarise it in two main emojis and then have to explain it.

“The emojis are not used by themselves – there is always some kind of verbal or written explanation that then allows you to check the pupils’ literacy, writing skills or speech skills. The emojis just give them a starting point that they understand.”

She says that not only do the children enjoy being allowed to use emojis in the classroom, but also the symbols give them a springboard to help link their ideas together. Ultimately, she argues, this leads to higher understanding, engagement and learning.

And, she adds, emojis can be invaluable when it comes to helping pupils for whom English is not their first language. “We have lots of English as an additional language pupils in my school and we found that by firstly letting them express things through emojis, they don’t have the language barrier in the same way.

“It also shows us their level of understanding because, often, when we ask for a summary of a text, it’s quite difficult,” she says. “If they don’t have the language to be able to tell you what the character is feeling at this point or that, it is much simpler for them to explain it in tiny little picture form.”

At Kings Road Primary in Manchester, emojis aren’t used to convey the emotions of a character in a text, but the emotions of the pupils themselves.

In every classroom at Kings Road, there is an “emoticon board” on which sit five emojis. Each pupil has a label with their name on and every morning, as they enter the classroom, they place their name under the emoji that correlates with how they are feeling that day.

The emoji system has been embedded in the school for three years and Year 6 teacher Matthew Roberts says that, having been there from the system’s introduction, he has noticed a positive impact on teachers and pupils.

The children are more aware of one another’s feelings and needs, he says, which, in turn, are then highlighted to the teachers in a very obvious, instant way.

“A child came [to school] feeling sad because they had heard news that a relative was seriously unwell,” Roberts recalls. “[Because of the emoticon board,] I was able to adjust my manner with them, support them through their learning and offer more assistance where necessary. They knew they could continue their learning but, if things became too much for them, then they knew they could talk to me and I would be able to offer some breathing space.

“This sort of information isn’t something a regular child would just volunteer without a simple system such as this on the doorstep. Because it is a very informal, quick way of signalling emotion, children are more inclined to express their feelings honestly.”

And at a secondary school in Stockton, modern foreign languages teacher Luca Kuhlman says that emojis are an invaluable aid in his classroom. “Wherever possible, I take out the English words in a text and replace them with an emoji, so they associate the French with an image rather than with an English translation,” he explains.“If you can eliminate as much English as possible, they don’t need much explanation. For example, the one with the sunglasses usually means ‘cool’. And what’s great is that there are always more emojis being released – I always look forward to a new update because I just like using them.”

The great thing about emojis, says Kuhlman, is how instantly recognisable they are to pupils and teachers. He goes on to explain a typical exercise in which emojis are key. The pupils are given a text in, let’s say, French. Normally, this is an email or a blog post – a familiar digital environment for an emoji to exist within.

Next to a sentence in French is [thumbs-up emoji]. This gives an instant signpost that the sentence has a positive message, which is then a springboard to the pupils’ translation. And it’s done without the need for any English text.

Serving a purpose

Kuhlman can understand why some teachers may be reluctant to use emojis, but he argues their view may be down to seeing instances when they are used badly. “I wouldn’t overuse them; I wouldn’t put them everywhere – they have to have purpose,” he says. “I wouldn’t decorate a PowerPoint with them for the sake of it, but when they serve a purpose they do work.”

There will be teachers who by this point will have thrown whatever device they are reading this on out of the window. Emojis trigger rage among some teachers. And this, they say, is for very good reasons.

“Who uses emojis in a professional context? When was the last time that your doctor sent you an emoji? Or your lawyer or bank manager?” says Sealy. “For personal use, children learn these sorts of communication much better from one another. In fact, it is hard to stop them. It strikes me as trying to be ‘down with the kids’.

“Possibly – and I’m a primary teacher so I’m speaking outside of my area of expertise – in a secondary school graphics class, they might be looked at briefly, but apart from that, I can’t envisage a meaningful use for them.”

Anthony Radice, assistant headteacher at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, agrees.

“You can’t stop pupils from going away and experimenting with non-standard forms themselves – these things happen outside the classroom whether you like it or not,” he says. “What we need to focus our energy on in the classroom is not the things that they are already doing anyway but the things we can help them to do. They are already happily using emojis and whatever else they want – they are probably more fluent in them than I am. In fact, I’m sure they are because I’ve never used them. So, why should I teach them about something that they know more about than I do?

“My role is to introduce my students to things they’re not already familiar with, and Year 7s are not very familiar with great works of literature. Actually, they’re very familiar with things like emojis, so isn’t it a waste of class time to be giving them what they’ve already got?”

Making sure that pupils have a strong grasp of standard spoken and written English is, of course, vital in any classroom. But advocates say that allowing pupils to use the non-standard forms in which they find joy should not come at the expense of learning. Couldn’t allowing them to use emojis in their work actually lead to greater engagement and, potentially, the unlocking of creativity, they ask.

No, says Jon Brunskill, a Year 4 teacher at Reach Academy Feltham in West London. He says that it’s only with an understanding of how to use standard written English that pupils can then be creative with language.

“I’d put my money on children being better able to be creative by using standard written English than by not using standard written English,” he says, “and for lots of children, the only shot they get at learning standard English is in school.

“If a teacher said ‘I know how to use standard spoken English, of course I do – I’ve got a degree, it’s how I got this lovely job and can pay my mortgage on a lovely house, but I’m not going to give it to you guys because I think it will be fun to use emojis for a few years’, I think that’s a moral failing.”

‘Linguistic snobbery’

Advocates of emoji use stress that the idea they only teach using the symbols is ridiculous. Of course, they argue, standard English is being taught. It’s just supplemented occasionally with emojis. They argue that, actually, not using emojis can result in missing the chance to connect with students – and that is just as much of a “moral failing”.

They have some support on this from Ian Cushing, a teaching fellow in linguistics at University College London and a Tes columnist. He argues that the “linguistic snobbery” around the use of emojis is a dangerous way of thinking because it promotes a prescriptive view of language, feeds into discourses around linguistic prejudice, and promotes the idea that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to use language.

“We saw it when the OED had an emoji as its ‘word of the year’, which resulted in many people talking about ‘degradation’ of language and the need to ‘protect the language’ from new forms,” he says.

“Languages always change, and people always complain about it. But emojis are actually an incredibly innovative way of communicating meaning that offer us a huge number of affordances.

“In recent years, there has been a really worrying emerging discourse of linguistic purism, such as where non-standard forms have been ‘banned’ in classrooms and teachers explicitly told to adapt their accents to a more received pronunciation style. These kinds of deficit attitudes towards language have no place in schools, or in wider society.”

Simon Horobin, a professor of English and classics at the University of Oxford, agrees: “Digital literacy – including non-standard uses of spelling, grammar, punctuation and of emojis – is becoming an increasingly important area of language and so I’d be in favour of it being introduced into the classroom.

“Children have a natural propensity to play with language and I think this kind of innate curiosity and playfulness should be encouraged. As well as being fun, it has been shown to increase literacy and to promote metalinguistic awareness – an understanding of not just how to use language, but of how it works.”

Does such academic backing represent a victory for emoji supporters in our search for evidence of their usefulness? At the start of this article, we aimed for solid proof that either of the camps in the emoji battle was right. Unsurprisingly, we did not find it.

Realistically, it is very difficult to isolate the impact that an emoji – used in the way that most teachers are using them, as an ad hoc aid, not a lesson objective – may or may not have amid the multiple variables of learning. Without a comprehensive study on that impact, the decision to use or not use emojis in a classroom setting is down to teacher judgement and informed opinion.

The emoji momentum doesn’t seem to be stopping, though. Earlier this year, the Unicode Consortium – the global organisation that polices the emoji “language” – revealed that an official Emoji 11.0 update is on the way, featuring over 150 new symbols. So whether you are [crying face emoji] or [smiling face with heart eyes emoji] on the emoji scale, one thing’s for sure: they’re not going away any time soon.


Kate Parker is online and social media writer for Tes. She tweets @KateeParker

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