Making the Most of QR Codes

What are QR codes?

A QR (Quick Response) code is a square maze-like graphic that holds encoded information. That info could be text, but more often than not is a URL hyperlink that when scanned using an app on your phone or other mobile device leads the user to a webpage or uploaded image or video file. These QR codes work on much the same principle as a UPC bar code. They just hold slightly more information because the data is stored in horizontal as well as vertical bar lines.


1-dimensional UPC code vs 2-dimensional QR code


Creating QR codes

QR codes might initially look a little complicated, but they are really quick and easy to create, and if you have a solid wifi connection, then are also easy to decode. Creating them basically boild down to pasting the URL of the online file you want to link to into one of the many web-based QR code generators. Once created, the square QR code graphic can be downloaded and inserted into any file that you are using to create a poster, a photo, or a class worksheet or handout. Here’s a short “how to” video from Nik Peachey.

Anyone with an internet-enabled phone that is online can then scan or read that QR code using a QR reader app. Scanning the code will automatically take the user to the webpage, or online image or video file. It’s basically a quick, nifty way to link the physical surfaces of things (i.e., handouts and posters) to the digital world.

Apart from this ability to make the Internet of Things a little easier, it’s perhaps the apparent dual freedom – free to generate and free to print – that makes QR codes handy, ubiquitous tools to add to your teaching and learning locker. However, a word of caution here. While QR code generators are generally free web services, you do need to select the reader that you’ll use with some care. Even more so, if advising students which one they should install on their phones. Remember, many apps are free because the companies that develop them use or sell the users’ personal data, something barely explained in the terms and conditions. If the service is free, then you could be the product.

So, we’re set. You can generate QR codes, download and embed them in other documents and files that you can then print out. And your students all are comfortable using their QR readers on their phones. Now the more interesting question, how are we going to use QR codes in school and in class. Looking at them initially a few years ago, they only seemed to offer quick links (substituting for shortened URLs) to corporate websites. But Nik Peachey’s workshop on creating a digitally-friendly environment at school at the Londosa / LAMSIG conference at the backend of 2014, and then the trumpeted success of Snapchat’s Snapcodes scanning service to add friends, has made me take another look, a longer one this time, at how they could be used in a language school.


Ideas for using QR codes

Here are some ideas. Links to more ideas you might like to adapt and adopt are listed in the Follow Up Reads section at the end of this post.

1. In the classroom, get into the habit of adding QR codes to all your worksheets and handouts so that students who prefer to work from a digital version on their device can access and download it there and then. Another small step, perhaps, to developing an effective BYOD culture and promoting a paperless classroom. Ultimately, every worksheet or handout, everything we print, could be distributed using a QR code.

2. A second general use for QR codes in the classroom is an “up-your-sleeve” extension activity for fast finishers. If a number of students are coming to the end of an in-class task more quickly than others, pin up a QR code for them to scan that links to an additional set of tasks or challenges for them to get on with.

More specific lesson ideas to use with students who have a phone with a camera and QR code reader app, involve story telling and reading races.

3. The first one requires students to develop stories to recycle and reuse language items that have come up in class recently. For prep, you’ll have to make sets of building blocks (we’ll call each set a “QR-code wall”) that students can use to develop their stories. Five walls containing various text prompts, images and/or sound files to weave into a story could be as follows:

  • WEATHER wallovercast, foggy, drizzly, sweltering, freezing
  • LOCATION wallon the settee, in town, on the bus, in the back garden,
  • INCIDENT wallrow with someone close, drop something valuable, give someone a fright, lose something important, find out the truth
  • VERBS wallcollapse, shake, knock, slip, grab
  • TIME EXPRESSIONS wallthe day before yesterday, in an hour’s time, tomorrow night, in the near future, a short while ago

The actual categories and content of each wall, of course, depends on what language items you want to recycle and reuse. The basic idea is that students in pairs scan one element from each wall and then link those elements together to make a story. They could record the story, and do all the usual ELT things such as listen to a second group’s story and then retell that story to a third pair. The second group could be listening and analysing the differences in the recorded and retold story.

4. A second lesson idea is the Quick Response Reading Race idea as set out by Graham Stanley in his Language Learning with Technology: Ideas for Integrating Technology in the Classroom (CUP: 2013), page 101. The aim of the teaching and learning is to develop reading for gist skills. The task requires students to compare images to descriptions. By way of teacher prep, you’ll need to choose a series of, say, 6 to 8 short texts (150 to 200 words) and 8 to 10 images. It works better if there are a couple of pictures that having no matching text. Of course, it works even better if you start with local images and then write descriptions to go with them. Two themes worth trying are pictures of the districts and neighbourhoods of the city where you’re based, with descriptions of what they have to offer visitors and residents. The activity also works well with PET Speaking test Part 3 (long turn) images such as people in various rooms at home, people at family events, or different groups of people enjoying outdoors activities. Write model descriptions to go with the images (don’t forget to leave two images with no matching description) and add each written description to a separate webpage with its own URL. Create a QR code for each webpage, and print these. Also print out the images you chose on separate pieces of paper.

In class, students work in pairs or groups of three. At least one member of each team must have access to a web-enabled phone with a QR reader. Place the images and QR codes (linked to the texts) randomly around the classroom. Tell the students that they are going to have a reading race in teams. In their teams, they go to each image, scan the QR code and read what the text says. They should then decide quickly if the text refers to that particular image or another one. Which one? And they continue scanning the other QR codes and reading the texts, matching the images with the texts. When the teams have finished, check the answers and give the winning team a cheer. It’s at this point that you could look at specific features of the text, for example, the structure of that PET Speaking test long turn.

5. Around the school, two good ideas to work into school-life include adding QR codes to the photos of staff members on the school organogram and linking these to 20 second video clips of the person introducing themselves, their job role and perhaps a piece of learning advice. You could also actually add QR to all in-house made posters that are up around the school so that students no longer have to take photos of them. They can simply scan the QR code and save to their Google Drive, for example, the pdf file showing upcoming exam dates.


Engaging add ons. But do QR codes add value?

QR codes can be engaging add-ons that facilitate communication and learning inside and outside the classroom. But does their integration into class and school really add value to teaching and learning? I’ve heard some argue that QR codes, for the most part, are limited to use as a substitution for keying in a shortened URL. For those who lean on the SAMR model, QR codes might just about knock at the door of augmentation, but there’s no modification or redefinition of learning tasks. For others, though, while getting students familiar and comfortable with QR codes can take a little training, if you can integrate them into your classes and school in general there are a number of benefits that would make the minimal effort of putting in the learning training worth it. Apart from exploiting students’ curiosity and leading to increased engagement with materials, QR codes also connect the classroom with tools used in ‘real’ world and help foster a mobile friendly learning environment that would promote a healthy and effective BYOD programme in your school.


Bibliography and Suggested Follow Up Reads

1. Before downloading a free QR reader to your phone, have a look at this overview to help you choose which one is best for you:

2. If you have access to back copies of the English Teaching Professional, and are relatively new to QR codes, a neat, concise 2012 article sets out how to get up and running with these maze-like graphics. See Nicky Hockly, “Five Things You Always Wanted to Know about QR Codes (But Were Afraid to Ask)”, English Teaching Professional, Issue 81, July 2012, page 58.

3. A list from Nik Peachey of 20 + Things you can do with QR codes in your school

My notes from Nik Peachey’s Creating a Digitally-Friendly Environment workshop at the LonDOSA and the LAMSIG of IATEFL on 30 November 2014:

4. Use Russel Tarr’s QR code treasure hunt generator to build a treasure hunt for your class. Simply type out a series of questions and answers, generate the QR codes using the generator tool, and then print and display the codes around your classroom or school. I like the idea of awarding teams 1 point for each question they successfully decode, and a further 2 points for each correct answer that they provide. The Teacher Notes are also useful.

5. A good 3-page summary article about QR codes in education with a few creative ideas for using them to challenge your students:

6. Go curate! Create your own QR code pinterest board for ELT colleagues.



5 ways to… have a little fun with Google

At school we thought we’d try to encourage students to follow some instructions online – instant feedback and a little independent learning –  and a have some fun with Google at the same time! Google may be trying to track, package and sell on your every online move, but it still retains a quirky, funny side. We’ve come up with a few neat tricks that your favourite search engine can play and are passing them on for one and all to try out. Do you know any others?

At full tilt

Have you ever tried getting that last drop of tasty homemade soup out of your bowl by lifting up one side just a little? Or maybe you can’t see something that is partly hidden and you just move your head to one side a little. Yes, you tilt your bowl up or tilt your head to one side. ‘Tilt’ is both a noun and a verb, and has many uses and shades of meaning. Most, though, involve the idea of a slope or slant. Still not sure what it means? Trying typing ‘tilt’ into google!

Do a barrel roll

If ‘tilt’ means to move something up or down or to one side just a little, then ‘to do a barrel roll’ means the full 180-degree turn. Something turns upside down in one move. Try typing ‘do a barrel roll’ into Google. You’ll get the idea.

Beat box

Are you big users of Google Translate? A handy tool for various things… including making music! Try it out. Copy and paste the following text into Google Translate: ‘pv zk bschk pv zk pv bschk zk pv zk bschk pv zk pv bschk zk bschk pv bschk bschk kkkkkkkkkk’. And ask Google to translate it from English to German. Click the ‘listen’ icon, and Google will start beat boxing. I bet you never knew that German could sound so rhythmical. Have a play around with the order of the text because the beat box rhythm changes depending on how you combine the terms.


So, we’ve had a couple of Google tricks for the linguists amongst us, and something for the musical types. Now for something subtle that might appeal to the IT geeks at school. Type the word ‘recursion’ into the Google search bar. Just like a smart programmer, Google in return asks you rather recursively: “Did you mean recursion?”

In a similar vein, if you type ‘anagram’ into the Google search bar, Google again rather subtlely asks if you in fact mean ‘nag a ram’.

Google magic – the disappearing OOs

And finally… this isn’t strictly a Google Google trick, but you might just be able to impress some friends. Tell them that your teacher has passed on some of their magic powers. Go to the darkarts google page and click anywhere on the white space. Put two fingers on the two OOs in the Google logo and rub them for a few seconds. As if by magic, the two OOs will vanish! Is this as near as you can get to magic? And to bring them back, again quietly click anywhere on the white part of the screen, blow on your fingers and rub the blank space where the two OOs in Google should be. And, hey presto! The OOs will reappear.

5 ways to… prepare for class each day

Inspired by the quick tips “6things” blog from a short while back, we’ve started a “5ways” series on the school blog. And meeting and greeting learners each morning, for an upcoming contribution I’ve been thinking just how best students can prepare for class each and every day. Preparation is essential for our teachers after all, but I’m sure learners could also improve their enjoyment and learning in class if they changed their morning routines just a little to prepare for the lesson before is started. Here are a few ideas. Do any other come to mind?

Start the day with a good breakfast

Good rest and a good breakfast will help you stay alert and attentive. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare a good breakfast – there’s nothing to beat porridge! And if you’re not rushing you’ll also have time to think about and tune into the day ahead. Of course, if you’re not a morning person you’ll have to work on this one!

Oliver wants more

Review your notes before class

If you walk to school or travel in by bus or tram, why not tune into the classes by reviewing your notes or vocab cards from the previous class? A quick review can help refresh your memory. Try to picture using new vocabulary to describe recent events and actions in your life, and prepare a few questions about exactly how some words can or cannot be used.

Digital Life Tech Test Samsung Galaxy S4 Phone

Tune into English

Try to come to class thinking that doing well in class today is really important for your success at school. And to do that you have to be tuned in from the beginning. Some ways to tune into English well before the teacher arrives include looking at street and shop signs as you travel in, eavesdropping on conversations on the bus or tram and trying to listen out for a new expression that you might be able to use. And, if available, pick up a copy of the free morning newspaper and read the headlines until you find an interesting article.

Tune in

Start an early bird club

Get together with two or three other students who would also like to arrive in class 10 minutes early to ‘warm up’. In this informal early bird communication group the idea is to start speaking English before the teacher arrives – and, of course, make new friends quickly with new students. You could have a short list of things that you agree to talk about each day: 1) a new word or expression that you learned the day before together with a description of where and when you could use it. 2) A news article you’ve seen in the morning newspaper. And 3) a description of something you did or saw the day before that you don’t think the others in the group did or saw. The others in the group who are listening should try to stop you getting to the end of the story by constantly interrupting with questions – what colour was it? what time was that? did you think it was odd? would you do that again?

The early bird

Stay prepared

Of course, always do your homework, but before class review your homework and also prepare to make comments or ask questions about your work. You could keep a note of anything that was tricky and how much time you spent doing the homework. You could pass this on to students sitting next to you and also tell them if you felt doing the homework was time well spent.

My cat deleted my homework

So, the message is arrive early, tune in and prepare to stay attentive! Changing learning habits and routines can be difficult – but if students can work on some of these ideas they will hopefully get more language learning enjoyment and success out of the classes. For sure, everyone will feel healthier with that tasty bowl of porridge in their tummy!

autism action

The future is not Orange! Jesus Crickey! I’ve just seen the light. The future is Apple! I know their products do undeniably nifty things and they look sleek and slinky and fab, but until recently I’ve just not been a great fan. Maybe it’s the halo that hovers over the Apple altar that I don’t like. Indeed, I have been quietly hanging on for the Maclash. But then along comes the iPad and now I see how children living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) just take to it. No doubt, an unintended outcome of those Apple developers and designers, but one that has me leaping aboard any iPad2 bandwagon rolling past.

Now firmly on the Apple express into the future, I’m promoting the Irish Autism Action mobile phone recycle appeal to collect old mobile phones for recycling. For every 185 we collect, we can get an iPad for a child with ASD. Great! I am based in Dublin, Ireland so if you’re in or around this wee corner of the world and have a phone to donate please contact and we will organise to collect it from you. You might like to raise the cause with your students. Here are some worksheets and accompanying Teacher’s Notes that could help you get a little collection off the ground in your school. All help and support is much appreciated.

Autism Action Worksheet

Autism Action Teachers Notes

Autism Mobile Phone Appeal Notice

Engage me!

Since I first heard the term ‘digital natives, digital immigrants‘, I have been wondering if it really described two exclusive groups. While I play and work to get digital-comfy, and wonder if there is any citizenship test in this new world, I have this space to explore just how new media can enhance innovative and purposeful teaching and learning. As inspiration to get going, I loved the Robin Hood take on learning… Engage me!