QR codes and language teaching

Posted: April 1, 2021 in Online learning, practical ideas
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’d never felt any need for a QR reader on my phone until one day, a few lockdowns ago, I had to scan a code in order to be allowed to sit down outside my nearest breadshop, Anker, to eat a sandwich. Since replacing my phone a week or so ago, it was only this morning that I felt the need to install a new reader. It will come as no surprise to learn that I have never used QR codes in a classroom, and probably never will.

A book that I co-authored a few years ago included QR codes on some pages, and these take you to video recordings of ‘real students’ carrying out tasks from the book. We don’t learn much about these students’ lives, but we can assume that they are learning English in pre-Covid days, when they went into a physical classroom from time to time. But now that the physical classroom is becoming a receding memory, I have to fear for the future of QR codes in language teaching. Who needs a barcode web link when you’re online already?

I’ve seen some fun suggestions for using QR codes in the classroom. Placing QR codes in prominent places around the school – linking to the codes reveals a set of questions or clues in a treasure hunt. Getting learners to prepare their own multimedia material to upload to an interactive map of their school / town / whatever. Other suggestions involve things like sticking QR codes around the walls of the classroom, or walking around with a QR code stuck on your back or your forehead. But they all require physical space, imagining face-to-face contact. And they all require that phones are allowed, which, in turn, requires a whole lot of administration in some places (e.g. with kids). The activities tend to be a bit juvenile.

Some suggestions for using QR codes are decidedly less fun, in my view. Notifying students of their homework assignments by sending them a QR code, for example. Or giving the answers to an exercise when they click on the link.

More ideas can be found here and in ETpedia Technology (Hockly, 2017) and no doubt some other places, too.

(Image from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Pirate-Joke-QR-Codes-1262320 )

You can evaluate your own affective response to QR codes in education by pointing your phone at the image above. That’s tricky, of course, if you’re reading this on your phone, and not another device. (Someone is selling this for a dollar.)

So why are they used? According to Cruse and Brereton (2018), they ‘can make classroom activities more engaging and allow students to perform previously impossible or impractical tasks’. Those previously impossible or impractical tasks are, of course, no longer impossible or impractical when the whole class is online. And this leaves us with the main claim of QR advocates: use of these codes leads to more learner engagement. How well does the claim hold up?

With a little encouragement, most people would rather scan a code than manually type in a link. But we don’t really have any evidence that English language learners would be more motivated and engaged if they point their phone at codes. Perhaps, there are some like me who don’t really want to get their phone out. Eye-rollers who find it hard to suppress a groan when someone suggests you use Mentimeter. Of course, the way you feel about using your phone for activities like these may also depend on how good your wifi is (or whether you have any wifi).

Cruse and Brereton’s (2018) first ‘Principle of Good Practice’ is that QR use ‘should not be a gimmick’. If you’re not convinced by the engagement argument, what other reasons could there be? To promote learner autonomy and differentiation? To facilitate asynchronous learning? To support constructivist learning by providing multiple representations of reality and enabling ‘context- and content-dependent knowledge construction’ (Alizadeh, 2019)? To develop digital literacies? Evidence is lacking.

QR codes have soared in global reach since the start of the pandemic, especially for payments and advertising. I also came across a novel use for QR with code stickers designed for tombstones (‘bringing monuments into the 21st century’). I imagine, with a little more investment, scanning the code could generate a realistic hologram of the deceased. But someone needs to come up with a convincing way of using them in online language learning.


Alizadeh, M. (2019) Augmented/virtual reality promises for ELT practitioners. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & P. Bennett (Eds.), Diversity and inclusion. Tokyo: JALT.

Hockly, N. (2017) ETpedia Technology. Hove: Pavilion Publishing

Cruse, D. T. H., & Brereton, P. (2018) Integrating QR codes into ELT materials. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & P. Bennett (Eds.), Language teaching in a global age: Shaping the classroom, shaping the world. Tokyo: JALT.

  1. benknight62 says:

    I think the main purpose of QR codes is to link the physical (non-digital) world to digital information in a convenient way. Most of the time this means a more convenient and faster way of getting to a lengthy url. They’re great, e.g., for notices in public spaces – linking easily to further info. If you’re already in a digital space, you don’t really need QR codes (a hyperlink will do) – as you say. The main benefit is convenience. Claims about engagement would depend on using this to enable factors which do impact on engagement: e.g. QR codes could link to more online choices for a project or reading texts than could be contained in a printed book – and so allow for more agency and relevance for the learners in the broader choice offered. That could link to your points about autonomy and differentiation – it’s not the QR code itself that does that, but the convenient links to additional digital content that adds useful/meaningful choices to learners.

  2. James Thomas says:

    Thanks Philip. Personally, I like to include QR codes in my worksheets and books. As you mention, it is more convenient to snap a QR code than type in a URL. This is especially true when the URL is long and a rich mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. It is also convenient when sending students to a specific page in SkELL, for example, where the URL is to a prepared search, which might be as complicated as: “have .* .* .*ing|.*ed”. It is also useful for playing a single sentence, paragraph or dialogue that might have been recorded in Vocaroo or some such tool. I also find a QR code useful for providing written answers to a task, instead of referring the students to the back of the book, partly because this reduces the total number of pages. Anyone publishing a book that contains song lyrics that are not public domain can use a QR code to the recommended web page. If the colour coding of something is important, then a QR code to a coloured image can compensate when the book or worksheet is in black and white.

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