Emojis in English and ESOL

Kendal College and South Lakes Community Learning

This project focused on a learner-led strategy incorporating the universal language of emojis, to ignite learner motivation, engagement and build resilience, by concentrating on persuasive, emotive writing skills. Feedback showed learners and tutors found the approach engaged learners and helped them to make progress in GCSE, Functional Skills, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The strategy aimed to motivate learners by using emojis.

Learners used emojis for reading, writing, and developing vocabulary by linking words and phrases with emojis. This created a strong link between image and meaning. It also engaged the learners with the task. One learner’s comment, “Are we doing the emoji thing again today?’ highlights overall engagement. (Appendix 3)

The universal language of emojis provided a familiar, fun, relatable platform and it promoted inclusivity. Encouraging learners to use their own bank of emojis motivated them to start reading which built their confidence. Developing learners’ understanding of the text was transferred to their writing and planning. As learners progressed, they found they no longer needed the Emoji in English steppingstone. (Appendix 2 and 3)

Emoji list

Emoji list


Many learners come to Further Education without achieving their GCSE grade 4. Often, they are reluctant to engage with reading, writing, and planning. Similarly, ESOL learners can struggle to learn enough vocabulary to communicate. The existing tools learners used did not engage them and we wanted to see if, through using emojis, a universal communication approach, we could re-engage them.

Today learners reading and writing experiences have strong links with social media and the internet. Following the Lancaster Literacies Project Improving Learning in College; Rethinking literacies across the curriculum. (Ivanovic et al), which looked at how everyday literacies can be used for educational purposes, we planned this research project to see whether Lancaster’s successes could be replicated using emojis for reading, writing, and developing vocabulary.

We also wanted to see if emojis would be a steppingstone, a temporary scaffold, which would allow learners to develop their English skills then see them progress without them.


The team planned the approach.

Text annotated with emojis

Read and annotate the text with emojis where language impacts on reader response.

Learners stated they liked emojis.

Starting point: initial assessment.

Tutors supported learners to create an emoji glossary for reference.


Introduce the text – use Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTs).

Introduce the lesson’s learning topic for example Engage with a text to analyse language.

Tutor models.

i. Read without annotation.

ii. Read and annotate the text with emojis where language impacts on reader response.

Learner then reads text using emojis to identify language that impacts on their emotions – for example a smiley face if it is something they like.

Feedback on their response to the text: discussion to develop their interpretation.

Introduce an exam question linking emoji learning aim. For example, “Give two examples of where the writer has used emotive language. Give a different effect each one has on the reader.”

Tutor models how to interpret the emoji in answering a question.

Learners adding emojis to prompt them to develop additional or expanded sentences.

Learners adding emojis to prompt them to develop additional or expanded sentences.

Learners then answer the question.

This approach can be utilised for the author’s point of view, the impact it has on the reader and a comparison of texts. (Appendix 2, 3, and 4)


  • Demonstrate to learners how to plan a piece of writing with the use of emojis.
  • Learners develop their planned response to a written task (mind map or bullet points). (Appendix 2 and 3)
  • Learners then add emojis to prompt them to develop additional or expanded sentences.
  • Learners are encouraged to re-read their text, annotating with an emoji to identify emotive persuasive writing to assess their learning. This approach supports their reading skills as well.

The learners identify words that relate to a particular emoji.

  1. Initial assessment: twelve common emojis were chosen as a starting point to test any prior vocabulary knowledge. Learners say or write words prompted by each emoji.
  2. Tutor, and or learner, then models the words in example sentences. Learners repeat.
  3. In the following sessions
    Emoji memory game using flash cards

    Memory game in which the learners turned the emoji flash cards over and matched them with words.

    develop learners’ vocabulary related to emojis from the initial assessment, beginning with three words linking to each emoji. Activities include:

    • Call and response to drill in pronunciation.
    • Memory games in which the learners turned the emoji flash cards over and matched them with words.
    • Speaking activities where learners were taught how to use words in full sentences.
    • Facial and body language activities to develop cultural knowledge of nonverbal communication.

Learners were also encouraged to write a sentence or add an emotion on the impact emojis had on their learning. One learner stated, ‘the pictures help me remember the words.’

We found that as the project progressed learners’ reliance on emojis decreased as their confidence increased. One learner commented ‘’putting a keyword next to the emoji helps better.’’ Their vocabulary confidence increased, and a single emoji generated lots of ideas. (Appendix 2, 3, 4 and 5)

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The most significant thing the team learned was the impact on learner engagement and motivation and subsequent progress that was made when using an approach that came from learners’ lives and experience (emojis).

Learner quote: “I draw the emoji or plan my writing to include emojis before I start my work. I found this really helped me engage more in my writing because I already have a much better understanding of the task including gramma (sic) and expressive writing.’’

This changed perceptions and subsequent teaching approaches. For example- one tutor noted it was a “useful method to engage learners and I had not thought it would be so effective within my lessons” (Professional Standard 02). Similarly, tutors reported they found meeting and collaborating enhanced their teaching experience and professionalism. (Professional Standard 06) (Appendix 3)

We also found that by consulting learners about the approach throughout the project motivated and empowered them and gave them the confidence to decide when they no longer needed emoji scaffolds to complete the tasks set.

“The emoji project has helped me to understand English. It helped me to understand how a character is feeling in the text and be able to write a relevant response. It’s very natural for me to use emojis in my everyday life when I’m texting people, so I already know what they mean. I have got more ticks in my work than I have ever got in my life…’’ (Appendix 2)

As the project progressed researching teaching and learning approaches expanded and evolved beyond the initial parameters for both tutors and learners, partly from the shift to online learning, but also as curiosity and confidence grew. Here are just some examples. (See Appendix 2, 3, 4 and 5 for more)

  • ‘Linking words with the visual stimulus of emojis helped learners with vocabulary retention’ and then develop subtle changes in meaning relating to a single emoji. Learners also started to create their own. (Appendix 4)
  • One learner independently drew and labelled many emojis. When asked why, they stated ‘‘the pictures help me remember the words” (Appendix 5)
  • Learners used emojis to show tutor whether they understood and were confident. (Appendix 3)
  • Learners used online text marking as typing notes and underlining online was difficult. Inserting an emoji to online texts was easier. (Appendix 2)

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

We chose English and ESOL, and different qualifications, to see whether the approach worked across this range. The results would inform future adoption of teaching and learning approaches which had been tested for engagement, motivation, and inclusivity.

We had a Microsoft Teams page which provided a hub of engagement, reflection, and transparency. Meeting informally weekly, and formally monthly, allowed the team to bond, share good practice, air concerns, and identify successes.

None of the tutors working on the project had collaborated in this way previously and all felt they had benefited from it. For example, the ESOL tutors had worked independently and are now sharing good practice and planning the way forward with their learners. This created a strong feeling of professional identity. This was further enhanced when each tutor presented their part of the project at the interim dissemination event.  Hayley Chapman, Cumbria County Council Area and Curriculum manager, commented they had

“ … gained knowledge from their peers; our profile in Cumbria, and beyond, has been raised and we have an opportunity to cascade learning to other members of our ESOL team so they too can implement the use of emojis in their teaching.’

Moving forward, the outcomes of the project, which have been shared more widely within our organisations, will be incorporated into teaching, learning and assessment approaches.

All members of the team have extended their connectivity with the post 16 sector beyond their organisations sharing with, and learning from, colleagues across the country.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Historically learners studying English in Further Education are reluctant readers and this is one of the biggest challenges for GCSE and Functional Skills tutors. Work completed by learners taking part in the project showed they had read and understood the texts (Appendix 2, 3, 4 and 5). What was surprising, and delighted the team, was the enthusiasm the learners had for reading. Gone was the traditional reluctance. Using a tool that they were familiar with, emojis, had given them the motivation to start reading and the ensuing success built their confidence. One learner commented that, “They have helped me to understand the text we have been studying,” and four learners expected their GCSE levels to be one or two levels higher (Appendix 2).

Previously, learners often complained ‘’I just don’t know what to write’’ which left them feeling deflated. Using emojis to develop their understanding of the text was transferred to their writing. Tutors reported that they were a “successful starting point for their written responses,” and a useful ‘’planning tool for GCSE writing tasks.” (Appendix 5). One learner commented that “It makes the writing and planning easier than at my secondary school.”

ESOL learners embraced the use of emojis to improve their vocabulary. Linking emojis to words was a novel way of helping them to remember, which in turn helped with more effective communication. One learner’s knowledge of words increased from 39 to 64 and another reported more confidence speaking to neighbours and  friends, securing employment (Appendix 4 and 5). Furthermore, as a starting point it was a great way to improve teamwork and sharing their thoughts and ideas. ‘’Learners were highly motivated and stayed on task throughout the lessons with minimal prompts. It encouraged discussion and reflective thinking amongst them.’’ By adapting the emoji as tool to build vocabulary, it provided a robust structure to develop communication, fostering a sense of community.

Tutors said,

‘‘The project has helped them achieve their English learning goals and to integrate into the UK more quickly than otherwise would have been the case‘’ and also ‘’Learners are motivated by emojis which is evident in the work they have produced and their reaction in class’’ (Appendix 4 and 5).

Learning from this project


Situating learning in learners’ literacy practices leads to engagement, increased confidence that they can succeed and consequently greater progress in their learning. This was supported by the learners. One learner stated,

‘’I felt slightly overwhelmed before I started to use emojis, the emojis really helped me understand the emotions and help me express myself more.’’ They helped to overcome social, language and cultural barriers as emojis are a universal language. Learners stated that it, ‘‘has widened my vocabulary (I know more words)’’, ‘‘has helped me understand the difference between words with similar meaning” and it “has motivated me to learn.’’

Using emojis to annotate a text helped learners to understand meaning for example one learner stated,

‘’I found using emojis in paragraphs helped me to understand the emotions and feelings within the text.’’

This in turn lead to improved progress as we learned that their previous reluctance to engage with reading had been overcome.

Time spent talking to learners about approaches to learning not only empowered the learners, but tutors gained valuable insights into what makes effective teaching and learning for individuals. It may seem there is insufficient time for consultation, but when new knowledge of learner preference, or successful peer approaches, are implemented, learners improved progress more than makes up for it.

Reflection identified ‘how use of emojis and symbols might be useful for the person who creates them but not necessarily for (an)other (sic) person … a bit like a mind map’ therefore establishing individual good practice before inviting peers to proofread completed work is crucial.

In a Covid climate where learners nationally experienced ‘lost learning’ the use of emojis has shown how engaging with learners’ literacy practices are an invaluable tool in the classroom. The success is summed up by one learner who discovered their ability to succeed stating,

‘‘This has helped me a lot considering I’ve never seen this method of teaching before. I never thought using emojis would make this much difference in learning, but I feel this has had a great impact on my learning and understanding during the course. I have now passed my English Level 2 Functional Skills qualification’’ .


City and Guilds Level 2 Sample assessment 1 July 2019 version 0-3 https://feweek.co.uk/2019/11/19/kendal-college-comes-top-in-fe-weeks-2019-league-table/

Literacies for Learning home page (lancaster.ac.uk) https://www.slideshare.net/didau/getting-feedback-right-33399370 ‘The solution is to consider how to design assessments without a ceiling on achievement.’ Didau, D. (2014).

www.teachingenglish.org.uk (DARTS Activities) https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/assessment-for-learning-toolkit-6020165

Blakemore, S, J and Frith, U. (2008). The Learning Brain. Lessons for Education. 144 33 – 36. Blackwell Publishing.

Hyland, K. (2016) Teaching and Researching Writing. Applied Linguistics in Action 95:1-5. Routledge, Taylor, and Francis.

Kouzes, J, M and Posner B, Z. (2008) The Student Leadership Challenge. 76: 23 – 25. Jossey – Bass.

Moon, J, A. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Theory and Practice. 156 39 – 41. Routledge Falmer.

Winter, R. (1989) Learning from Experience: Principles and Practices of Action Research, London: Farmer Press