Used to speaking activity: life before smartphones

The aim of this activity is for students to practice using used to to describe their lives before they had smartphones. The idea came from seeing this photo collection by Eric Pickersgill and reading this article in The Guardian

The Task

Step 1

Create interest and introduce the topic by showing one of the photographs by Eric Pickersgill. I find this one to be particularly powerful.

Ask your students to identify the missing element in the photo: smartphones.

Step 2

Find out more about your students and their smartphones:

  • When did your students get their first smartphone?
  • Do they remember it well?
  • What do they use their smartphones for?
  • Are their lives easier because of their smartphones? Why?
  • Are there any drawbacks to virtually everybody having a smartphone? Examples?

Step 3

Ask your students to think about the time before they had smartphones. Were their lives any different? Did they use to spend or organize their time differently? Draw attention to the used to  structure and try to elicit some more examples from your students.

Divide your students into pairs or small groups. Ask them to think about their lives before smartphones and describe them using used to  / didn’t use to, focusing on the following categories:

  1. personal life
  2. work / study
  3. free time / hobbies

It is possible your students won’t be able to find many examples for each category so you should have some sentences describing your own life ready to model the language:

  1. I didn’t use to send my friends so many pictures every day (now I do)
  2. I used to make a lot of do-to lists on small pieces of paper (now I use an app on my mobile)
  3. I used to spend more time in front of the computer (now I google everything on my phone)


Students may choose one of the photographs and describe how life before smartphones looked for people in it.

Step 4

Compare your students’ lists for each category / photograph. Talk with your students about the changes they have mentioned. Which ones are positive? Which ones are negative? Would they go back to the pre-smartphone era if they could? What’s next for us in terms of technology?


Younger students might find this activity hard to relate to (I know a lot of teens who have never even used regular mobile phones). What works well in this case is telling them to imagine they are 35 now and they spent their teenage years using a good old Nokia 3310. I have had students come up with some great scenarios describing more tech-free youth (Nobody used to know what a selfie was, I used to put on my make-up in front of the mirror, not the phone screen, I used to push buttons on the phone to do anything). 

More activities which encourage students to use grammar in meaningful context can be found here, here, and here.

Personal Experience

This activity resonates really well with adult learners. They usually have great stories about how they were coming to terms with the sudden switch to smartphones and whether they discovered any actual, real-life use for the new technology. All my students were really moved by the photo collection by Eric Pickersgill I showed them and I think it was one of the highlights of the class.


  1. Hi Gosia, tomorrow I´m gonna use this idea with my Intermediates. I absolutely love the suggested photo for creating interest 🙂 The topic is extremely relevant for my students as they are IT specialists.

    • Hi Anna, so glad to hear you’ve found something useful here. The photos are quite powerful, right? Let me know how the class goes.

  2. An excellent lesson with great materials and proper content. For once, a lesson that does not aim at making students feel bad for using their phones but simply makes them think in a pleasant and different way.

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