Si eres profesor de idiomas, seguro que te interesará mucho leer este artículo sobre cómo hacer un buen uso de la pizarra en tus clases.

When teaching in-company a whiteboard or flipchart to write on can be a luxury and something we often have to learn to live without.  However, whenever I go into a teaching room it is the first thing I look for, and if there is one (the bigger the better) I breathe a sigh of relief.

This year I have been teaching groups here at King’s, making frequent use of the whiteboards we have, and this experience has really made me think about how to make the most of this vital tool.  At its most basic level the whiteboard exists to present information visually for the whole class to see simultaneously, but what can we do to take advantage of its versatility in order to improve our students’ learning?  Here are a few ideas:

Language point building and practice

A disadvantage of coursebook presentation of language points is that they are static.  The student’s eye can focus on specific information as she studies a language point step by step, but the page is nearly always crowded and it is harder to focus students’ eyes where and when you want them to, and to emphasise key points.  A whiteboard solves this issue.  A language point can be developed from a single word or phrase, arranged or tabulated as you wish, with information elicited or provided directly by students visiting the board in person.  Language features can be indicated easily and examples and activities used to illustrate the point as you go along.  Students are more likely to learn at the same pace and the process is communicative and collaborative.

This is not to say there is no place for students studying alone at their own pace, but in the time-restricted, communicative classroom this form of collaborative discovery / study is a great tool.

What you write on the board can then become a reference for when students activate the language point in controlled practice.  You can produce activities in reference to it and return to the relevant parts when offering feedback and correction.

In short, the board is a dynamic, focused, heads-up medium which can foment group understanding and provide a common reference point for continued study and practice.  This is in contrast to a coursebook which tends to be more static, diffuse, heads-down and individual.

Here is a quick example of how I recently demonstrated modals of speculation, present and past.  We (my students and I) built up the table collaboratively adding examples together, studied the features of the language point with it and used it as a reference for practice and feedback.  The photo is the final picture but there were many intermediate stages as the information gradually built up.

The group mind

The whiteboard is the ultimate brainstorming tool.  Its white space gives students the chance to be creative together.  I like to use it to mark out a process.  If, for example, you are going to look at nature (to personalise, perhaps ‘how we interact with nature’) we can brainstorm ideas, then form questions from those ideas and carry out a questionnaire before looking at vocab, moving on to printed material, etc.  Here is an example:

You could even brainstorm another stage in the mind map as a group to enrich the discussion in pairs or groups.  For example, in the ‘science’ segment:

What do you know about natural sciences? Can you give any examples?

In this way, the students create a schema or topic guide in a multi-stage process to help produce an involving and varied communication activity.


Notebook builder

One thing I am conscious of in my classes is how short they are (usually 90 minutes) and how much we have to fit into them to encourage real progress.  An important aspect of learning and learner autonomy is note-taking.  Note-taking in class can be a useful aid to students in understanding information and having time to absorb it.  However, at times there may be too much information to note down in such a short time and the note-taking itself may supplant engagement with the topic and involvement in the communicative activity of the class. A subsequent problem is that having made what may be hurried notes, a student does not want to write them up or expand on them outside of class.

A solution to this is to take photos of the board and send them to students to use as material to write up and organise notes.  I think this has the advantage of enabling the student to engage, heads-up, with the subject matter and avoid the anxiety of missing something.  This frees up time and thinking power to absorb info and express doubts, ask questions, etc.

Out of class it also provides a clear visual link to class activity (to mentally revisit class content) and a more motivating way to revise and keep an effective notebook.

A simple technique, but an effective one that students really respond to!


Activity centre

Whiteboards can make us tend to think in teacher-centred ways: we focus information there for digestion by students and use it to highlight language that we think is useful.  The fact that it is generally in front of the students and behind the teacher tends to reinforce this effect.  However, there are many opportunities to hand control of the board over to students.  The brainstorming activity above is an example of that.  Others could be board races or hot-seating to dynamise study or activation phases of a class, or gap-fills and corrections for study or feedback phases.

A more extended example might be using a board to prepare a debate.  Teams nominate a scribe, or all get stuck in if the group is relatively small, listing their points on each side of the board (see example).

What is the advantage of this approach?  The students create a common reference for their ideas, which everyone can see.  Therefore, they can plan how to counter their opponent’s points (adding information accordingly) and a valuable preparation stage is created which will allow for better performance in the debate itself.  The lists can also be used as a reference in a feedback stage: ‘what did you say about this?’, ‘could you have added anything else?’, etc.

In conclusion, the whiteboard or flipchart is, almost literally, a blank canvas.  It is a creative space limited only by the imaginations of those who use it.  If you aren’t exploiting its potential then it’s time to start thinking about how to do so!