The (White) Elephant in the Room

Whether you have a connected or non-connected classroom, the tool that is commonly seen in every lesson is the whiteboard.  The whiteboard is a wonderful and often under-respected tool, but provides so much opportunity to share ideas, illustrate context and offers learners a chance to brainstorm vocabulary.  When I started teaching, I used the whiteboard to just write down key vocabulary and draw timelines but there is so much which could be exploited with this simple tool.  However, I was not given much training or advice on exploiting this respectful tool.  At times, I have seen whiteboards awash with so much language scattered around it looks like the teacher has literally thrown a book at it and hope the words stick.  Other lessons I have observed, the teacher has carefully drawn images, as well as broken down sections for key vocabulary and/or lesson aims.  Here are a selection of photos illustrating whiteboards at my school.

Making use of margins and images with the whiteboard.

The whiteboard above demonstrates that margins could be created to illustrate lesson aims (something which is starting to become more and more important due to continuous accreditation in the UK).  I suppose one thing that could be improved with this whiteboard is that the left margin is not necessarily used as planned.  I was hoping to use the left margin to write down vocabulary but ended up teaching ad hoc – Dogme-esque – and focusing on various vocabulary associated with facial hair and jewellery.  Pronunciation was highlighted between ‘bucket’ and ‘bouquet’.  Any guess on the nationalities which were present in the room?

The early days of the whiteboard in my teaching career.

With this whiteboard image from 2010, I was trying to get learners to use the whiteboard as much as I could. I was using an infographic image for a reading relay.  Students had to run around to the questions, dictate these to their partner then look for the correct information before looking for other questions.  It was a fun and enjoyable activity for the adolescent learners.  To review answers, I wrote up the questions on the board – one at a time – then learners nominated themselves to answer.  All good fun.  So why not get your learners up and off their seats to write on the whiteboard?

My students decided to add some of their creativity.

A spin off the previous whiteboard, with learners writing the answers to a reading activity on the whiteboard, you could encourage learners to come up to the whiteboard and draw.  I was teaching Spanish learners a number of years ago and they decided to draw a funny little character on the whiteboard during the break.

From another teacher’s whiteboard from years ago.

I love to ask teachers to keep up their work on the whiteboard so that I can see what their lesson was about and how they went about it.  From looking at this whiteboard, I can see that the teacher was focusing on modality and comparatives: “I may be (adj.), but at least …”.  Also looking at other teachers whiteboards, you can reflect on how you would improve the lesson and how you would also improve on demonstrating the work to learners.  So next time, you have a rant at a fellow teacher about them keeping their work up on the board, why not put a sock in it and have a look at the whiteboard, take a photo and create a lesson from it?  It is so much more rewarding.

A CLIL-based lesson on Global Warming from 2010.
When teaching some groups of nationalities, they expect a CLIL-based lesson.  This lesson from 3 years ago looks at Global Warming.  I tried to improve the demonstration of key vocabulary by the use of drawings as well as putting language into context.  It is something that I always enjoy including in particular lessons but again, I have failed to include margins within the whiteboard and perhaps I could have drawn the images on to pieces of paper then laminated them, which could then be stuck on the whiteboard.  What do you think?  How else could key vocabulary be demonstrated or taught within the classroom?  Is it something which should be prepared?  What about emergent language?  Have you taught a CLIL-style lesson?  Too many questions for you – anyhow learners did copy down the images and vocabulary in their notebooks.
Focusing on emergent language with an adult class.
More recently, particularly with adult learners, I have been reacting to language which emerges during the lesson.  In this lesson, a student’s mobile phone battery went dead and didn’t know how to express this so again I am illustrating this with images and vocabulary: a good or a bad thing?  I am also trying to put up vocabulary on one side of the margin – it happens to be on the right-hand side this time round. We looked at British food and my whiteboard looks very messy.  This is possibly a result of the style of lesson.  Do you seem to have a very clean whiteboard when you teach a very predictable lesson or a messy whiteboard when the lesson diverts away and is spontaneous?  It would be interesting to see you whiteboards.
Finally nailed it – I have a grammar and vocabulary margin.
The final picture of my whiteboard shows that sometimes I do get it correct – I have a margin for vocabulary and another for grammar whilst the main lesson (which was actually focusing on reading and speaking) has a smaller area within the middle of the whiteboard.  It also looks awfully mucky and in time for a good clean.  Finally, how do you setup your whiteboard?  What do you do differently that you haven’t seen other teachers do with their whiteboard?  Would you have any advice for me?  Do you monitor learners when they are copying work from the whiteboard?

0 thoughts on “The (White) Elephant in the Room

  • October 1, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Martin!
    Now this I really liked! I am a very strong supporter of factual accounts and this was a true piece of work. Thank you for all the great thoughts and photos .
    Wishing you a wonderful new month,

    • October 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Martin,
      This was interesting, it’s always nice to see other people’s work. It really depends on the size of the whiteboard, doesn’t it? I always try to list vocab on the left, and am not usually organized enough to separate out grammar points for another list. Everything tends to get jumbled up in the middle and I’m continually rubbing out because of lack of space. The neat pre-planning of the whiteboard I did for the CELTA is a far cry from what arises in more Dogme-style classes.

      • October 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm

        I am wondering what is considered more appropriate and whether a well-organised whiteboard is more suitable than say a cluttered whiteboard. It could be said that a chaotic and messy whiteboard is related to how unplanned a lesson was. Thus, a Dogme-style lesson with lots of emergent and scaffolded language has lots of vocabulary written everywhere, and a tidy and clean whiteboard is related to a lesson which was well-planned and executed. Just my thoughts though.

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  • October 17, 2013 at 1:16 am

    “So next time, you have a rant at a fellow teacher about them keeping their work up on the board, why not put a sock in it and have a look at the whiteboard, take a photo and create a lesson from it?”

    You’ve just inspired me! Beautifully put!

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  • June 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I thought this was a very useful article but teachers are sometimes restricted by the size of the whiteboad available.

  • July 1, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    What would you recommend for those of us restricted to a flipchart? My page so quickly gets filled up and rather messy, and certainly is too small for making such divisions as in your final photo.

    • July 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm

      Kristen, how about taking a photo of your flip chart once you’ve finished and share with your students on a Facebook group or a dedicated student/teacher blog? Then you can keep things nice and tidy.

      Otherwise you can dedicate different flip chart papers to different things: vocabulary, grammar and language feedback, etc. Then blue tack it around the room and add to it as you go along.

      I hope that helps.


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