Giving Bad Whiteboard

When we do CELTA teaching practice we have a space on the lesson planning forms for a whiteboard plan. It’s a funny space: four roughy 5x3inch rectangles labelled 1-4. It’s also, for the last few years, been more or less ignored in favour of printouts of IWBs or PowerPoint Presentations. My regular readers, all three of them, will be reminded of my occasional ire towards all things interactive, but this is not one of those times. Rather this is about how learning to make good use of a regular whiteboard is actually a useful thing, and many of the things that make good whiteboard can also be used to make good PowerPoint or good IWB. The reality of things is that you may or may not have an IWB or even access to PowerPoint, but you will almost certainly have access to some form of regular whiteboard, and I think they need to be used well. 

So here, in proper controversial style, is a list of the things that I try to remember when I am freestyling on a whiteboard. You can call them “dos and don’ts” if you like, or God forbid, good practice. But I’ll stick with “stuff I try to remember”. 

1. Have a basic shape in your head. Essentially, for me, a normal landscape rectangular board is a square with two columns, one down each sideline the board. You may prefer one column, or the size of the board may dictate that only one is realistic, but I work on the ideal principle of two. If I am being very organised, one of the columns is used for vocab, the other for grammar, or something like that, but essentially these side columns are where you write stuff to remember across the lesson with space in the middle which can be rubbed out regularly. 

2. Have more than one colour pen. You don’t need a rainbow, like the CELTA trainee I saw once with eight colours: two is enough, four is plenty. The reason? Highlighting. If I am writing up a key sentence to demonstrate a grammar point, for example, I will write the key bits of the grammar in a different colour to the rest of the sentence. Then I can use this colour to write up the rule once it has been elicited. You could use one of the colours to write vocabulary you need students to remember, or simply to make different bits stand out. 

3. Learn to draw, but don’t worry about it. I once attended a workshop on “cartooning for teachers” which was very interesting and gave me some basic techniques. Most useful of all, however, was the message that all you have to do is get the idea across. Take a reindeer, to use a real example from my own teaching: basically it’s got four legs and antlers. So I do a sort of generic four legged animal shape and stick antlers on it. It works. Some things are better if you can use google images: the difference between a bee and a wasp is a million times easier that way. But you can get most ideas across with some very simple line drawings.  

4. Remember that a board includes your commentary on it. You may not be able to draw, but at the same time as drawing or writing, you are probably also explaining or eliciting with questions. To use my reindeer example above, I would probably be talking about Santa, about sleighs, maybe Rudolph, (because, let’s face it, when else does the word reindeer ever come up in class?) and reinforcing the whole “antler” thing with demonstrations and hand movements. 

5. Board work can be an organic, growing process. Rather than the fixed “here is the information” encouraged by PowerPoint, and, albeit to a lesser extent, by a pre-prepared IWB slideshow, a whiteboard allows you elicit example language from the students, then build up the grammar analysis through questioning and checking. I have to be honest and say that that stage of a lesson is probably my absolute favourite part, and probably the hardest bit to learn how to do.

Taking a sentence from a student, or from a text, then breaking it down and putting it back together, checking with all the students, getting them to work out the rules and the systems, either as a whole class, or increasingly, for me, by getting the students to discuss together in small groups first, is the crucial bit, and if you get that hit wrong, everything afterwards tends to fall apart. I’m not dismissing the rest of the lesson, not at all, because it takes skill to devise practise activities and knowledge and experience to select the language practice tasks, and to plan and set up the warm up activities, and these bits of the lesson, particularly the language practice opportunities, are absolutely vital. However, those bits, somehow, are very often “set it up and off you go”, whereas creating and developing and eliciting and building up language analysis has a degree of spontaneity and risk. I think, as well, that getting a language idea across is somehow the essence of what we do as language teachers (cue angry dissent: I told you this wasn’t a best practice list…)

6. Easel type whiteboards are rubbish. Rubbish rubbish rubbish. They don’t even have a place in executive meeting rooms these days. 

7. In the event where you have to clean off the board (for example because your employer thinks diddy whiteboards are acceptable) but it has lots of useful information on it, check with the students first. If they haven’t written down notes, then make time for them to do so. Alternatively, or as well, get them to take a photo of the board, and do so yourself so you can share it electronically if you want to. This also serves as a good prompt for the next lesson when you want to revisit the language. 

8. Don’t just sling words up in random fashion. At the very least try to aim for a nice list to one side, even if you are doing nothing else with the thing. 

9. Consider this: if you are using PowerPoint or an IWB, and you know which vocabulary you are going to use or which sentences you are going to need to to illustrate your point, then plan it into your presentation, rather than using the board. That said, I do think planning all the animations so that the core elements appear when necessary is a massive drag that takes about half an hour to work out and fouls up horribly when you forget the sequence of animations/reveals, compare to a few quick sentences and lines on the board, but it does mean you avoid mess. An IWB can avert some of this, but God help you if you slightly cock up a line and can’t move it without moving significant chunks of the rest of the text. 

Hmm. I think that’s it. I should probably go back through and replace the guidebook “you” with a more personal “I” but I can’t be bothered. You know that there’s no such thing as best practice, and that I am hardly the one to tell you what it is. I don’t think that IWBs and PowerPoint are useless, or that they have no place. They can be used and used well but in a different way and with different considerations. Using a regular whiteboard, however, is something of a dying art, particularly in the technology obsessed educational establishments of the UK and the US, and yet they are still present in most of the world, and indeed in lots of settings in technologized countries: teach in a community centre in the UK, for example, or in a workplace setting. So it’s worth knowing how to use them. 



  1. I’d add that if you have a bloody great lectern in the way, like in a lecture theatre, don’t use the bottom 10-15% or else everyone will be speculating about what you wrote instead of listening to you or their partner. Learnt the hard way.

    1. Actually that reminds me of something else: clean the board, especially if you are tall like me and like to use the top 10% that nobody else can reach. But it’s polite to clean it anyway…

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