A student and his iPhone walk into a bar…

No, OK, into a classroom.  A classroom with a whiteboard.  And a teacher waiting who believes in a few things about teaching and learning, such as…

Memory and repetition are key aspects of language learning.

This doesn’t have to be boring.

Nor does the teacher have to lead it all.

Figuring things out for yourself and monitoring your own learning are good ways to learn.

Teachers can help students do this.

(No rocket science so far.)

Technology can be a useful tool for such teaching and learning, depending on how it’s used.

This does not mean technology is superior to less complex, more traditional tools, like ‘normal’ whiteboards, pens and paper.

But technology can expedite really basic processes and techniques like copying, hiding (later revealing), highlighting, checking and annotating.

A good example of the combination of these various points in practice came up in my elementary 1-2-1 lesson yesterday, so I thought I’d share it.

It was our first lesson together and we were revising the past simple.  I asked him tell me a bit about his trip to London and how he came to be there with me on that particular summer afternoon.

1. He told me the story of what he’d done the day before in quite simple terms and I boarded each sentence, being careful to ensure different past simple verbs were included, without rendering the story unnatural — regular (with the three different pronunciations of the ‘ed’ ending) and irregular.

2. After talking a bit around the information he’d given (how his flight was, etc.), I underlined the irregular verbs in one colour and the regular ones in another.  His job was then to notice what the colours corresponded to.  He got it.

3. I elicited from him the infinitives of each of these verbs and we practised the pronunciation.

4. We detoured a moment to focus on just the regular ones.  I asked him to see if he could work out the spelling rules for the -ed endings.  He got it, more or less.  The rest, we worked out together.

5. Then I asked him to try and work out the pattern for why some were pronounced /t/ at the end, some /d/ and some /ɪd/.  (He’s Italian so tends to pronounce them all as /ɪd/.)  He didn’t quite get that so I helped him a bit.

Here’s what the whiteboard looked like at that stage:

6. Here’s where the technology came in (part 1).  I got him to take a picture of the whiteboard with his iPhone, then he had about 30 seconds to study and remember the information in the pic while I wiped out all the verbs and annotations we’d made and replaced the missing verbs with gaps.

7. He put his iPhone to one side.  I gave him the board marker.  His job now was to try and fill in the gaps on the board with the correct past simple verbs.  He spent a good 10 minutes on this, made quite a few mistakes, changed his mind a few times and in the end had done pretty well overall (to be fair, there was one sneaky passive lurking amongst the sentences, but he understood it – he just forgot the auxiliary).  I didn’t help.

8. Tech time (part 2).  He picked up his iPhone and opened the image of the whiteboard he’d just taken.  He used it to check (and correct, in some cases) his answers.

Afterwards, the whiteboard looked like this:

9. I set some homework: I dictated 12 regular verbs in infinitive form.  Unbeknownst to him, there were 4 which end in /t/, 4 with /d/ and 4 with /ɪd/.  His homework was to write them in the past simple and decide how they should be pronounced.

10. The following day…  He’d spelled all the words in his homework perfectly and was pronouncing most of them well.  We put them into three columns on the whiteboard (one for each ending sound) and practised once more for good measure.

(Note: If I did this again, I’d get him to re-tell me the story from the sentences he’d generated the day before, too.  Due to various classroom and time issues today, we didn’t.)

A while ago I was interviewed by a guy doing his MA dissertation on the use of technology in TEFL.  I remember talking to him about how and why I use technology in the classroom, and having trouble explaining either (not his fault – I just couldn’t seem to verbalise it!).

In the end I came to the fairly vague conclusion that I use tech the way I use any other resource – because it seems to be the best choice for helping a particular student learn whatever he seems to need at a particular moment in a particular lesson.  (Same goes for groups.)  I’m not a hardcore no-materials/no-tools kind of teacher, but I do tend to disagree with cluttering the classroom with these things unnecessarily.

What I like about this particular lesson was how it demonstrates how a common piece of tech that a student already has in his pocket can provide a really simple, neat, impromptu way of recycling and repeating new language.

What’s more, now the student has a copy of the notes he can refer back to, without his having to spend 5 minutes of lesson time copying down everything from the whiteboard.  We can also bring it back for some quick revision on Friday, the last day of his course.


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hi Laura,I enjoyed this post. I agree with completely that simple ideas using technology can be used effectively in class and I have more and more students now taking photos of the board rather than copying in class. If they want to do that, fine by me. I'm not technology's biggest fan, but see no reason why not to incorporate it in ways like you highlight above if it makes pedagogical sense and can save valuable time. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks.. they can all play a role. I think you hit the nail on the head with: "But technology can expedite really basic processes and techniques like copying, hiding (later revealing), highlighting, checking and annotating".I started a blog post about technology in an Unplugged lesson ages ago and completely forgot to finish it. You've inspired me to go back to that now and see if it still seems relevant. Chris

  2. Very nice before "la rentrée".I may well use this in my classes too. Keep up the good job!

  3. Pingback: ETAS Conference presentation: Whiteboard wizardry | Lauraahaha

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