ETAS Conference presentation: Whiteboard wizardry

Thanks to all those who attended my workshop at this year’s ETAS conference in beautiful Thun, Switzerland!

Schloss Schadau, Thun
Schloss Schadau, Thun

For the first time, I decided not to prepare a handout for the session but summarise it here, instead. You can download my PowerPoint slides here and the other documents I referred to in the workshop from the corresponding sections of this blogpost, below; and you can watch the presentation itself in this video:

(Thanks to Jeremy for being the cameraman!)

Board… huh… yeah… what is it good for?

The board in a classroom, whether interactive (an “IWB”) or old-fashioned chalk/pen style, can be a great tool for a range of things. Here are just a few:

  • Getting students out of their chairs
  • Putting students in control of tasks
  • Feedback on tasks
  • Recording and organising things (e.g. vocabulary)
  • Revision at the end of a lesson/start of another lesson
  • Competitive activities

The workshop went over a few examples of such things that I’ve done/used in the past and thought other teachers and learners might also benefit from. Here’s what we covered:

Board race V1

Split students into 2 teams. Each team forms a line facing the board with one student standing behind another – a sort of queue to reach the board, as it were. Make sure they don’t stand too close to it – they should be able to read everything that’s on it. About 2 metres’ distance is about right.

On the board are words or pictures, representing one half of pairs. For example, you could put a selection of prepositions on the board which correspond to particular verbs, like ‘on’ (depend on, rely on, focus on, etc.), ‘of’ (accuse of, approve of, consist of, etc.), ‘for’ (apologise for, wait for, blame for, etc.) and so on. Or you could put pictures of body parts on the board, if you want to revise body vocabulary.

You stand to the side of the board and call out something that matches with something on the board. For example, if you say “depend”, that would correspond with “on” on the board. If you say “nose”, there should be a picture of a nose on the board. And so on.

The students at the front of the ‘queues’ have to identify the match, then run to the board and touch/grab/circle it before their opponent.

You announce which student got it right first, add a point to their tally, then those 2 students go to the back of their team queues and everyone else moves forward one place, so now there are 2 new opponents. Then you read the next word, and the race continues.

I first did this activity on my CELTA and was struck immediately by several things:

  • It’s such a simple concept…
  • …but nevertheless very effective for promoting rapid response/recognition of language patterns.
  • Adults are no less competitive or active than younger learners & really get into it!

Important things to remember:

  • Circling the words with board pen is best, so you can later count which team got more; but this is messy with chalk and impossible with interactive whiteboard pens as the board can only recognise one pen at a time and if the students put their pens on the board simultaneously, it confuses the board software!
  • Keep reminding the students to stand well back when waiting for you to call out a word. If they start standing really close to the board, it’s impossible for them to see all the words on it and make their choice.
  • The students waiting in line will inevitably shout out answers to help the ‘runner’.  Obviously, the other team’s runner will also hear this, so it’s a risky help tactic! But it all adds to the competitive atmosphere and I usually just let it happen. The students themselves sort it out or deal with the consequences!

Board race V2

This one doesn’t involve running in exactly the same way as the race described above, but it can become quite active.

I find this activity particularly suitable for revision lessons, where you have various short exercises to practise various language points which are apparently unconnected, except for the fact that you’ve studied them all recently. For example, you might use this as a means of spicing up those end-of-unit review pages in a coursebook.

Draw or project a racetrack onto the board, like the one below:


There should be a distance marker on the track for every exercise you have, minus one. For example, if there are 8 exercises on the coursebook end-of-unit review page, draw 7 lines/flags along the track, including the finish line.

The students work in small teams (3 per team is ideal). Get them to choose a vehicle and/or team name and put these on the board on separate pieces of paper or Post-it notes (you’ll need to move them later). If you have an interactive whiteboard, this is easy – you can prepare a racetrack and vehicles beforehand, easily move them across the board during the lesson and re-use the slide/flipchart in future lessons.

They work through the exercises one by one, in any order they choose. When they finish one exercise, they bring it to you so you can check their answers. If they’re all correct, you move their vehicle one stop along their racetrack. If there are any mistakes, you circle these (but don’t correct them!) and send the student back to their team to correct these. Then they can come back to you and try again. Once they’ve got it all right, you move their vehicle on.

The reason there is one fewer point on the track than there are exercises on the page is so that each team can leave out one exercise. I’ve found with experience that if you require the teams to complete every single exercise in order to have the chance to cross the finish line, some weaker students are demotivated right from the start. (For homework, you can get the students to finish the exercises they didn’t do in the lesson, so they can try to fill the gaps in their knowledge at their own pace later.)

Other advice/things to remember:

  • I like to use unusual vehicles, just because it’s more entertaining than cars – for example, a hot air balloon, or a chicken.
  • This isn’t only relevant to General English classes or adult learners. I find it a good way to spice up exam classes, and teenagers and business English students can also really get into it!
  • Each team must work together on one exercise at a time. They can’t each do a different exercise in the hopes of finishing first!
  • Team members should take turns to bring you the exercises to check so one person doesn’t have to do all the running.
  • You really need to stay anchored at the front of the room by the board. If you start going to the teams to check their answers, it gets messy & hard to keep track of who was waiting first. Make them come to you! 🙂

You can download the racetrack & vehicles I use here – in Word version or in SMART Notebook software version.

Game grid V1 (using PowerPoint or IWB software)

This is another way of turning the board into a game board. It’s also especially useful for revision lessons where there are a number of different, potentially disconnected, exercises you need to cover and it would be a bit boring to just go through them one by one.

Make a 4×4 board that looks like this:


Each square of the grid has something hidden under it – either an exercise or a bomb/some other symbol. Students in teams (3 is a good number) take turns to choose a square and have to do whatever is revealed underneath.

If you’ve hidden an exercise under a square (e.g. an FCE Use of English exercise), all teams do it, but the team that selected the square gets the first chance to submit their answers and win the points for it (10 points). If they don’t get it right, the other teams can submit their answers and score half points (5 points). So it’s in everyone’s interests to have a go at the exercise, even if they didn’t choose the square.

If a team picks a square with a bomb hidden underneath, their points are cut in half! So there’s an exciting element of chance to the game!

Sometimes I hide extra symbols under the squares too, to mix up the activities. For example, lightning bolts give a team 5 free points. The example I showed in the workshop at the ETAS conference was one I created during the London 2012 Olympic Games, so I hid Usain Bolt under one of the squares (a twist on the lightning bolt concept!). Students who uncovered Mr Bolt got an extra 10 points for free.

Although this would work best with IWB software, I didn’t have an IWB when I created this, so made a makeshift PowerPoint version, which you can download here.

Game grid V2 (using Post-it notes)

This works in exactly the same way, but you can just draw a grid on the board or use Post-it notes to create one.

It’s low-tech, easily portable and just as entertaining as the higher-tech version!

Interactive games & quizzes

This isn’t strictly a board-specific activity but I absolutely love it and wanted to share it in this workshop! It takes quite a lot of prep, but is very engaging and can be saved and re-used once you’ve made it.

This website has various tools for teachers of any subject to liven up lessons. I’ve used it more for teacher training than for teaching English, as in this example of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? which I made a few years ago for CertTESOL trainees to revise grammar terminology ahead of their language awareness exam.

You’re probably already familiar with the format, but this is how I use it in class:

The students/trainees all work in one big group, sitting in a horseshoe with one person in the middle (“in the hot seat”) whose job is to answer the question. If he/she isn’t sure of the answer, he/she can ‘ask the audience’ (i.e. his/her classmates vote on the correct answer and then the one in the hot seat decides if he/she wants to go with the majority opinion), ‘phone a friend’ (i.e. ask for help from a specific classmate and then decide if he/she wants to go with that answer) or ‘go 50/50’ (i.e. the teacher clicks the relevant button, 2 answers disappear and 2 are left, from which the person in the hot seat must choose the one he/she thinks is correct).

Whereas on TV the same person stays in the hot seat for as many questions as possible (until he/she gets it wrong or gives up and takes the cash they’ve already accumulated), I get the students/trainees to go up one by one and take turns in the hot seat. They can go in any order they want, but rather than the weaker ones being left till last, they usually volunteer to go first as they know the questions will get harder and harder!

For homework, each student/trainee can be given a copy of the questions with the multiple choices removed, to encourage them to remember what they’d studied and ensure all students, whether stronger or weaker, have to have a go at all questions eventually.

Instant gap-fill

This is one of the activities I do most often, as it applies to nearly every lesson, every level, any day of the week/month/year. I originally blogged about it here.

During lessons, all kinds of language comes up, which often gets boarded for students to keep a record of, and possibly explored further in class. But as this kind of emergent language is often, by its very nature, not in the standard coursebook material or likely to come up in future (e.g. on a test, or by having the exact same conversation/circumstances which prompted the emergent language in the first place), it often gets erased at the end of the lesson and never seen again, unless the students actually read through their notes later…

So I sometimes do the following, to encourage students to notice details of the new language, remember it and revisit it:

1. Take a picture of the phrases on the board with an iPod/camera phone. Better yet, get them to.
2. Tell the students to close their eyes.
3. Erase certain words and replace them with a line representing a gap. It’s especially useful to remove the things students often forget, or things they had struggled to work out earlier in the lesson, which had led you to put this language on the board to begin with! For example, in a story about what your elementary student(s) did yesterday, you might go back and erase the past simple verbs (and possibly write the infinitive below the gaps, just so they only have to think about whether the verb is regular or irregular, not remember what the verb was in the first place!).
4. The students open their eyes and have to decide how to fill the newly created gaps on the board.
5. Get them up to the board to write in their ideas.
6. For feedback, they can open the picture they just took of the board and compare.

See the PowerPoint slides of my presentation (downloadable here) for pictures of how the board looked before I created such a gap-fill for my one-to-one elementary student and how it looked after he’d filled it in.


This works well very small classes, as in, 3 or 4 students max.

It’s essentially just a glorified dictation, but something about standing up and controlling the audio themselves seems to make students find it far more engaging!

Basically, you use a video/audio recording or song (or get the students to choose one, providing you can understand the language in it and check they’re understanding it correctly!) and the students go through it bit by bit, transcribing it onto the board. One student writes on the board, one student watches and gives feedback (as it’s surprisingly easy to make silly mistakes when writing on the board for some reason, as many teachers will know!), and one student controls the audio, stopping, rewinding and playing it as they feel is necessary. All students are responsible for trying to understand the audio and piecing the script together.

If you have a fourth student, they can either just float around being another helper, or be given a special role, such as taking note of any words/phrases they’re really unsure about, so you can confirm them later and maybe offer advice as to why the pronunciation confused them (aside: search Google for “mondegreens”to read some famous amusing examples of misheard song lyrics!).

As I say, this is really just a glorified dictation but I’d hypothesise that students like it for the following reasons:

1. Standing up to write on the board (and changing roles occasionally) is a bit more active than sitting in a chair for an hour or two.
2. The teacher doesn’t usually relinquish control of the technical equipment so willingly.
3. The teacher doesn’t usually allow the students to listen to the same recording as much as they want until they’ve understood every word!

On this last point, I do appreciate the importance of listening sub-skills such as listening for gist, but I know from my own experience as a language learner (and my students’ complaints about gist exercises!) that sometimes you just really want to catch every word, even if you know you don’t strictly HAVE to. I think what’s important for teachers to do here, though, is make sure that you follow up the listening with a focus on pronunciation, looking at why some things are harder to understand (e.g. because the speaker spoke quickly and features of connected speech were present).

In the workshop (download the slides here), I showed an example from an upper-intermediate class of mine a couple of summers ago. The students had just watched the Brit Awards and we’re raving about Adele. They felt her singing was generally quite clear but they hadn’t really taken the time to listen more carefully to the lyrics, and they wanted to know specifically what she was saying so they could sing along!

Some general tips for a clear and useful board

I finished the ETAS workshop with a few pointers for general board work–the everyday stuff, when you’re not playing games or something, but just using it to record other things in the lesson, such as new vocabulary or mistakes.

  • Divide the board into sections. Different teachers do this differently, but I like to have a column down one side for new vocabulary at the very least. You might also want to set aside a section of the board from the start of class for longer chunks of new language, errors the students make (to be corrected by them later), pictures/cards you’re going to use during class, lesson aims, and so on.
  • Use colour! And use it consistently. Personally, I write ‘standard’ stuff (e.g. example sentences, new vocabulary) in blue/black, grammar annotations in red and pronunciation features in green. Students need to be able to visually separate language from metalanguage or other linguistic annotations.
  • If you’re writing a long sentence, move as you write! Walk along the board face as you move your pen along it. It helps avoid (to some extent) slanting writing, if you’re not fortunate enough to have a board with feint lines/squares on it.
  • Consider using the board for task feedback. Not necessarily for every task, or for tasks with very long answers which you’re not going to refer back to (a pet peeve of mine: watching a teacher painstakingly transcribe everything the students say then immediately erase it all and move on!), but for tasks where you’ll use this information as a springboard for something else. For example, if you present a new grammar point from a text, elicit some examples from the students (who have just read/heard the text, presumably) and put them on the board. Then you can proceed to clarify form, etc., annotating the examples on the board as you go. Remember that students often take your writing on the board as a signal to copy it all down into their notebooks – so make sure they’ve got a useful & clear record of new language to copy from!
  • Avoid cursive (connected, or ‘joined up’ writing). Print your letters. Some people may disagree with me on this, but especially when teaching multilingual classes, I’ve noticed that connecting letters can be hugely confusing for students, and in my opinion, for my students, they so rarely see or use handwriting in English nowadays, this can wait till later/they need it. Even languages which all use the Roman script (most European languages) don’t represent all letters the same way in handwriting (I didn’t recognise a handwritten Czech ‘t’ when I first saw one!).
  • Related to this last point, don’t capitalise unnaturally. If you teach the word “shoe”, write it in the board like this:

a shoe

and not like this:


By writing it the first way, students see that it’s a noun, it’s countable and that it’s not a proper noun. In my view, writing it the second way is simply inaccurate.

And that’s all! Hope you found it all useful…

One last thing which I’ve done with an interactive whiteboard but didn’t have time to show in this workshop is an interactive dictogloss.  I blogged about it here, if you want to know more…


5 thoughts on “ETAS Conference presentation: Whiteboard wizardry

  1. Dear Laura
    Thank you for such a great workshop on Sunday in Thun!
    I will definitely use the ideas in upcoming classes especially for revision – the games.

    Take care and all the best

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