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Out of thin air – bringing the whiteboard back into clear focus by Lisa Phillips

As a Director of Studies, I don’t get to teach as much as I’d like to these days but this does mean that I observe a lot.  One of the definite perks of the job is that there are so many brilliant things that I’m lucky enough to see everyday – an enormous variety of activities, student-centred classes, solid language awareness and a genuine care and respect for students as individuals and human beings.  However, one thing that sometimes seems to be a bit lacking is the record that students take away from the class.  Now, I admit I’m not the most adept language learner in the world but, by the same token, there are very few among us who have photographic memories or can remember everything they hear.  From a teaching perspective, talking into or teaching out of thin air without anchoring to a visual or written record has its dangers.  And for the student, what do they take away from the class?  What do they have to revise, practise and consolidate their knowledge and improve their communicative language skills?

One of the ways of keeping the classroom in clear focus has to be through maintaining a clear, well-organised record of what has been studied.  Here’s a simple 5-step common sense plan to help your students make the most of this often taken for granted aspect of the classroom.

  1. Get your tools out! Regardless of whether you’re in a high-tech classroom or a more modest one, students need to be ready for what’s in store.  This means taking out pens, papers, books, folders, laptops, mobile devices, etc  without being asked.  This is the first stage in the learner training process.  If I don’t take my ukulele to my music class, I don’t get very far and I can’t imagine waiting for the teacher to tell me to take it out of its case!  Just like in the scouts, being prepared is the first step.
  2. The bigger picture The teacher needs to pay attention to the mode of delivery whether it is an interactive whiteboard or the good old-fashioned kind.  How will the board look at the end of the class?  That affects where I start writing, how long I’ll leave it up, when I’ll ask the learners to copy it (or photograph it or take a screenshot), when I’ll remove it and how.  If your boardwork is not brilliant, do a plan.  It’ll create a much more organised record for the students and they’ll see the rationale for step 1 above.  It will also help you to learn the skill of a good whiteboard, much as the CELTA shows you how to write a lesson plan.
  3. “I do and I understand” This famous quote recently popularised by Kung Fu Panda says it all.  Explain to your students why they should record it in some way – because it is a form of doing and appropriating the material as their own.  I insist that kids, teens, adults, everyone copy down what’s written up – after all, I didn’t do it just for my own entertainment!  Thought has gone into what content to include and how to present it in the planning phase, and it could be that the simple act of writing it down will help them to remember it.  It certainly can’t hurt!  Add to this any additional touches that the student wants to make – definitions in English or L1, pictures or doodles down the side of the page – and this record becomes something personalised and hopefully more memorable.  And if someone really can’t see the value of all of this after making your rationale explicit, give them the option of taking a photo with their mobiles.
  4. 4. Monitor theory? Check your students’ notes.  This could be during monitoring or in a given time frame to see how they are getting on.  Students notoriously make copying errors even at advanced levels or use language incorrectly in context.  This personalised attention from the teacher can address these areas and also open a dialogue for communication by asking questions that might motivate the student to respond.  In my experience, regardless of their feelings about keeping notes or writing in general, learners appreciate it.  It shows we care about them and their progress.
  5. Revision rules. Teach healthy “little and often” revision habits.  In his webinar “Word Perfect:  the importance of recycling in vocab teaching”, Dave Spencer proposes 5 steps to total recall:

Learners should be given strategies to help them remember, where possible linking them to their own personal experience or knowledge and allowing them to make as many mental connections with the material as possible.  Encouraging students to look at their notes after they’ve got their tools out and are waiting for the teacher is a great use of time or as an activity for early finishers in actual class time.  If nothing else, we might inadvertently be able to positively influence our students’ time management skills.

Time-consuming?  Perhaps.  Simple & effective?  Almost certainly.  If you teach young learners, parents expect to see visual evidence of what their children did in class and seeing correction or comments is looked upon as a mark of care and professionalism.  Why should this be so different with older students?  It may not be all easy as waving a wand but when you walk into a classroom to find your students with their materials out revising their notes, ready to learn – now that’s magic!

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