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What is Boardwork?

Slightly overshadowed by the plethora of digital classroom tools, apps and resources, the board - black, white, green or interactive - is still the one artifact that most people associate with a classroom. In this post, we'll talk about the importance of planning boardwork, its impact on learning and learners, ideas to make it effective, and alternatives for dealing with visually impaired and blind students.

Some history

Boards have been used in education for centuries - one of the first accounts of a writing slate being used in a learning context dates back to the 11th century, as described in philosopher's Ahmad Al-Biruni's work History of India (or Taḥqīq mā li-al-Hind). But he did not describe the board as we know it - try to imagine an individual slate for each student, on which they used to write using a chalk-like piece of stone. In practical terms, this meant that the teacher needed to go from student to student writing the content of the lesson (!!!!) in every and each one of the slates.

The evolution of these individual tablets to large boards is credited to Scottish teacher and reformer James Pillans. He adopted a teaching methodology that involved a monitorial system - a popular method in the 19th century that required some learners to be "helpers", passing on the instruction to other students in class. This made the number of learners in each class increase, and teacher Pillans allegedly decided to hang a larger board in front of the students, enabling him to stand in the front, write on the board and explain the content. This became known as "chalk and talk" methodology - it catered for a mass of students, and involved less dialogue and attention from the teacher to individual learners.

For a long period of time, the technical evolution of the main classroom board reproduced the "chalk and talk" approach - regardless of the technology used (chalkboard, whiteboards, OHPs, Power Points presentations). Only recently have we seen a comeback to the "individual slate" - students are more and more, in some parts of the world, using their handheld mobile devices in classrooms.

The long lasting reign of the board as the most identifiable classroom object in the world generated the widespread (and many would say, unfair) belief that education has not evolved as much as other fields of knowledge. I'm sure most of you have seen comparisons like the ones shown in this video:

The metaphor being made is clear - I agree that many classrooms around the world still revolve around the outdated setting of the teacher providing explanations and the students passively sitting on their desks and watching. But is this the only possible use of the board?

Using the board effectively

As with any other classroom resource or material, the use of the board needs to suit an aim. Here are some possibilities:

- As a routine device. The board can be used to display relevant information such as:

- phases / activities of the lesson (particularly useful with Young Learners and Teenagers)

- emergent language / new vocabulary (some teachers save one section of the board for this purpose)

- To project instructions for activities, visual aids and model sentences of the language being worked on

- To project exercises and activities (very useful if you want to help save the planet and print fewer handouts!)

- To display the correction for activities and exercises. It's useful and time-saving to have this prepared beforehand, if possible.

- To give feedback to students and perform error correction after speaking activities.

Best practices

Keep your board organised.

This may sound silly, but practicing writing in straight lines, assessing your own handwriting and being aware of how legible the quality and size of your writing is are important aspects of board organisation. For instance, some teachers realise that it is easier for them to write using block letters rather than with cursive script. If that's the case for you, remember to differentiate between capital letters and lower case - this makes a difference in the English language!

A place for everything and everything in its place.

Consistency is everything when it comes to your board - the more systematic you are, the more you help your students to take clear and consistent notes that will help them in the future. For example, when you give students feedback, consider maintaining the same structure for every lesson. In the example below, you see a board divided in three different sections (left column for emergent language, top right for error correction, bottom right for pronunciation):

feedback board

Ensure accuracy.

You are the language model in class. Although slips occur, it is important to try to keep information and spelling accurate. Planning helps, but sometimes we are caught off-guard. If you are not sure of a collocation, grammar rule or spelling of a word, tell students you'll check and get back to them. And remember to do so!

Be green

The board is a great resource to print less, use less paper and save resources. If we can project an image on the board, why print 10 copies and hand them out to students? Of course it is not always possible to replace paper copies with a projection (i.e. in some cases of students with special education needs), but try to always bear that in mind when you plan your boardwork (By the way, if you have more ideas on how to reduce waste in the ELT classroom, you might want to get in touch with the folks from ELT Footprint)

Be aware of copyrights

Most images, activities and texts available online are protected by copyright. If you choose to use an image in class, make sure you are not infringing any copyright laws. Google can help you with that: on Google images, you can select one of the options in "Usage Rights" to know which photographs you can use without breaking copyright law (see image below). If you are choosing an image for your lesson, "Labeled for noncommercial reuse" is fine - if you are developing materials and aim to sell / make it available to more people, a different type of license might be necessary.

Some ideas for improving your boardwork

Plan in advance. Whether you write all the information yourself or bring a pre-made presentation / poster, planning how the information will be displayed is key for a successful board. When you plan, you anticipate how much space you need for each section / piece of information, you figure out if the size of the images is appropriate, you can also think about using different colours to help students understand the content (colour-coding).

Take a picture of your board. This might help you have a more objective and detached look of your work and identify areas for improvement. You can add the snapshots of your board to a professional development portfolio or teaching journal, making comments on how to improve your board skills. It is important to collect samples of different moments of the lesson (language presentation, language clarification, feedback, "improv" - that moment your students start asking questions and you really need to improvise).

As part of our weekly challenge, we've been receiving photographs of boards around the world (thanks, everyone!). They kindly let us share their boards with our readers for inspiration:

"Think, Pair, Share", Camila Ferrari teaching Very Young Learners

Vocabulary Corner (Ricardo Barros)

Emergent Language and Error Correction (Juliana Mota)

Language Presentation and clarification (Fabiana Toth)

Pronunciation of regular verbs in the past (Carolina Manoel)

Ask for feedback (from students, teachers, coordinators). Something that may be very clear for you might not be for other people. Your concept of organisation might differ from other people's (a very common reason for couple's breakups!). That's why getting somebody to see your board is so important - you may get very useful insight and identify things that your eyes can't see.

Special cases

If you have visually impaired students, you'll need to think about how to adapt your lessons - this includes all materials and, mainly, the way you use the board. Each case should be treated and thought about individually, but there are techniques and resources that can help.

A possible technique is to assign learners with the role of "audio descriptor". Audio description is the practice of adding a narrating track to films, theatre plays, museum audio guides to help blind and visually impaired people to visualise what's happening. By assigning a student with this role, you help the learner who has the special need and build a collaborative environment, fostering group cohesiveness. An added gain from this practice is raising learners' awareness of disabilities and what they can do to help.

If the student has access to a mobile device and internet, some apps can help. Raquel Ribeiro, from Informed Teachers, has written a very useful article about her experience on this topic.

I hope this post was useful. Remember to leave a comment and give us feedback and suggestions for future posts!


Andreia Zakime is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Barcelona. She is a Cambridge CELTA tutor and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?

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