Teacher writing on a whiteboard

How to Use Whiteboards in the Classroom: 7 Awesome Tips and Activities for ESL Teachers

Whiteboards can be an extremely useful tool in the ESL classroom.

Whether you’re using the larger whiteboard at the front of the class to demonstrate, or getting your students to interact with mini whiteboards, it’s a great way to add a visual and interactive element to any class.

In this guide, I’ll show you some tips for managing your whiteboard well, as well as give you some example activities you can use with mini whiteboards to engage your students.

Contents

How to Use a Whiteboard in the Classroom

1. Section off your whiteboard into different areas

You need to keep a lot of information on your whiteboard. At the very least, you should have the following:

  • your name
  • your students’ names (unless it’s a really big class and you don’t have the space to write them all)
  • the chapter, page and/or theme for the lesson
  • the lesson’s target grammar and/or vocabulary
  • a small workspace for you to write down things that won’t need to stay up all class, like comprehension questions (for a listening or reading activity), corrections and the homework you assign.

I recommend writing your name and the lesson’s textbook chapter, page or theme at the very top. Students’ names (if you write them) can go under yours. Leave all of this information on the board throughout the lesson since you may need to refer back to it.

Under that, draw a vertical line splitting your whiteboard about 40 – 60. The 40 is for your lesson’s target grammar and vocabulary. The 60 is your workspace. Alter this as needed depending on what you’re teaching.

Having these dedicated sections on your whiteboard is the most essential step for balancing your need to use the board as a visual aid and your students’ need to see the board as a visual representation of the lesson you’re teaching. 

2. Use colors

One of the most frequent compliments I get from my ESL students is that my whiteboard notes are easy to understand. Certainly, sectioning off my whiteboard into different areas goes a long way towards that, but another thing they’ve told me that they appreciate is my use of colors.

I use three different whiteboard markers to make notes in class: a black one, a red one and a blue one. And I use each of them for different purposes.

  • The main marker is the black one. I use this one to write all of the key information for the lesson: names, chapter, theme, key grammar and vocabulary. I may also use it to draw sketches or tables when I’m presenting new language or concepts.
  • The red one is the highlighting marker. I use this one to underline key words in sentences. For example, if I’m presenting “I am from London,” I’ll underline “I am” and “London” in red to show my students that these are the parts that’ll change depending on who they’re talking about.
  • Red is also the “mistake” marker: during correction, I’ll sometimes write down what the student said in black and then use red to correct the error.
  • Finally, I use blue for temporary notes in my workspace area, like comprehension questions or corrections.

Using colored markers like this helps the students make sense of what’s on the whiteboard more easily and get what they need from it faster.

3. Write it out in print, avoid cursive

Although most ESL students have learned cursive at some point in their lives, they’re not in the habit of using it. When notes are in cursive, students will need a little extra time to read them, and the act of deciphering the cursive will distract them from their main task: taking in the new language from their lesson.

Therefore, on the whiteboard, it’s infinitely better to print – and print clearly!

Now that you’ve got these whiteboard management tips, let’s look at a few best practices to ensure your students are satisfied and motivated.

4. Keep a running list of new language taught in the lesson

Any new word, phrase or grammatical structure you teach in class should go up on the whiteboard – and stay there until the end of the lesson. Your students will want to refer to it as they practice the lesson’s key points, and you may need to refer back to it as well when correcting or setting up activities.

5. Remind your students to write things down

Some ESL students are very proactive about taking notes in class, but a lot of them aren’t. When you put something on the whiteboard, take a glance around the room to make sure your students are writing it down too. If they’re not, remind them – especially if it’s something essential to that lesson.

6. Suggest that your students take photos of the whiteboard at the end of class

I first saw a student do this after one of my classes about six years ago. When I asked him why he did it, he said it was to make sure he didn’t miss taking down anything in his own notes. He also recorded all of his lessons.

When reviewing at home, he would look back at the picture he took of the whiteboard while listening to the recording. I thought it was a really great idea and have since recommended it to my students as a way to make sure they get all of the notes from class.

7. Ask before erasing

Seems like a simple thing, but it’s an easy one for us teachers to forget when we get “in the zone.” If you need to erase anything on the board – especially something from the key language section of your whiteboard, it’s always a good practice to ask your students if it’s okay, just in case they haven’t been able to take it down themselves.

Using Mini Whiteboards in Classroom Activities

Mini whiteboards can be a great thing for students to use in ESL classrooms, and makes for a useful tool when it comes to class activities.

Here are some activities you can use with a stack of mini whiteboards:

Vocabulary review

For this activity, divide the class into small teams or pairs. Write a list of vocabulary words related to a specific theme or unit you’ve been studying on the main whiteboard.

Ask students to write sentences or definitions using the given words on their mini whiteboards within a time limit.

When time is up, have each team or pair hold up their whiteboards for you to review and correct. Award points for correct answers or well-formed sentences. Keep a tally of everyone’s scores on the main whiteboard so students can keep track of their scores.

Sentence building

Write a sentence on the board but make sure it has missing words, verb tenses, or parts of speech. Indicate the missing parts with lines.

Ask students to complete the sentence using their mini whiteboards. For example, you might write: “Yesterday, I ___ to the park with my ___.” Students then fill in the blanks with appropriate verbs and nouns.

Encourage them to be creative and use vocabulary they’ve learned in recent classes. Optionally, they can also swap whiteboards and correct each other’s sentences before sharing with the class.

Grammar race

Start by creating sentences with intentional grammatical mistakes related to a specific grammar rule (e.g., verb tense, subject-verb agreement, word order, etc.).

Have students rewrite the sentences correctly on their mini whiteboards as fast as they can.

The first student or team to finish can hold up their board, and you can review the corrections together as a class, discussing the grammar rules applied.

You can also set a specific time limit, and have all students hold up their answers at the end of the time limit, rather than racing to be the first.

 

Try out these strategies in your classroom, and check out what a huge difference it’ll make in your students’ notebooks and overall learning experiences!

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