7 Simple Tips to Regaining Control of Your ESL Whiteboard

Did you ever have a teacher who you wished could use the whiteboard a little better?

You know. The guy with tiny, scrawled handwriting.

The lady with messy notes and forgotten details.

One professor comes to mind for me. He said lots of good things – important things – but never wrote any of them down on the board behind him. The one and only thing he would ever write was his name!

Then there was the one who wrote a lot, but used the board like a canvas. She’d write wherever she felt like writing or wherever there was space. If I spaced out for a second or if she was going too fast for me, it’d take me a while to figure out what I’d missed amongst the smorgasbord (pun intended) of stuff up there.

I think I still have their e-mail addresses somewhere. Maybe I should send them this post!

Here, we’ll look at some tips for managing your whiteboard well. Naturally, we’ll focus on the ESL classroom in particular, but these techniques can help anybody teaching any subject.

An Easy Guide to Effective Whiteboard Management in Your ESL Classroom

The whiteboard means something different to you and your students.

To you, the whiteboard is a visual aid. You can use it to present examples, mind-map concepts and work out ideas.

To your students, the whiteboard is a written record of the lesson’s theme or purpose and the main points covered. If something’s on the whiteboard, it’s something they know they’ll need to remember. So they’ll write it down and review it at home.

Why’s it so important to manage your whiteboard well?

If you don’t have a game plan for your whiteboard, it can turn into a complete mess. You’ll need a simple strategy to stay organized, and that’s what I aim to provide you with here. What’s most important is to keep these two perspectives in mind when using the whiteboard. Your teaching needs and your students’ learning needs both need to stay at the forefront of your mind.

If you use the whiteboard too much like a visual aid or workspace, you may not end up writing down essential vocabulary or grammar. Maybe you’ll manage to squeak in some of those grammar points, but it’ll end up not standing out amid the other notes on there.

If you use it too much like a written record of the lesson, you may end up not leaving enough space for yourself to include everything.

Using the whiteboard effectively means balancing your needs and those of your students. With that in mind, let’s look at some helpful ways to keep everyone happy during your lessons.

How to make your whiteboard look beautiful

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.

That’s a lot for such a limited space. But you can do it if you allocate specific sections for each.

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. For example, if I’m teaching a grammar-heavy lesson and I know I’ll be writing a lot of example sentences, I’ll give myself a little more space by doing a 45 – 55 split, or perhaps even a 50 – 50.

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. I may also use red to write alternatives underneath, like “She is, They are” or “Seoul, Chicago.” 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.

Best practices for using a whiteboard in class

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

These all seem like simple suggestions, but it’s amazing how these details slip through the cracks when class is in session. In the heat of the moment, organization often breaks down. Hey, we teachers are humans too!

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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