Enlivening the Board

Sarah Withee offers advice on using interactive whiteboards for communicative language teaching

In many language classrooms, a computer and data projector are standard equipment, enabling instructors to bring images, sound, and video into their classes. These are invaluable resources for language learning, placing language in the context in which it is actually spoken. Students can more easily learn to use their target language in culturally appropriate ways, a task which is far more difficult when working with the often-decontextualized language presented in textbooks.

Wonderful as this technology is, it is lacking one important feature — interactivity. For example, an instructor might want to annotate part of an image on a website with its name in the target language, but that’s not possible with just a computer and a projector. Or an instructor might like students to highlight particular words in a newspaper article found on the web so they can then analyze differences in usage. Once again, this not a task that can be accomplished with a computer and projector setup, though it is something we can do quickly and easily with older media such as paper and overhead projectors. Interactive whiteboards combine the best features of the old and new technologies — an image of the computer’s screen is projected onto a whiteboard (an actual whiteboard in the case of the MimioTeach, or a proprietary whiteboard in the case of the SMARTBoard™) where people can then interact with the projected image using a dedicated stylus (MimioTeach) or via touch (SMARTBoard).

When people think of interactive whiteboards, the first use that often comes to mind is as a presentation tool. Indeed, the ability to annotate documents, images, and web pages in a way that can easily be seen by everyone in the class is a definite improvement over a computer and data projector alone. Using the bundled software to save these annotations and refer to them later is an additional bonus. But this sort of presentational use only scratches the surface of the possibilities for using the interactive whiteboard in the communicative language classroom.

With properly designed activities, an interactive whiteboard can be a valuable tool for learning and practicing vocabulary, teaching reading strategies, and facilitating pair and small group conversational interactions. Here are a few examples of such activities:

Vocabulary Activities

Introducing and practicing new vocabulary words
In this activity, designed for a Japanese conversation group at a public library, students practice color words and learn category words describing various kinds of foods, as well as the specific names of several food items. The activities were created using the Notebook software that came bundled with the MimioTeach interactive whiteboard.
Groups are chosen at random to complete the activity on each screen. In the first activity, students need to unscramble the words naming various colors. In the second activity, students need to drag sentences from a sentence bank on the right side of the screen next to the picture they describe. These sentences use the color words from the previous activity and introduce the words for fruit, vegetable, fish, and tea. In the third activity, students drag pictures of particular food items to the correct category heading (fruit, vegetable, fish, tea). The lesson is sequenced so that information from the previous activity is necessary to complete the current activity. This encourages each group to pay attention to the current activity even if they are not interacting with the board, because they might be called on to complete the next activity and therefore need the information provided in the current one.

This activity concludes with a crossword puzzle, where the instructor begins by writing one of the vocabulary words (food names, colors, food categories) to be practiced on the board. Students in each group then write other related vocabulary words connected in crossword puzzle fashion. At the conclusion of this activity, the instructor can save the completed crossword puzzle, send it to students, and then assign as homework the writing of clues for the puzzle.

Scrabble is a popular crossword puzzle game, and it can easily be adapted into a pair/group activity for the foreign language classroom. Templates for Scrabble game boards using SMARTNotebookTM software are available through SMARTBoard’s Smart Exchange website at http://exchange.smarttech.com/#tab=0, and with a little effort, can be customized for languages other than English.

In order to play Scrabble as a class, the teacher first needs to create (or obtain) physical Scrabble letters that will be handed out to each group. The instructor divides the students into pairs or groups, depending on the size of the class, gives each group seven letters, and establishes the order of play. The groups discuss what words they should play, and each group sends a representative to the board to play their selected words by dragging letters into the appropriate location. This activity is a good way to review vocabulary while at the same time allowing students to practice conversational skills including making suggestions, agreeing, and disagreeing. While it would be possible to play this game without the interactive whiteboard in a small class, in larger classes, the interactive whiteboard is essential because it makes it possible for all students in the class to see and easily interact with the game board.

Reading strategies
At Colorado College, interactive whiteboards have become an integral part of our reading strategies curriculum for elementary Japanese students. In learning to read in any language, instruction in reading strategies can help students improve their reading skills, and strategies instruction is particularly important in languages like Japanese, where learning the writing system presents significant challenges to students accustomed to alphabetic languages. Reading strategies include accessing students’ pre-existing knowledge of a topic, predicting what will appear in an article by looking at its title and visuals, and guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words from context. An interactive whiteboard can serve as a useful part of a reading strategies lesson by 1) enabling students to mark up a reading selection so that everyone in the class can see it, and 2) providing a report-back mechanism for small groups that can be used to facilitate discussion between different groups.

In one activity from our beginning Japanese reading strategies curriculum, students in small groups sort pictures from the folktale The Struggle between the Crab and the Monkey into the order they think they appear in the story. Then, a representative of one group comes to the board and, using the SMARTNotebook file we created for this activity, drags the pictures into the order they decided. The student then explains why their group chose that sequence. The teacher asks the other groups if they agree, and if another group has a different order, that group sends a representative to the board to rearrange the pictures and explain why they chose the order they did.

The interactive whiteboard makes it possible to do a report-back using pictures and words, rather than relying on words alone. This makes it particularly advantageous for novice language learners, but it can also be useful at higher levels of language study. In addition, because the interactive whiteboard makes it easy for each group to show the rest of the class (and the teacher) what it thinks, 1) the teacher can quickly determine if there were any misunderstandings and address them, and 2) discussions between groups can be conducted more easily because each group can see the other groups’ report-backs.

In another activity, beginning Japanese students are asked to imagine that they are doing a home stay in Japan, and need to select appropriate gifts for the host family they will visit. In small groups, they scan a text for specific pieces of information about the family members that will help them decide on appropriate gifts. They highlight people’s names and ages in one color, the text that is the description of the person’s work or grade in school in another color, and other Chinese characters (kanji — the logographic Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system) that they recognize in a third color.

After they complete this activity, a representative from one of the groups comes to the board and highlights what their group thought were people’s names and ages. The other groups then have the opportunity to agree or disagree with the first group’s analysis. A representative from the second group comes to the board to highlight descriptions of people’s work or grade and school in a different color, and a third group highlights Chinese characters that they recognize. Using the interactive whiteboard for this activity enables the instructor to see whether each group understood the tasks they were asked to do, and facilitates discussion between groups by making it easy for each group to see what the other groups did in their analysis.

Discussion Activities

Seasonal Greetings
In the third year Japanese class at Colorado College last year, one of the subjects of study was the seasonal greetings used in formal Japanese letter writing. It is customary to open one’s letter with a set phrase referring to the month and season. Because the Japanese imported their system for calculating the seasons from China, which has a very different climate from that of Japan, the seasonal greetings often reference the fact that the weather at a particular time is not what one would expect for the season.

Seasonal greetings present a challenge for English speakers learning Japanese. The seasons do not correspond with the way that we reckon seasons on the western calendar, and in addition, particular plants and foods that Westerners are not familiar with are important seasonal symbols.

When introducing this material in our class, we used an interactive whiteboard exercise where students read seasonal greetings, discussed in small groups which month they thought each greeting belonged to, and then shared their guesses with the other groups by going to the board and dragging the greetings to what they thought was the correct month. In addition, using an interactive whiteboard enabled the instructor to write the pronunciations of unfamiliar Chinese characters where everyone could see them, and drag seasonal greetings to the correct month if students’ guesses turned out to be incorrect.

Most of the above activities were created at Colorado College by me and our lab student workforce, using the software that comes bundled with the interactive whiteboard. Actual construction of the lesson files (drawing images, finding appropriate photos, arranging everything on the page) took between 45 minutes to three hours. Instructional design time is a bit harder to measure. However, assuming an instructor is well-versed in communicative methodologies and has had practice designing and running pair and group activities not involving technology, lesson design should not take a great deal of time, especially since instructors may be adapting existing lessons to take advantage of the interactive whiteboard’s capabilities rather than constructing new ones from scratch.

One of the challenges of working with an interactive whiteboard such as the SMARTBoard or MimioTeach is that most models are not multitouch enabled so only one student can interact with the board at a time. Therefore, activities need to be designed to keep students’ attention even when they are not interacting with the board. Using the board as part of pair and small group discussions is one way of doing that. Another way is to sequence activities so that information from the current activity is needed to complete the next activity, as seen in the food and color vocabulary activity.

Another issue can be the technology itself. The bundled software may crash, taking your lesson with it. Somebody bumps into your projector and your board is no longer in alignment, so that when someone tries interacting with the board, they are moving objects three inches above where they are actually touching the board. A previous user of the lab unplugged the cable connecting the interactive whiteboard to the computer and when you begin your lesson, nothing happens when students touch the whiteboard. When a student drags an object, it disappears behind other objects. All of these things are easily fixed, but only if you have familiarized yourself with the technology and have rehearsed how to handle each type of malfunction. Also, when you are getting started with your interactive whiteboard, plan to do only one or two short activities per class. Increase that number only once you have learned the quirks of your particular device and are comfortable working around them.

The interactive whiteboard combines the best features of old and new technologies. It enables users to mark up images and documents projected onto the board, making those annotations easily visible to everyone in the class. Annotations can be saved and referred to later, and unlike a photo taken of whiteboard notes, interactive whiteboard annotations can be edited quickly and easily with the bundled software.

Used in the right way, an interactive whiteboard can be an invaluable part of small group activities. It makes it possible to change games designed for individual players into group activities by turning the whiteboard into a game board visible to everyone in the class. In addition, by providing 1) a variety of report-back methods not available with traditional whiteboards, such as arranging pictures, and 2) an easily-visible space for group report-backs, it facilitates assessment of student learning as it is happening and encouragement of conversations between groups.

As the name suggests, the interactive whiteboard brings interactivity to the images, sounds, and videos brought into a language class by a computer and data projector. It opens up a whole new dimension for classroom language learning activities. While we are unlikely to see an interactive whiteboard in every language classroom any time soon, it is a technology tool that administrators should consider adding to at least some of their language classrooms, and that teachers should consider integrating into some of their teaching activities.

Sarah Withee works as an instructional technologist at Colorado College. She has a BA in Russian Studies from Brown University and an MA in Teaching Japanese from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This article was adapted from a workshop given at the International Association for Language Learning Technology conference held at the University of California Irvine June 21 2011.