by Stephen Tarbuck


I had never given much thought to board work until I worked at a school that was undergoing a British Council inspection. As part of the inspection the British Council were especially interested in board work, specifically the inclusion of a lesson aim or objective and highlighting language features.

I spent weeks trying to plan my board work to fit the inspection requirements and during this time I wondered: If we asked a group of EFL teachers to rate their board work, how would they fare? How many would rate it a mess?

When I ran workshops on good board work practice, the majority of teachers believed that overtly harsh criticism of their board work would be universal. This shouldn’t come as a surprise and I believe there is a basis for this belief: there is a lack of a standardised model for presenting information on the board, which results in an idealised, but unstructured and opaque, idea of how the board should look.

What your model of good board work is, is entirely down to your own perception and it is not my intention here to present any kind of standardised model for your board work. Instead I want to encourage you to explore your ideas about good board work practice and I would like to share what I discovered after I started planning my board work in more detail.

To do this, first I will share some ideas about the key features to include on your board and show some ideas regarding board work that came from workshops I ran for teaching teams at International House Toruń and International House Minsk. Then, I would like to offer some organisational suggestions from Harmer and Hughes alongside practical demonstrations.

Before we get into it, I would like to thank the teaching teams at IH Toruń and IH Minsk for their contributions, and Glenn Standish at IH Toruń and Lena Okulskaya at IH Minsk for the opportunity to run workshops for their teams.

Ideas From Workshops

When I started looking into resources for improving my board work I wasn’t able to find any specific reference material, instead finding isolated tips here and there in more general resources. There are some good ideas out there, but I am a little surprised by the dearth of more formalised guidance. Despite this, what I discovered had the potential to become a workshop.

I presented two workshops based on my research into the topic. During the workshops, the teachers were presented with some key features of what should be included on the board and had to think about how best to organise these features.

The key features presented were: lesson aim or programme, new/emergent language, classroom management tools, examples of target language, games, and important or relevant information, and while working with these the participants also offered a lot of ideas on the practice of board work.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The organisation and effective use of board work wasn’t covered in CELTA, so is it really a priority for new teachers?
  • Is whiteboard management still relevant given how many teachers just use the board as a screen on which to project slides - or don’t even have a board at all, since their lessons are online?
  • How much thought do we give to the physical difficulties in the use of written board work? Such as: challenges with writing, and even the height of the teacher or the student relative to the size and position of the board.
  • How motivational is it to declare in your lesson aim that the next hour or so will be devoted to the study of a grammar point? And what happens if you declare your lesson aim, only to get sidetracked and never achieve it??
  • What does good board work even mean? The effective presentation of information? Or making sure teachers have everything they need on the board?
  • Students who have difficulty with classroom instructions really benefit from seeing them written on the board, but does this deny them valuable communicative practice?

I hope you noticed that I formed the highlights as a series of questions. You can ask yourself - and your colleagues - these same questions: doing so will reveal your own ideas about board work, and will add important context to what follows.

From these highlights, two in particular caught my attention: Is a whiteboard important any more? And what is the impact on your students’ motivation when you offer a grammar topic as the lesson aim right at the start of the lesson?

The first question certainly resonated with my own experience. I tend to use slides now for the majority of my lessons, as I can prepare them once and recycle as necessary. You can’t use the same hand-written board twice, after all, and I am conscious too of the environmental impact of all those discarded whiteboard markers. That said, there will be times when you still need to use the whiteboard in the more traditional manner; if your projector breaks, or there simply isn’t one, you can’t rely on your slides to get you through the lesson.

The question of broadcasting your lesson aim is a little trickier, but much comes down to how well you know your students. It is possible to disguise a grammar aim - and in many cases you should be thinking less about the grammar that you’re teaching and more about how you wish it to be used. Broadcast its communicative context instead - and maybe even revisit how you plan your lesson so that the communicative goal is clearer!

Organisational Suggestions

The internet abounds with advice on how to manage your whiteboard. There’s some good stuff out there, but much of it is contradictory; one otherwise good article that I found seemed to imagine the whiteboard as having a surface area roughly equivalent to London for all the different things the writer wanted you to do with the space. I didn’t find much by any of the usual EFL authorities either, but there were some suggestions from the works of Harmer and Hughes that are useful and I’d like to consider how you might use some of the key features of board work, previously mentioned, with them.

Let’s start with the lesson aim/outcomes or programme, however, you phrase it. One suggestion, from Hughes (2014) is to put the lesson's programme in the left-hand column, and I’ve found some merit to this.

When we put the aim on the left of the board we can put it in a convenient corner to start telling students about the lesson objectives. When that is done, the aim stays there, in an unobstructive position, for us to refer back to as required, while we move towards the centre of the board and the main language aim. This makes logical sense - we write from left to right, and in most Western cultures we look from left to right as well. Whether the same benefits apply to left-handed teachers is another matter, though.

Another suggestion is to draw a column on the right side of the board and reserve that for new words (Harmer, 2009). New - or emergent - lexis is rarely the declared focus of the lesson and, like with a lesson aim in the corner, if we put these new words at the side of the board they are separated from the main material and also don’t distract from the main lesson material.

If we follow the above suggestions then the left and right sides of the board are occupied, which leaves the middle vacant. Harmer (2009) suggests using the middle of the board for grammar explanations or games, which from an organisational perspective makes sense, after all this is a central location which all the students should be able to see.

These suggestions are hardly revolutionary for a teacher with a little experience and seem very obvious, but I’ve been experimenting with them and the key features of board work and have some pictures of this in practice.

In this first picture, I’ve put the lesson aim and classroom management tool on the left and important information progressing along the top right. In the top right-hand corner is the homework and under this there is a column for emergent language. In the middle, I have included some prompts leading into our lesson aim.

In the next picture, I’ve put the lesson aim in the top right-hand corner and phrased it in a student-centred way. I’ve also kept the important information along the top right, including homework, along with a column for emergent language.

In the middle, starting from the left I have included information that students need to know (the names and genders of the people they are writing to) and scaffolding prompts (which include common errors for students to notice and correct) in the middle, to guide students towards producing their postcard.


From the workshops, I noted that teachers don’t consider planning board work a priority, which is perfectly understandable, as it is a small part of a lesson plan, and I can’t deny that since writing this I have moved onto an even heavier use of presentation slides.

Despite this, I encourage you to explore some of the ideas presented here and to experiment with your board work. You might find it worth considering what the key pieces of information are that you want to include and how you might organise them.
I believe this exploration could also have the benefit of helping you to develop a consistent model of how you organise and present your information. This consistency of presentation would be useful for three reasons.

First, students already have a lot of processing to do when learning English and we can reduce this cognitive workload by presenting key language features in an organised and predictable manner - you will likely have noticed how the majority of coursebooks adopt the same approach, and there’s good reason for this.

The predictability of the model helps your students to encounter new information, and saves them time trying to decipher any inspired squiggles we may produce. Instead the information is presented in a consistent way and students can focus on the language, not our creative notes.

Finally, a model will help save your planning time. If you think of your lesson in terms of filling in the various sections of the whiteboard, you’ll know to remember your lesson aim, how to use the space available for language presentations, and to keep a look out for emergent language. A template can serve as a memory aid , just as having a template for the slides you use can speed up the process of lesson preparation for those more keen on a technological solution.

And finally, I want to come back to this idea of having everything in slide form. While this undoubtedly can make life easier for the teacher, it comes with a cost. Look back at our examples of good whiteboard management, and how the lesson aim is ever-present, and how there is always space for emergent language. Can you say the same with your PowerPoint slides? Did you remember to keep some of the slides blank so that you’d be able to note emergent language, or carry out effective error correction without having to close your slideshow?

In short, thinking about how we manage our whiteboards is important, because regardless of how we prefer to share material in our lessons, the organization and presentation of our material are supremely important.


Harmer, J, 2007. The Practice of English Language Teaching, Fourth Edition.

Hughes, J, 2014. ETpedia, 1000 ideas for English Language Teachers.

Author Biography

Stephen Tarbuck is an EFL teacher based in Poland who is currently teaching at International House Toruń. Outside of the classroom he enjoys writing articles about TEFL and is currently working on new articles for 2024. You can follow his TEFL ideas at his blog.