Pilgrims HomeContentsEditorialMarjor ArticleJokesShort ArticleIdeas from the CorporaLesson OutlinesStudent VoicesPublicationsAn Old ExercisePilgrims Course OutlineReaders LettersPrevious EditionsLindstromberg ColumnTeacher Resource Books Preview

Copyright Information

Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? You can by joining the free mailing list today.


Humanising Language Teaching
Year 4; Issue 2; March 02

Seth Column

Chalkboards vs computers in the language classroom

Seth Lindstromberg

Sometimes against the grain Chalkboards vs computers in the language classroom Seth Lindstromberg

Note: Apologies for the number of distracting typographical errors in my piece on diversity (January); it didn’t get edited.

1 From a local newspaper in England (Metro, 1.10.2002, p. 16, by Wendy Vukosa)

“The classroom of the future?

“Gone are the blackboards, the wooden desks and the textbooks. In their place are open-plan study areas, bursting with everything from palmtops to plasma screens. This is…the government’s multi-billion pound vision…Computers would take over many roles of teachers, allowing pupils to work at their own pace in ‘self-directed learning…”

2 Imagine two classrooms

The first has computer stations lining the walls all around the room. Or maybe every participant has a laptop or similar. Also, we can make this room look as good as we like. Let’s give it wide chestnut floorboards of silken sheen (they don’t even creak) or, if you prefer, the best carpets you can imagine. The walls (or what we can see apart from any computer stations) are oak paneled… or decoratively plastered. The ceiling too is just as we’d like it. The lighting is state of the art, with plenty of natural light during the day. The hardware and software are the best obtainable. Seating and computers for 35? Why not! Let’s make everything comfy and classy. High speed phone lines? But of course!. What else might be useful? Projector and screen? Let’s get’em. A microphone? Sure. Whatever gadget and appliance we like, we can have it.

Compare this with another room. Two entire walls are nothing but chalkboard (preferably green but black if necessary) from hip-height to as high as someone tall can reach. The other two walls look much the same except for a door and a few windows--high and wide and openable. There are some chairs we can easily move around and some small tables we can stack one on top of the other sort of like paper cups so they don’t always need to take up a lot of space. A couple of power points would be nice in case we did want to use video/DVD or a cassette/CD player. Let the ceiling be fairly high—four meters, say. The lights are not harshly fluorescent. There is a goodly supply of chalk. There is nothing else. No OHP screen. No podium. No mike. The floor is nothing special; no carpet though. The chairs are nothing special either. They are sturdy without being heavy and just comfortable enough.

Imagine standing in this last room. Imagine looking around. Pretty spartan. Not much to attract a burglar at the moment.

Concerning the two rooms, let’s make everything else equal. They are both, for instance, equally well heated and if one has air-conditioning, the other does too.

If I suppose that one of these rooms is going to be the venue of a general English class of any size up to 35, I would take the second room without a second thought. And if I had the first room…and couldn’t get the second any other way…I would sell off the computers so I could get money for decent chalkboards, books and reproductions of paintings.

I imagine one could fill quite a long book with ideas for using extensive board space. Below I give just a few. Most of them are vocabulary review activities but that’s just because I’ve been thinking about such things lately.

3 Example activities

A. Moving review

This is a variation of an idea of Tessa Woodward’s (Planning from Lesson to Lesson, Longman, 1995--p.65)

  1. Form the class into 3, 6, 9 or 12 groups of more or less equal size. Each group stands by a part of the board. That’s their territory. Give each group a letter (or number) so that, for instance, one group is ‘A’, the next is ‘B’, the next is ‘C’, the next is ‘A’, then ‘B’, then ‘C’, and so on.
  2. Say that you are going to call out a category for all the A groups, a different one for the B groups and a third one for the C groups. Of course you’ll need to explain this. Here’s an example. If you give the A groups the category ‘containers’, then each A group writes on their part of the board as many container words as they can think of (e.g., box, can, suitcase, pencil case, pocket, skull…)
  3. Call out the three categories. Here are some more examples—‘New vocabulary from the story about _____’, ‘Very small things’, ‘Things with shells’, ‘Words beginning with inter-‘, ‘Words ending with –able’, ‘Different ways of beginning a suggestion’, ‘Things commonly found in a fridge’, ‘Parts of the body’, ‘European languages’, ‘African countries’, ‘Metals’, ‘Planets’, ‘Words relating in some way to coffee’, ‘Adjectives for desirable qualities in a friend’, ‘Materials’, ‘Shops’, ‘Jobs’, ‘Internal organs’, ‘Three syllable words’, ‘True sentences with have’, ‘True statements about the moon’, ‘True passive statements’, ‘Short questions with do/does/did in them that the president/prime minister could or should answer’, ‘words which include the /æ/ vowel’, etc.
  4. After a couple of minutes, ask each group to move one place to the right (or left). Now everyone is standing in front of a different list for a different category. The job of each group now is to add as much as they can to this new list. (For example, the A groups are now in front of B groups’ lists. They have to add more similar items.)
  5. After a couple of minutes, ask everyone to move right (or left) again. Again each group is in front of a new kind of list. Again their job is to add to it.
  6. After a decent interval, ask everyone to move one place back towards their starting point. (That is, if they moved right the first two times, now they move left.)
  7. Groups see what has been added to that list since they last looked at it.
  8. After you have dealt with any questions, ask groups to move back to their starting point and again see what has been added to their original list.

    Optional extension

  9. Call on an A group. Taking turns, its members read out the items on their list. People in other A groups cross off from their lists any items they hear mentioned by the group that is speaking.
  10. When that A group has finished, call on another A group and ask them to tell everyone one what is on their list that the first group didn’t mention. They remaining A groups continue to cross off from their list anything they hear.
  11. Ask the remaining A groups to say what items they have remaining on their lists.
  12. Do the same with the B and C groups.


This activity can be varied in a number of ways. For example,

  • It can be done not in groups but in pairs or individually.
  • Create A, B, C and D groups.
    1. Form groups/pairs, but don’t letter or number them. As before, each group has an area. Someone in each group draws a cross on the board like this +, with the horizontal line being a little more than shoulder-wide and the other line about the same. Name a category (e.g., ‘car parts’). The people in each group have a minute or so to write as many car part nouns as they can into one quadrant of the cross. Call out another category (e.g., ‘farm animals’), Now, without moving, they put as many nouns as they can remember in another quadrant. Call out another category (e.g., ‘Phrasal verbs we’ve learned in the last two weeks’). This vocabulary goes in a different quadrant. Deal with the fourth quadrant similarly.
    2. Now each group moves one place to the right and stands in front of their neighbors’ four lists. They try to add as many items as they can to each of them. For example, they may recall that they had put steering wheel on their first list but see that it is missing from the new list; so they add it. After about a minute and a half, tell each group to move another place to the right and do the same thing. After maybe two minutes ask each group to move back to the area they started from and see what has been added to what they wrote originally.
  • As a variation, ask each group to draw just a vertical line and give them only two vocabulary categories. Or call out three categories, etc..
  • Just for fun, have groups always move two places to the right (or left); or two to the right and three to the left and four to the right, or whatever, just so long as things don’t get too confusing.

B Strategies’ categories competition game.

I believe this activity is based closely on one described in one of the old Strategies coursebooks (Brian Abbs and Ingrid Fairbairn. Longman). It might be difficult to do with a class larger than 32 or so.


  • Choose categories to review. For each category, decide on a number of items students have to remember. If you chose five categories to review, the result might be this—
    (1st category) ‘four words ending in “m”’, (2nd)‘five sub-Saharan African countries’, (3rd) ‘six crimes’, (4th) ‘three kinds of scientist’, (5th) ‘four verbs that can be followed by on’.
  • You will need to divide your class into 2 to 4 (or 5?) teams of up to seven students. So, choose a wall and draw vertical lines such that each team has a column at least shoulder-wide. Divide the columns into boxes by drawing horizontal lines across the vertical ones. The boxes should be large enough to accommodate all the words that students are going to be writing in them.
  • Write your category descriptions on a part of the board that everyone will be able to see but then cover them with sheets from a newspaper stuck on with tape or some such thing.


  1. Form the teams and have them move all furniture away from the wall they are going to be writing on.
  2. Each team lines up, single file, facing their column. Give the first person in each line a piece of chalk.
  3. Explain the rules and the object of the game.
    • The first person in each line goes to the board and writes one word (or phrase) in one, and only one, box—but s/he can choose which box.
    • This person (person A) then hands the chalk to the person who was behind them (person B). Person A goes to the end of the line, Person B goes to the board and writes another word in the same box or in a different one. B hands the chalk to C and so on until two teams have filled all their boxes.
    • The winner is the first team that finished, unless that team made lots of mistakes. In that case, declare the second team sole or co-winner, if its members made fewer mistakes.


If it is not possible to display the categories where everyone can see them, appoint a ‘director’ for each team. Each director has a copy of the categories (plus the number of items needed for each). The director’s job is to keep shouting out what should go in which box. In this case, the various columns should be fairly far apart in order to provide each director with a place to stand out of any other team’s way. The activity is much noisier and livelier if you do it this way.

C Alphabetical review

  1. Starting in one corner of the room, write the alphabet along the top rim of the board leaving as much space between the letters as possible. (Get some students to help you.)
  2. Divide the class into two teams and allot one team the letters A through L and the other, M through Z (i.e., 12 letters vs 14 to make up for the fact that relatively few words start with Q. X, Y, Z.)
  3. Tell the teams that, within a time limit (5-7 minutes or so), they should (1) write on the board all the words they can think of within a named category. (2) The words should go under the appropriate letter—e.g., appetite under ‘A’. Suitable categories depend on the level. For beginners, it can be just ‘all the words you know’. At elementary level, ‘all the nouns you know’. At intermediate level, ‘all the verbs of motion you know’ or ‘all the content words you can remember from the story you read the day before yesterday’. (The basic idea is endlessly variable.)

D. Trigger words

This idea comes from Alternatives (Richard and Marjorie Baudains, 1990. Longman—p.29-30).

  1. On one area of the board write from 10 to 13 or so items of target vocabulary (words or very short phrases).
    • If you want to use this activity for pre-teaching vocabulary, you can write them up, but do so in a scatter pattern, not in neat rows and columns. Also, vary the type of lettering. Be as graphically creative as you can.
    • If you want to use this activity to help students remember vocabulary that was in a text they just read or heard and which they have already looked up or had explained to them, then invite students to go to one area of the board and write up (also in a scatter pattern) any new vocabulary they think they might forget.
  2. On another area of the board (the ‘trigger word’ area) write either an example, association or a collocate for each of the words written up in the first area.
    • If you are short of time, do this yourself. For instance, if one of the target items is insult write up Carrot nose! as a trigger [example]. If another target word is haze, write up the trigger really red sunset [association]. If one is rely, write up on your friends [collocate].
    • If you have ample time, first make sure each target item is understood and then elicit triggers from your students (especially if they are good intermediate or up)..
  3. Explain (or, better yet, elicit an explanation of) the connection between target and trigger items. For example, “If you say ‘Carrot nose’ to someone with a long nose, that’s an insult.” “If there’s a haze, you may see a really red sunset.” “If your friends are real friends, you can rely on them.”, etc.
  4. Point to each target item and see if anyone can call out the trigger without looking at any notes. (Or get a student to do the pointing.)
  5. Now review by pointing to the trigger items.
  6. In pairs, students try to remember with target item goes with which trigger item (again without looking at their notes).
  7. Erase all the triggers and form the class into five or six groups. Each group goes to a different part of the board and tries to recreate what you just erased.
  8. If you really want to help students remember the target items, now erase them. Group members try to remember them by looking at their lists of triggers.

Further review

  1. In a latter lesson, form the class into four groups, A, B, C, D. A and B go to one side of the room and C and D to another side. Each group has its own area.
  2. Groups A and C write up all the target items they can remember while B and D do the same but for the triggers. Encourage the groups to spy on each other.
  3. Tell A and B to swap places and add anything they can to the list in front of them.. Ditto C and D.
  4. Everyone sits down and looks at what’s on the board.

One advantage of this way of working is that it is much easier to think of an example, a collocate or an association for a target item than it is to think of a good synonym.

E. Public talk notes

For this, each student needs a section of the board about a meter wide.

  1. Form your class into groups of four or five. (Try to make sure there is at least one person in each group who has some idea of how to write helpful notes for a talk.
  2. Each student (not each group) chooses a topic or is given one (by you or by another student).
  3. Students go to the board and make notes for a short talk on their topic. (Group members should be side by side.) You may want to stipulate the form these notes should take—e.g., mind map form.
  4. When most of the members of a group finish, they circulate (within their group) adding notes into each other’s mind maps (or lists of points or whatever). Encourage them also to look at notes outside their own group (but these they should not add to).
  5. Students return to their own notes. They can erase some (but not all) of what has been added, add something new, and/or restructure their own notes in light of what they have seen while circulating. [The idea is that poor note takers will try for a higher standard than they would have if they had not seen what others were doing.]
  6. Using their revised notes, students give their talks. (In a large class, the talks go on in different groups simultaneously.) Students can either give their talks while standing by their notes on the board. Or students can copy their notes onto paper and go sit down somewhere with other members of the same group.


Most people (not just students) are lousy at note taking. This is a way of helping bad note takers not only to see how bad they are but also to see how they might do things better. The assumption is that at least a few of your students are a good deal than the rest in this area.

F. Pronunciation—discrimination games

I learned this from a teacher who lives, I think, in South America. Alas, I can’t remember her name.


  • One the board write a dozen or more minimal pairs—that is, pairs of words, phrases or sentences such that one differs from the other by only one sound or only by stress pattern. The following are all minimal pairs-- cap/cup, cap/cab, pup/pub, bay/pay, ring/rim, Who saw you?/Who saw you?!, Mary had two whiskies./Mary had two whiskies, I do it/I’ll do it.
  • Do not write the pairs in neat columns and rows. Instead, spread them at random, all jumbled up, over a large area of one board.
  • Don’t write the two members of any minimal pair too close together. For example, raise/race should be at least a meter apart.
  • Of course, choose pairs which exemplify features of pronunciation which (some of) your students have been finding problematic—e.g., for Spanish speakers crush and crash; for German speakers, dog and dock; for Japanese speakers, walk and work..


  1. Form the class into from two to four teams.
  2. Each team lines up facing the board in single file.
  3. Explain the rule and the scoring.
    • You will call out one of the items on the board.
    • The first person in each line must try to be the first to run to that item and slap it.
    • The first person to slap the correct item wins a point for her/his team.
    • People who were first in their line now go to the end and the procedure is repeated.

G Public dictogloss

In pairs or threes, students stand at the board, each mini-group having its own area about a meter wide. Of course, everyone has chalk. Now begin your dictogloss (also known as a ‘dictocomp’ or ‘dictation-composition’. See Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri.(Dictation. Cambridge University Press) if you don’t know how to do a dictogloss. Or perhaps you can find this activity described somewhere on the web.


The fact that the notes and texts are up for all to see makes it easier for ‘cross learning’ to take place.

H What else?

Lots. If you are lucky enough to have a big board, the ideas just keep coming… especially once you realize and learn to appreciate the extent to which vast board space democratizes access to the principle ‘plenary’ writing surface.

A couple of details. Anything you can put on a bulletin board you can put on a chalkboard (but not vice versa). So, in addition to saving money by not buying computers we can save money by not buying bulletin boards, pins and tacks. As for whiteboards, one drawback is that big ones are really expensive; another is that the markers are expensive and they don’t last very long.)

4 Conclusion

I haven’t given more examples because, unfortunately, relatively few classrooms have a decent amount of board space. I think this is true pretty much around the world although is apparently truest for classrooms in developed countries. Personally, I wouldn’t spend a cent or a penny on computers until every language classroom had a decent amount of board space. And what if all language classrooms were like the one I have been extolling? Where would the computers go if or when we got them? By all means have a computer room, buy not the library, please, if it means getting rid of any books and a place to read them.

Basically, anyone wishing to learn how to converse, is much better off being with a group of other people than they are sitting in front of a computer. Also, it is not clear that use of a computer is going to help anyone learn how to write (as opposed to type) which really does come in handy sometimes. And lots of board provides lots of reasons to get up and move a bit.

What about self-directed learning? My experience suggests that there are relatively few people who are both capable of and interested in learning a non-local language in a wholly self-directed fashion. A few such people exist. I have met some, but so few that after 23 years of teaching and nearly 50 years of bumping into language learners in all kinds of situations, I think I remember almost all of them. For most of the rest…and even for these few independents in the initial stages of learning…a knowledgeably facilitated group experience is hard to beat. And this experience can be greatly enhanced with decent chalkboards.

I mentioned to our editor (Mario Rinvolucri) that I might invite readers to send in more ideas for using a chalkboard or whiteboard so that they could be posted up. He seemed to like the idea.

A source of basic ideas Dobbs, Jeanine. 2001. Using the Board in the Language Classroom. Cambridge U. Press.

Back to the top