A Peek in the Toolkit


The other day I sent in my third writing assignment for the methodology unit of the dipTESOL.  I was supposed to write about the, “three teaching aids you regard as most important in your teaching.”

But I have a confession to make.  You see, I was, and am still, rather unclear on what exactly constitutes a teaching aid.  According to British Council’s English Online Teachers, a teaching aid is, “any piece of equipment that can be used to help the students learn.” Examples of teaching aids include: the blackboard, a tape recorder, a CD player, computers or a language laboratory.  Which seems to imply that a teaching aid is not language content, but a tool which helps in the delivery of content to students.  I would be perfectly happy with this definition if not for the fact that the other week I read an article by Brian Thomlinson (2011, p. 2) in which he defines language learning materials as, “anything which is deliberately used to increase the learner’s knowledge and or experience of the language,” before providing a list which includes: photos, newspapers, food packages, and videos.  It is the inclusion of photos in the list which has left me perplexed.  The photos are themselves not language.  In fact, any language the students will be exposed to through the pictures must be generated by either themselves or the teacher.  Then, to make matters worse (or better, depending on your perspective), I decided to ask my personal learning network what teaching aids they considered a necessity, and received replies that ranged from @JosetteLB’s ‘my cow-bell’ to ‘kitchen-timers’ and @samsheps’ ‘other students’ to @thelanguagepoints’s ‘post-it notes’.

So is a kitchen timer a teaching aid or a classroom management tool?  Are the two things different?  And if a kitchen timer is used to exert pressure on students to perform at a level higher than usual and push students towards fluency (Nation, 1996, p. 10), could a kitchen timer somehow morph into a piece of language learning material?  In the end, I had to set aside my slightly obsessive interest in teaching aid/materials/classroom management tool terminology and get on with writing.  I did pick three teaching aids, but want to focus on just one of them in this blog post.

Whiteboard Markers  

In Japan, class whiteboards come with a set of three colored whiteboard markers: black, blue and red.  In classes such as history or social studies, these colors code for level of importance of the materials written on the board.  Black is for ordinary content which the teacher expects the students to remember, blue is for key concepts or general points which can help students frame their note taking and are of higher importance than black.  Red is a warning to remember at all costs.  Students have a similar set of colored pens for note taking.  Over the years, I’ve come to rely upon my set of three colored markers and like the Japanese teachers use them first and foremost to draw students’ attention to the board, specifically to certain aspects of language, which is particularly important as attention is most likely the “necessary and sufficient condition for encoding a stimulus into long-term memory.” (Schimdt, 1993).

When teaching beginning level learners, I rely on my set of three whiteboard markers to help students learn about the similarities and difference in English and Japanese spoken language structure.  Each language has its own strategies for aural decoding and these strategies are often only partially acquired by the L2 learner (Rost, 2001).  Learners who utilize strategies for listening to Japanese and apply them to English face particular problems when it comes to segmenting words.  Luckily, over 90% of words in spoken English are likely to begin with a strong syllable (Cutler, 1987) and focusing on strong syllables as the main cue of segmentation is likely to help students develop the skills they need to better hear individual words when listening to English (Field, 2003, p.329).

I use the blue marker to represent pauses in language and red to mark for stress.  Because I want students to be focusing on form (meaning is of secondary importance here), I open replace words with numbers when doing these types of basic listening exercises.  So I would write up a sentence like, “Ishikawa Ryo was the most popular golfer in Japan this year,” on the white board as:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10    11

Then I can have students listen for and mark pauses in the sentence in blue, helping them adjust to the 12 syllable or so natural pauses that occur in spoken English (Field, 327).  I then take the next step and draw one small circle for each syllable of the word beneath the number.  While students are listening they can attempt to fill in the stressed syllables in red.  It can also be quite fun to play around with stress in this way, marking a sentence for stress in an unusual pattern but saying it in the right way and seeing if students can listen and correct it.  Or you can write up two stress patterns for a sentence on the board and have students listen and just try and pick the right English rhythm pattern.  And by keeping the focus on numbers, blue slashes, and red and white circles, you can make sure students aren’t getting all stressed out about if they are understanding the words or not.  In many ways this kind listening practice is simply a modification of Adrian Underhill’s (2005, p. 154-180) stress activities using Cuisenaire rods.  And like most Cuisenaire rod activities, linking sound with a colored visual representation can help students recognize patterns which might otherwise go unnoticed.

But whiteboard markers are not just good for drawing.  They make great batons.  With higher-level learners, you can use them to raise awareness around and practice phrases or speech effects used to facilitate the role of turn-taking in conversation.  This is a particularly important issue for my students here in Japan who are accustomed to the relatively long pauses that occur in conversational Japanese as well as a turn taking system that is often based on social position.  This high considerateness style (Yule, 1996, p. 76) of conversation can often feel distant or unengaged, especially if the learner is speaking with a friend or someone of the same social position.

This activity works best with authentic, recorded conversations.  I begin by writing a transcript of the conversation on the board.  The conversation is written in black, but turn-yielding sections of the conversation are written in blue and back channeling written in red.  Students listen to the conversation and are asked to explain what the words written in red and the words written in blue might mean.  Once students identify some of the salient features of turn taking, such as a drawl on a final syllable or use of phrases such as ‘you know’ and ‘or something’ to show turn-yielding (Duncan, 1972 p. 287), ‘um-hmm’ and ‘yeah, yeah’ as back-channeling and turn-refusing, it is the students’ turn to engage in a more active conversation style.  Students are paired up and given a set of three white board markers each.  As they are speaking, they are directed to pay special attention to whose turn it is and how they are signaling changes in turn.  If they want to yield a turn, they need to offer the blue whiteboard marker to their partner and attach a verbal cue as well.  If they wish to refuse a turn and are merely back channeling, they will need to be holding (and hopefully shaking) a red whiteboard marker.  If a turn is yielded and a listener becomes a speaker, the student will have to pick up a black white board marker to show it is their turn.  The physicality of this exercise really helps drive home the importance of turn taking and how verbal cues are important in maintaining a smooth conversation.

I use whiteboard markers in dozens of other ways in class (as toy microphones, sticks to tap out rhythm, juggling props), but think I’ve probably said enough about whiteboard markers for now.  Perhaps I’ll write about my #2 and #3 most important teaching aids in a future post.  But I have to say, I’m a little disheartened that after writing a 3,500 word paper and 1,500 word blog post, I’m no more certain of what exactly separates a teaching aid from materials from a classroom management tool.  Maybe James Scrivener (2005, p. 333) has made the wisest of choices by avoiding the term teaching aid entirely and opting for ‘toolkit’ instead.  Because as any do-it-yourselfer knows, a toolkit, as crammed full of things as it might be, is less about the things themselves than the ways you find to use them in any given situation.

[Special shout out to @JohnPfordresher and @AnneHendle for not only joining in the #teachingaids conversation on Twitter and mentioning it in their blogs, but helping to push the conversation in a whole different direction…and not to get all cryptic, but more on that in an upcoming post.]

Update: I just had my 10,000 hit on this blog and wanted to send out a thank you to everyone who has taken the time to visit, read and comment.  Feeling very grateful on this Thursday afternoon.


Cutler, A. & Carter, D. (1987). The predominance of strong initial syllables in the English vocabulary.  Computer Speech and Language, 2: 133-142.

Cutler, A (1997), “The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing. Speech Communication, 21: 3-15

Duncan, S. (1972). Some signals and rules for taking speaking turns in conversations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23 (2): 283-292.

Field, J. (2003).  Promoting perception: lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57 (4): 325-333.

Nation, I.S.P (1996). The Four Strands of a Language Course. TESOL in Context, 6  (2): 7-12.

Rost, M. (2001) “Listening.” In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 7-13).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning Teaching 2nd Edition. Oxford: Macmillian.

Tomlinson, B. (2011) “Introduction: principles and procedures of materials development.” In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Materials Development in Language Teaching 2nd Edition (pp. 1-31). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations. Oxford: Macmillan.

Yule, G. (1996). Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“Teaching Aids.” English Online Teachers. British Council. 17 September 2012 <http://www.englishonline.org.cn/en/teachers/teaching-articles/plan-preparation/teaching-aids&gt;


2 thoughts on “A Peek in the Toolkit

  1. Hey Kevin,Your creativity and invention never cease to amaze me. I am in amazement that you have found so many useful and productive things to do with markers! Who could have guessed they could be used so effectively to teach turn taking in conversation! HAI think the point you came to at the end is very salient. It's not so much a question of teaching aids as it is ones toolbox. As you said, something that could be a management tool could just as easily be a teaching aid if a creative enough mind (such as yourself) comes along and decides to use said aid in a different way. In the end, teaching aids or classroom management aids, our skills and abilities or students, it's ALL used to aid the students in learning. A good teacher creatively uses what's at hand, and your markers are perfect proof of that fact!Well done, as per usual!


  2. Thank you The Other Side (would you happen to be a John in Korea?)for the comment. I agree with you on the whole finding different ways to use classroom materials/aids. I once had all the kids sit on top of their desks and told them they were now perched on rooftops as the city was flooded and they had to share resources to survive until the emergency workers arrived. John Fanselow has a really interesting set of activities in his "Contrastic Conversations" to help explore your classroom environment and get a bit more creative around selecting and using materials (p. 82-87). Highly recommended.And thanks for the mention on the blog and idea for exploring nonverbal communication with my co-workers.Kevin


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