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When we discuss the use of interactive whiteboards in education, we often assume that the mere use of interactive technologies will ensure that classroom teaching and learning will also become somehow "interactive." This might mean physical activity on the part of learners - as in Dewey and Bruner's learning by doing, or Asher's Total Physical Response - but in the second language classroom, we more naturally think of interaction in the target language. So we might expect that using an interactive whiteboard should promote interaction in terms of communication between the teacher and learners, and among learners.
Communicative language teaching (CLT), involving meaningful use of language, and task-based language teaching (TBLT) are, of course, the main current approaches to second language teaching and learning, and so it is helpful to see examples of classroom activities where the IWB is used to support spontaneous, unplanned communication in authentic contexts. However, this type of communication is not always possible or indeed desirable at all stages of proficiency and in all phases of a lesson or longer teaching unit. In the following examples, we can see the IWB being used to support different types of language interaction, from the practice of decontextualised language elements in order to focus on pronunciation or grammar, through more open-ended activities, to genuine communication in the target language.
Practicing language forms
These French primary EFL learners listen to the teacher pronounce the names of the school objects which they drag out of the schoolbag on the IWB. The teacher elicits choral repetition of each item, and reviews them in turn several times.
The IWB allows the learners a measure of physical movement during the activity, while the images are bright and clear enough for learners immediately to identify the meanings of the new words they are learning.
These lower secondary EFL learners listen to recordings of their own short dialogues to identify which of three transcriptions corresponds to what they hear. While the teacher has created a context for learning by having the learners talk about their own daily routines, this particular activity does not involve communicative language use, but instead focuses on the language forms in isolation. The teacher's goal is close listening in order to focus on linguistic errors. The board acts as a digital hub keeping text and audio files to hand, and the highlighter allows the learner at the IWB to demonstrate her understanding in such a way that the rest of the class can easily follow.
Displaying language competence
In this example, a French high school EFL learner reads aloud from a vocabulary list compiled by the teacher from earlier lessons. As in the previous category of activities, the language elements are presented in isolation, detached from the communicative context in which the learners met them previously. However, there is a little more to this activity because the other learners are able to display their own competence in the second language, by identifying and correcting pronunciation errors. Feedback comes not from the teacher but from the other learners, who thus exercise a little more freedom in their use of the target language.
The IWB supports this language work by making sure all learners have a clear view of the words under discussion as well as allowing the highlighting of problematic elements; the fact that the teacher can work directly from her word-processed document is also an example of the efficiency afforded by the IWB.
A second example of the use of the IWB to support learners' display of language competence comes from the primary classroom. Here these young French learners of English are retrieving the English names of animals introduced in an earlier session.
Dragging images from the "magic box" created by exploiting different layers adds a random element to the activity which motivates the learners and focuses their attention on each word in turn.
A third example of this level of interaction comes from a German vocational French class, where the learners work on hotel room vocabulary by dragging and dropping text labels on to an image showing a room plan.
As in the previous examples, the language is only minimally contextualised, but the images and text support both comprehension and production in the target language, allowing the teacher to produce more comprehensible input than might otherwise be possible.
Role-playing: "pretending" to use the target language for real-life communication
At the next level of interaction/interactivity, we see more open-ended activities with more room for learner initiative and which come closer to genuine communication. Communicative language teaching and task-based language teaching assume that classroom interaction should mimic real-world interaction, and in language for specific purposes (LSP) contexts, for example, it is a relatively simple matter to identify relevant role-play situations: at the travel agent's, asking for directions, buying groceries. In school contexts, the question of what constitutes an authentic task is not so straightforward: learners are isolated from the "real world," or rather their real world includes the classroom. Thus an authentic task might include learning activities which are common in non-language classes, such as giving presentations, making posters and holding debates. An activity which is not fully authentic would then involve learners pretending to participate in real-life communicative situations.
This example comes from a high school class working on the topic of the environment. The teacher sets up a debate where learners play the role of stereotypical opponents on climate change: "Johnny Greensleeves" on the environmentalist side versus "Alexander Cigaroff" for big business. The activity is not real communication in the sense that learners voice their own opinions or accomplish an authentic task, but they do play roles. The IWB supports their unplanned contributions with the words and text from the file page.
In another high school context, German secondary EFL learners match parts of sentences to make meaningful news items using drag and drop. This activity is placed in a real-world context as the teacher introduces it by saying she collected news stories over the weekend but that they had "unfortunately" become mixed up, and the learners must help put them back together. The language used during the activity corresponds to this fictional situation because the teacher focuses on the meaning of the sentences by asking follow-up questions related to the content rather than form of the sentences ("Which team were Mannheim playing?" "Did you go to the market?")
Communicating in the target language through language tasks
In this final category of target language interaction, we see activities which are closely aligned with real-life tasks and where a genuine, unplanned exchange of information takes place. In such situations learners seem truly to be interacting spontaneously in the target language, focusing on meaning rather than on form, and on expressing their ideas rather than simply displaying their language competence.
In this memory game, German high school learners need to read short texts in order to match them with headshots of the famous people described. At first sight this might seem like a classic example of displaying competence, but in fact the declarative knowledge required to complete the task makes it comparable to any number of school activities for these learners outside English class which require them to assimilate information and apply it in various test contexts. In addition, the teacher facilitates focus on task completion by encouraging learners to help each other succeed in the task rather than concentrate on the linguistic items themselves.
In the second example, German lower secondary learners also engage in an authentic classroom task involving a student presentation. As they would do in a mother-tongue class, the learners try to develop their audience's interest in their topic and then convey information related to the topic, incorporating class feedback. Here they use the IWB's spotlight feature to focus attention and create a measure of suspense.
These nine examples of classroom practice with French and German primary and secondary learners demonstrate the range of types of interaction that can be found in second language teaching with the IWB. They show that the IWB can be used in many different types of interactive contexts, from highly controlled language practice in the form of drills to facilitate vocabulary acquisition, pronunciation, listening discrimination and grammar through to genuinely communicative tasks which might usefully be performed even in the pupils' native language and thus offer opportunities for meaningful, contextualised and spontaneous language production.