13 Jan How to Give Clear, Effective Instructions: The 3 Top Tips
Author: Ilinca Stroe
Whether you are a more or a less experienced teacher, surely you must have, at some point, lived a moment when, casually monitoring your students mid-activity, you were shocked to notice that they were doing something totally unrelated to what they had been asked to do. Definitely not the task you expected them to carry out, not the task they were supposed to complete, but something entirely else. Panic, interruption and activity “reload” usually follow. Why does that happen? Well, faulty instructions, no doubt.
While that’s not the end of the world, as we can always make amends and restart the activity the right way, it is time-consuming – and a bit embarrassing… When it happens, students feel confused and teachers – frustrated at their own failure to have explained things clearly in the first place. So it’s best to prevent that kind of unpleasantness by giving clear, logical and effective instructions from the very beginning.
How? First of all, the timing is crucial: let’s assume you’ve finished your presentation of the target language; you know exactly which practice activity is coming up next on your lesson plan; you know exactly which page in the course book you’re going to use; the handouts are ready, too, you hold them in your hands. Now, take a few moments to wait. Wait calmly for the students to stop writing or fidgeting or chatting. Just keep silent and look. In a few seconds, they’ll fall silent, make eye contact with you and be all ears. Now: give the instructions.
(With a couple of DON’Ts worth mentioning at this point:
- don’t hand out any worksheets/materials before you’ve finished giving the verbal instructions, or the students might get distracted by them and stop listening to what you’re saying;
- don’t forget to set a time limit for the upcoming activity as part of the instructions.)
And then give your instructions making sure you:
Speak clearly, with good pronunciation and at a reasonable pace, slowing down and stressing the key words to make it easy for the students to follow and understand while listening. Also, simplify the phrasing and content of your instructions: grade your language according to the students’ level and break down the explanation of the task to be done into smaller steps/stages, whenever possible or necessary. (For example, for an activity like information gap, use a stage breakdown like “first, look at your picture; secondly, notice what’s missing from it; third, ask your partner about the missing objects; then write the name of the object in each gap.”)
2) Be formulaic
At least in textbooks, exercises and activities tend to be repetitive. That means in class we’re likely to use the same types of tasks time and again (e.g. gapfills, matching, ordering, word search, etc.). That means at least for these types of tasks we can think of our instructions while lesson prepping, i.e. we can plan the wording of our instructions beforehand, so that in class we just have to utter what we’ve already phrased. Use imperative verbs, when you do so. And short sentences. Look: “First, take a minute to read questions 1 to 5. Then listen and complete the summary.” Or: “Match the word in column 1 to its definition in column 2.” “Work in pairs to answer questions 1 to 3. Take a minute for each question.” “Order the words to get a question.” Etc.
(Some teachers think it rude to just use imperative verbs, so they resort to more polite introductory formulas. That’s fine, as long as you don’t resort to something like “Would you terribly mind filling in the gaps?” or “If you would be so kind as to match the word to its definition, I would highly appreciate it.” Such politeness would confuse students, instead of making them feel good. Instead, use simple formulas – “Could you…?” “I’d like you to”, “We’re going to…” – and only with levels from pre-intermediate upwards, where students can actually learn indirectly the polite phrases by simply picking them up from your instructions.)
Don’t think of instructions as only verbal. If you want them to be efficient, words should be backed up by illustrative gestures and corresponding body language, just like in a miming game. Use your palms to show “read” or “listen”, for instance. Use “fingering” to point out what students should do first, second, in the third place and so on. Put up your arms to clarify “left-/right-hand column” in a two-column matching exercise. Gesture or mime “work in pairs” and (the classic) “past tense”. Give your students plenty of visual aid and support for the verbal instructions you are delivering.
Finally, of course, check your instructions. Ideally, without sounding patronising or making your students feel silly. Adapt your ICQs (instruction checking questions) to the students’ age and language level. A strong no-no is to ask the all-so-familiar “Got it?” or “Do you understand?” – they’re bound to answer “yes” just to please you while they might still have no idea what they’re supposed to do. Also, it may sound a bit odd and perhaps disrespectful to ask learners in their 40s or 50s, “So do we have to read or listen now?” Instead, ask one or two yes/no questions (“Are we going to read?” “Are we going to write anything?”), followed by an open-ended question (“How many words can we write in each gap?”). And remember it’s always preferable to have a more confident student demonstrate the task with you in front of the class.
Now, start preparing your next lesson. Phrase the instructions for each task at this stage. Use simple and relevant language. Memorise the best wording. Go to that class and give those crystal-clear instructions. Enjoy your performance, and the students’!
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre. To sign up for one, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.