Giving and Checking Instructions

Some of the activities that we use in the classroom are fairly complex in terms of the way they’re organised, and I doubt if there are many teachers who can honestly claim that they’ve never got a class totally confused by the way they’ve given instructions. How can you make sure that your instructions are as clear and comprehensible as possible? Here are some guidelines :
  • Plan how you’re going to give the instructions before you go into the classroom, and make sure that you can explain them within the limits of the language which the students can understand. For example, the following instruction would be fine for an intermediate class, but would lose a group of beginners : You’re going to hear a description of a famous person and you have to guess who it is. For beginners, Listen to my description of a famous person. Who is it? would be far more comprehensible. Think too about the speed of your speech - slow down slightly if necessary - and insert pauses to allow students to take in each piece of information before you go on to the next.
  • Make sure that your instructions are fully explicit – don’t take anything for granted. Because we are so familiar with the activity types, we often assume that certain things are obvious. How often have you explained an activity but forgotten to say explicitly Don't show your information to your partner - only to find students happily doing just that.
  • Also think about how much you’re going to explain at a time. If you have a long, complicated, or two part activity, don’t explain everything at once. Explain the first stage, and check that students have understood before you go on to the explanation of the next part. In some cases it is not necessary for the students to have an overview of the whole activity before they start. In this case, explain the first part, do the first part and then go on to the explanation of the second part.
  • Don’t start the explanation until you have the students full attention. Make sure they have stopped whatever they are doing, are turned towards you and are listening.
  • Even in the first lesson, use English wherever possible. Get into pairs won’t be understood, but You two, you two and you two plus a gesture “pushing” the students together will be.
  • If you speak the students’ language, for very complex activities it may be more efficient to use the L1 for explanations. However, this can be gradually phased out :
    a) at the beginning of the course, give the instructions in the L1, and then repeat them immediately, as simply as possible, in English.
    b) later on reverse the order : give the instructions in English first, and in the L1 second.
    c) as soon as possible, give the instructions in English only, but check comprehension by asking the students to repeat them back in their L1.
  • Avoid using the imperative in your instructions. In most situations that the students will find themselves, it will not be an appropriate form to use. In the classroom it may be, but if they have constantly heard the teacher saying Repeat! there’s a good chance they’ll use it themselves :
    Native speaker : And so I was dropped right in it.
    Student : Repeat!
    Instead, use request forms - for example Can you repeat that? - which provide a good model for the students’ own use of the language. This is especially important if the imperative is more socially acceptable in the students’ own language (for example Italian) so that they are liable to transfer the use into English.
  • Always check that students have understood your instructions before starting the activity. The question Do you understand? is as good as useless. Students may be too shy to admit that they don’t understand, or may think they understand when they actually don’t. Make sure they demonstrate their understanding. This can be done by :
    a) asking them check questions – for example, for a roleplay : OK, if you’re student A put your hands up … Right …who are you? And what’s your problem? And who is student B?b) asking them to repeat back to you the instructions. Don’t choose the strongest person in the group to do this. S/he is the one most likely to have understood and your check needs to be directed to the students who probably haven’t.
    c) asking two students to demonstrate the activity in front of the class, or for a written exercise by eliciting the answers to the first two examples.
    d) not giving instructions at all but asking students to look at the activity and tell you what they think they have to do. This can be useful for activity types which are already known the students.
  • As soon as the students start the activity, go around quickly to each pair or group just to check they are on task. Don’t stop to help or monitor one group until you have checked them all. If only one group has not understood, then go back and help. If several groups are off track, then stop the activity and explain again, using the students who have understood to demonstrate to the others.

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