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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. However, if you speak the students’ language, for very complex activities it may be more efficient to use the L1 for explanations. This can be gradually phased out as the students become more proficient:

    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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Written by Sue Swift
Sue Swift has worked in the area of ELT for nearly 30 years as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She writes on EFL methodology and other issues connected with language teaching, and runs a site for EFL teachers – An ELT Notebook – eltnotebook.blogspot.com.

10 comments

  1. Annette

    This is a useful article in that it combines quite a variety of techniques that can ensure success with different types of activities. The problem is equally prevalent in written instructions for activities or tests. Students often barely glance at the instructions because they feel ready to tackle the activity, until they get stuck, and need to ask for help.

  2. Mike

    Why miss the opportunity to use instructions as one of the only ‘real’ occasions to communicate in English in the classroom, by speaking in L1 ? Use your knowledge of the students’ language, if you have any, to monitor understanding of instructions rather than deny students the opportunity of exposure to genuine communication.

  3. Mark

    In the book, The Elements of Style (Strunk and White) , White notes that Professor Strunk, due to his concise nature, always repeated his instructions three times and this is with native speakers. Why don’t we do the same for second language learners?

  4. Leah

    I found this article very useful and as a teacher I too get frustrated when trying to explain instruction to children and find that sometimes thought I knew exactly what I wanted but I could only visualise it in my head. To verbalise something it requires you to slow down and think of what the student knows. I sometimes find myself not knowing where to start with an instruction especially when I am explaining an entire activity. But in relation to what Mark suggested about repeating instructions 3 times with native speaker, I would like to disagree with this method as when on teaching practice our inspectors would eat us for doing that as it sends out the wrong message to the children. It is felt that instruction should only be given once to teach good listening skills and so that students don’t feel as though its okay not to listen the first two times.

  5. Leena

    Very practical, hands on, very usable.

  6. Vahap

    I have always had trouble with giving instructions. Nothing is more annoying than having students looking at you… “I DO UNDERSTOOD NOTHING”. Thank you Sue!

  7. Marcia (brazil)

    Articles like this help teachers how to deal with an common situation and sometimes teachers can be careless with instructions and stand there and wait for immediate answers from students. How can they respond if they don’t even understand what is expected as feedback?

  8. Becky

    Very useful, constructive and brilliant!

  9. xandra

    thanks a lot, you article will be of much help

    • Irina

      Thank you for the information. It is very useful,constructive and helpful.

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