Instructions that work

Instructions that work

By James Jenkin

The biggest headache for teachers is when students don’t understand instructions. Running around a class of fifty, clarifying what to do, is not fun.

The first step is to take instructing seriously. Clear instructions are the only way to ensure the class runs smoothly, and is productive and enjoyable. Before you move center-front and start instructing, spend a few seconds deciding what you’re going to say and do.

It’s useful to think of instructions as a five-step routine: this also helps students know what to expect, and understand more easily as a result.

1. Give a signal

Use a word or gesture to get students’ attention. With adults, it might be ‘Okay!’, ‘Everyone!’, or ‘Thanks!’. (Anything that’s not patronizing – it’s best not to clap your hands in a class of Czech businesspeople.) With younger learners you can use a signal that students need to copy, which grabs their attention, such as ‘Hands on heads!’ as you put your hands on your head, or counting down ‘Five … four …’ which students join in.

2. Make eye contact with all students

This is the crucial step many teachers miss. Eye contact with all students is the only way to know you have everyone’s attention. If you start instructing when some students aren’t listening, there will inevitably be confusion.

Even with a very large class, you need to wait, in silence, until everyone is looking at you. If one student is looking away, just say ‘Wang, look here, please’.

Pausing until you’re ready for the class to proceed also makes you look in control, and gives you authority.

3. Instruct succinctly

Use an imperative (with ‘please’!) and avoid any unnecessary words. Don’t say ‘I’m just going to get you to work in pairs for this next activity, OK?’ – instead, say ‘Work in a pair, please’.

Then intonation should fall on the end of your instruction – it makes you sound confident and directive – and then you should stop speaking. This silence both maintains your authority, and gives students time to process what they’ve heard.

If the instruction involves several parts (as most do), break them up. If you want students to work in a pair and complete a handout, for example, break this into steps:

a. Work in a pair, please. (students form pairs)
b. Choose one person to write. (students choose the writer)
c. Draw a line from the word to the picture. (students start the activity)

4. Show students what to do

If you were showing a friend how to do something – play chess, make bread, use an app – it’s obvious you’d show them, and not just describe it to them (‘There’s a board with black and white squares, and there’s a piece that looks like a horse …’). The same principle applies to classroom instructions.

For a speaking activity, demonstrate the activity. To demonstrate a pair dialog or roleplay, do the start of the conversation with a student (or pretend to be both speakers by moving from one side to the other).

For a written activity, complete an example out the front. Show the exercise on a screen, if possible, or at least write part of it on the board, and do the first item together with the class.

When students can see the activity, it’s also easier to check whether they understand the instruction. For example, if it’s crucial that students don’t show information on a card to other people, turn your card around to expose the information and ask the class ‘Can I do this?’. When students see a written exercise on a screen, you can ask, for example, ‘Do I write here, or here?’

5. Start the activity!

Now it’s time to start. Just say ‘Go!’.

Good luck – you’ll be running your class like a well-oiled machine!


James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

Image source: Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

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