In his second post on the essential skill of giving clear instructions, Lindsay Clandfield looks beyond the teaching world for inspiration.
In my first post, we looked at the importance of giving good instructions in the language classroom. Giving instructions is a key aspect of a teacher’s work. For the language teacher, working with people who might struggle not only with the activity but also the language, instructions must be carefully considered.
What about giving instructions in other fields? I did some searching online for advice on giving instructions. The Google algorithm of course gave me plenty of advice for teachers (since it knows what I do) but I was eventually able to find articles and columns about how to give advice for managers and trainers in the world of business. I wanted to see how different their advice might be from that given to a teacher, and whether or not there was anything useful for me there.
Some of the points made to managers and trainers were very similar to what we as teachers are supposed to do. Go slowly. Check comprehension. Don’t give too many instructions. Let the employee know they can come and ask if they don’t understand. But there were a couple of other pieces of advice that I thought were interesting as they came up more than once. I’ll paraphrase them here.
- Don’t demand things, but don’t say sorry for asking either. Be confident and straightforward and not apologetic. Know what you want and ask for it. Good advice for new teachers I think too!
- Be diplomatic. I often read this advice when an article was suggesting that managers check comprehension of their instructions. One article put it best by saying that when checking your instructions, you ‘don’t need to make the listener feel like he/she is an imbecile.’
It’s this second point that I want to dwell on for a moment. When I started teaching, one of the hardest things I found was how to check my instructions in the way I had been taught to do so. I kept asking questions such as ‘Marco, can you tell us what we are doing next?’ or ‘Eva, what are we doing now?’ In the best case, the student would know what I was doing and repeat the instructions. In many cases, they would look at me confusedly as if to say, ‘Why are you asking me what we are doing if you just told us?’ I couldn’t help feeling that I was talking down to them.
One of the reasons I was doing this, I think, was because I was rather clumsily checking comprehension. And I was also desperately trying to avoid saying what was naturally coming out of my mouth, which was ‘Do you understand?’ Many teachers are told to avoid asking this question because, the thinking goes, the learners will often automatically answer ‘yes’ even if they don’t understand.
I have since found that I can concept check in other ways. Using a short list of the steps of an activity helps to check back. For example:
In this activity, you need to do four things. (holds up four fingers and counts off) One, work in pairs. Two, compare your pictures. Three, make a list of all the differences between your pictures. Four, don’t show your pictures to each other. (holds up all four fingers again) Now, can you tell me the four things to remember?
Another simple way I have seen teachers check comprehension is to simply ask students to repeat the instructions for an activity in pairs. A bit like this:
Before you do the activity, turn to your partner and explain the instructions I just gave you. Put your hand up if you have any doubts. Ok? Go.
But I have also since questioned my attempts to avoid ‘Do you understand?’ as a phrase in class. Since it seems to come so naturally to people, maybe there is a reason we ask it. In some ways, it is almost a discourse marker like ‘right’ or ‘ok’. It is a very common way that people, not only teachers, often check understanding. Other phrases to do this include:
Are you with me so far?
So far so good?
Do you see what I mean?
Do you follow me?
Does this make sense?
Is this clear?
I’d argue that, if part of what we do in class is to expose learners to natural language, then there is nothing wrong with asking one of the above questions or indeed the dreaded ‘Do you understand?’. Of course, and this is key, as long as we are able to follow up with sensitive concept checking if we aren’t sure they do understand.
Up until now, I’ve focused on instruction-giving as a skill for the teacher to work on. But learning to give instructions might also be something useful for our learners. In my next blog post I’ll go over some of my favourite ‘instructions’ activities.
7 tips on how to give clear, understandable instructions, Life Hack https://www.lifehack.org/articles/work/7-tips-how-give-clear-understandable-instructions-staff.html
How to Give Instructions Your Employees Will Actually Follow, Canadian Business 2015 https://archive.canadianbusiness.com/leadership/how-to-give-instructions-your-employees-will-actually-follow/
The art of giving good instructions, Business Management https://www.businessmanagementdaily.com/39520/the-art-of-giving-good-instructions/