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The Art of Giving Instructions

Ok everyone, listen to me now! For this next activity, you are going to work in pairs, A and B. OK? Right? All the A’s, can you raise your hands? OK, so you have this picture here. Don’t show the picture to your partner. Student B’s? Can you hear me? ...

 I can still sort of remember the first time I tried to give the instructions for a What Animal Am I activity with low-level students in Canada. The details are fuzzy, but it involved putting post-it notes on your forehead and having other people guess what animal you were. It went horribly wrong, with students calling out loudly the name of the animal instead of asking questions and finished with most post-it notes on the ground and me running back to the safety of a gap-fill grammar exercise to finish the class.

All teachers give instructions to their students. We tell them what they need to do, when they need to do it, what they shouldn’t do and who they should do it with. Perhaps more than other teachers, English language teachers have to think pretty hard about how to do this. Giving clear, comprehensible and level-appropriate instructions is not something that comes easily. It’s a skill that we acquire over years of practice.

Yet why do people, especially new teachers, find this difficult? Part of it is knowing how to grade your language appropriately. Part of it is due to a lack of confidence in telling people what to do. And part of it is simply a lack of preparation or knowledge of what might go wrong (as in my What animal am I? activity).

It’s no surprise then, that many initial teacher training programs have a section that focuses on giving good instructions. I went through a handful of English language teacher training books* and found that each had activities for how to give good instructions. These often involved looking at instructions that were unclear or ‘bad’ and then rewriting or rephrasing them. Based on this research, I found the following seven points that are given to novice teachers for giving instructions.

1: Keep it simple/short
The shorter the instructions, the better. It’s also important to grade your language (if using English) for the instructions.

2: Demo
Demonstrate the activity if possible while you give your instructions. This follows the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’.

3: Stage
Break your instructions into stages and give them on a need-to-know basis. Tell students what they need to do now, not what they need to do later.

4: Body language
Use gestures, facial expressions and eye contact when giving instructions.

5: Prepare
If you have trouble with instructions, write them out for yourself beforehand for very tricky activities.

6: Show
If your instructions involve a page, hold this up so everyone can see (or project the relevant part of it on a projector)

7: Check
Check back with learners that the instructions have been understood.

Overall, I think this is quite good advice. However, after many years of teaching and observing teaching, I have seen all kinds of instructions, some clearer than others but not always the same. It strikes me that when it comes to the actual practice of giving instructions, there are broadly speaking two different kinds of approach.

Approach 1: The fewer the better
This approach involves trying to limit the amount of language you use to give instructions. Taken to an extreme, the ‘best’ kind of instructions in this approach would be almost no instructions at all, merely a demonstration of the activity you want the learners to do. This approach would also place high importance on effective body language, and on grading your language.

Approach 2: ‘Natural’ instructions, or instructions-as-input
This approach involves giving instructions as naturally as possible while remaining clear. Instructions are important not just as a way to understand how to do an activity, but they are also an authentic listening activity. And because they are used so often, it’s a good chance to expose learners to authentic language. This approach would therefore welcome the use of natural discourse markers when giving instructions (things like ‘right’, ‘ok so next’, and ‘anyway’) as that is the kind of language learners might encounter more realistically outside the classroom.

Of course, many teachers may find themselves sort of in the middle, if they have thought about the language they use when giving instructions at all. But if we think that both these approaches can be valid under certain circumstances, then it does lead us to question one particular and very common piece of advice that language teachers are given in their initial training: don’t ever say, ‘Do you understand?’
I’ll address that question in my next post.

*Jeremy Harmer How to Teach English Longman 2002 p.137
Craig Thane, Teacher Training Essentials, Cambridge 2010 p10
Scott Thornbury and Peter Watkins, The CELTA Course Training Book Cambridge 2007 p.17


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