Teaching Tip: Giving Clear Instructions

Planning your instructions is just as important as planning your whole lesson. A perfect lesson on paper can completely dissolve if your students are unable to follow your activity directions. I have seen it happen and it ain’t pretty! Heck, it has happened to me a million time. So, my suggestion for you is to follow these 5 steps to make sure that each time you explain “How…” your students aren’t thinking “What?!”

Before you can even start thinking about the steps to follow in the classroom, you need to examine your activity and  chunk (separate) your instructions into steps. The key to clear instructions is to only give one step at a time so that the purpose of your activity isn’t for the students to try to remember what is next. If you have an activity in which your students will draw  pictures of 3 things they did over the weekend and then show the pictures to their partners who will ask questions to try to guess what they did, when they did it, who they were with and how they liked it–chunk it! This activity has 2 chunks: drawing and sharing. So before you plan your activity you need to identify that you will give instructions in 2 chunks/steps. Now you are ready to organize these instructions with these  5 steps:

1. Explain the first step with easy to understand words. Make sure you cut out any unnecessary language like “OK, so now, in a few minutes, we are going to practice some things that we learned today by….” Boil your spoken instructions down to the key words (usually verbs) and make sure you are using familiar words. The students need to be able to focus on your instructions completely and not become distracted by words they don’t know. For example if I want my students to draw 3 interesting things they did on the weekend I will say “Draw 3 things you did on the weekend, please. The 3 things should be fun and interesting, not like sleeping or staying home alone. Do basic simple drawing with lines  and one color.”

2. Model (show the students) how to do the activity with an example. So, in the case of my 3 drawings activity, I would either hold up simple drawings that I did of my weekend activities and elicit the activity names and highlight the simplicity of the picture OR I would draw my 3 things very simply and quickly on the board while drawing attention to my drawing style and activity choices. After you show the students an example like this, they will usually copy what you did with great accuracy.
3. Ask comprehension checking questions (CCQs) to make sure your students understand the step. For this activity I would ask: How many activities should you draw? (students say “3”) What kind of activities should you draw from your weekend? (students say “fun, interesting”) How many colors? (students say “1”) Will you take a long time or a short time? (students say “a short time”) So, how will your drawing look? (students say ‘simple’). These questions are all specifically related to a key piece of my instructions above. It is important to note that “OK?” and “Do you understand?” and “What are you going to do?” are NOT questions that check comprehension because they aren’t specific enough. Also, consider that as your students’ English levels get higher you may not need to ask all of these questions. You may only need to ask  the most important ones like “So, how will your drawing look?” and “What kind of activities should you draw from your weekend?”

4. Allow the students to complete the first step. Don’t even mention  the Q and A after the drawing. They now know what to do to draw the 3 activities, so allow them to draw. This will help them complete this step fully and correctly which will save time in the long run.

5. Repeat 1-4 for each step of your activities. Now that they have finished drawing, give the instructions for step 2. Then model that step for the students and ask CCQs. After asking the CCQs, let the students complete the activity.  Give the step, show, CCQ, students do, repeat!


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