Making instructions clear for language learners can be a challenge. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for giving instructions that works for all students in all situations. However, a variety of strategies applied in combination will help teachers reach a wider range of students and will serve to clarify and reinforce instructions for students as well.
Here are a few practical ideas I hope will be helpful for both teachers and students.
1. When lesson planning, consider how you will give instructions for tasks. For each activity or assignment, think to yourself “How can I convey this task clearly to the students?” I find it helpful to write down in my lesson plan what I will say and what materials and visuals I will use to help clarify instructions.
2. Plan enough time in your lesson to deliver instructions thoroughly and to check students’ understanding. Do not deliver instructions hurriedly while the bell is ringing, students are grabbing books, and backpacks and leaving the room.
3. Be sure you have all students’ attention when giving instructions – insist on it and never make exceptions.
4. Be well prepared, not only for verbal delivery of instructions, but also with instructions written in clear, concise, simple English on the board (or on a flip chart). This additional visual will catch students whose listening skills may make it challenging to follow verbal instructions.
5. Be simple and economical, verbally. Consider the following verbal instructions strands:
“Ok, everybody, listen to me. I want to tell you what we’re going to do next. What we’re going to do is… I want everybody to get together with the partners you were working on the peer-editing with last week.”
“Please find last week’s writing partner.”
6. Model the task and always do an example together with the class, even for homework exercises. For in-class tasks, rather than just telling students what is expected of them, show them as well. When assigning a task, physically DO the task yourself in front of the students. Show them with your body, gestures and facial expression, exactly what you want the task to look like when they begin doing it. With pair tasks, have the class watch while you model with another student. Check for understanding and model again if needed, or ask two students who seem to understand the task to model together.
7. When assigning a textbook activity or exercise, ask students to open to the correct page in their textbooks and follow along as you go over the task. Use your own textbook as a prop. Point to the exercise, check that all students are following and do the first question together as an example.
8. Repeat instructions at least once with slightly different wording, if possible.
9. Give students time to write assignments down. Insist that they do.
10. Break instructions down and deliver them in steps or “chunks”. When instructions include a series of steps, deliver the first step, wait, check for comprehension, and then deliver the next small chunk of instructions. This gives students time to digest smaller pieces of information at one time rather than to grasp what bits and pieces they can of a lengthy explanation.
11. Use pairwork. Stop in the middle and at the end of instructions, and ask students to confirm the task with a partner. Often, this eliminates the need for repetition by the teacher.
12. Use comprehension checks and involve students actively in the instructions process. Have students repeat assignments or instructions back to you. Ask, “Can anyone tell me what you are going to do next/for homework?” Open-ended comprehension checking questions (beginning with WH-words) such as “What is still unclear?” “What questions do you have?” “Who has a question about that?” are much more effective than “Any questions?” The former ask for a real feedback response from students while the latter allows students to shake their heads or not respond at all.
While applying these strategies may seem time-consuming, in reality they are great time-savers. Think of the class time spent repeating and repairing unclear instructions, the chaos created when students misunderstand a task, or the extra time added to a lesson if students fail to complete a homework assignment as a result of confusion about instructions. When we add it all up, it’s a lot of precious class time lost – time when students could be learning and teachers could be doing what we are meant to do, serve student learning in the best way we can.