Instructions in the classroom

Giving instructions - for teachers; Taking directions - for students; Personal experience - Irina Khrystych


Every teacher has a collection of favourite exercises and tasks to practice this or that aspect of the language. We meticulously prepare different ways to get our students to talk and use all the knowledge we throw at them, but an important part of that is often overlooked. Have you ever had your students give you a puzzled look after you carefully explained what they are supposed to do? Or have they done something completely different from what you intended them to do? If your answer is yes, then you may have fallen for the same mistake many teachers make - giving instructions incorrectly. Let’s look into it together.

Mistakes teachers make

When teachers don’t prepare their instructions in advance, they may make one of the following mistakes:

1. Being hypothetical

When you use conditionals in giving instructions, your students may get confused about what exactly is expected of them Avoid using “if you imagine”, or “if you think”.

2. Using difficult colloquial language

We want our students to be exposed to natural English and may occasionally use slang and informal expressions, phrasal verbs. But instructions are not the right place to do it, because your students may misinterpret or completely misunderstand what you expect them to do. “Jot down some ideas and then have a bit of a chat” is one such example.

3. Being overly polite

We teach our students to be polite and use specific expressions when they want to ask something of another person. But when we explain what we want them to do, we should use simple imperative and short sentences. The main goal here is to make them understand the task quickly and start working as soon as possible. One example of such misplaced politeness is “Would you mind writing down ideas?” and “Could you possibly discuss the ideas with your partner?”.

4. Giving too much information at once

The golden rule of all instructions is to keep them short and simple. If you list all the steps they should take in one go, the students will forget them, may mix them up, and will be generally left confused. Here is an example to illustrate the point: “First write down your ideas in the notebook, then discuss them with the partner on your left, then discuss them with the partner on your right and after that stand up and find one more person to discuss your ideas. Write down the ideas you like and after that share them with class”. Break these instructions down into several stages and give them gradually.

5. Using complex grammar structures

Of course, we, as teachers, should grade our own language at all times using more advanced vocabulary and grammar rationally. When it comes to giving instructions, you should tone your language down so that your students are perfectly able to understand you at their level. If you say “having noted down the ideas, you will be able to discuss them with your groupmates” to pre-intermediate students will only return confusion.

6. Oversimplifying 

This is the flip side of the same coin - making your instructions unintelligible and too simple. Such sentences as “You all - write ideas - talk together” will only distort your students’ perception of the language.

7. Being too descriptive

We love cute excitable teachers who adorn every little sentence with a nice flourish and lovely emotional adjectives, for they are so beautiful and amazing and all their lessons are interesting and full of unending joy. We bet that sentence was hard to read and even harder to understand. Now imagine a task explanation with that abundance of adjectives.

8. Using complex jargon

Lexical units related to professional vocabulary should not be utilised as discourse features in a classroom setting.

What should you do?

  • Prepare how you will give instructions before the lesson. If you are not sure about your delivery, write them down.

  • Arrange students into groups of pairs before giving instructions. The less time between that and the actual task, the better.

  • Make sure your students are paying attention to you. You do not want to waste lesson time repeating yourself twice.

  • Provide materials, handouts, cards, roles at appropriate times.

  • Speak clearly, in short simple sentences. Make pauses when necessary to let the information settle in.

  • Use the language at or below your students’ level of understanding, but do not oversimplify it.

  • Use visual aids, gestures, examples to help get the message across.

  • Ask ICQs - Instruction Checking Questions, before moving on to the task. As with CCQs, “yes/no” questions work best here.

  • Monitor the students as they perform the activity and be ready to help them if they struggle with anything

As they say, you can’t be too prepared, so having your instructions ready in advance and giving them simple and clear will help you achieve all your lesson objectives.

Tips on taking directions and fulfilling tasks:

  1. Actively listen: Try to listen intently, not just hear. When you actively listen, you can better understand what you need to do. Here’s a trick that may help: pretend that there is going to be a quiz after the conversation. Visually think about what's being said and maybe even repeat it in your head.

  2. Take notes: Instead of trying to remember everything, write it down. There’s nothing wrong with keeping notes; it shows that you are prepared, organized and want to do the job correctly.

  3. Ask questions: If you are even slightly unsure of what you are being asked to do, don’t be afraid to question. Make sure the other person allows you the chance to find out all the needed details to move forward.

  4. Respond with a good attitude: Just as the person giving directions needs to speak respectfully, it’s important to respond respectfully. If you go into the conversation with a bad attitude, it’s likely that performing the task will be much more challenging.

  5. Before starting the task, make a checklist: Whenever there is a job that requires multiple steps, try organizing a to-do list. Check things off as you go to make sure you don’t miss anything. Then when you’re done, be sure to review your work.

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I am Irina, and I have been teaching English to kids for 2 years. This is the hobby that gives me not only money but also wonderful examples of smart kids who demonstrate constant progress in learning English. This time gave me a huge experience in the most modern approaches to teaching. However, there are aspects which stay the same for the whole time. I mean giving instructions before the completion of any task.

Providing a student with clear and detailed instructions is half of the way to successful completion of it. Being an English tutor, I have numerous illustrations of good and bad ways to give instructions.

Succinctly speaking, this process consists of 3 main steps: 

  • describing the task itself (This step is the main one as it gives all the information to the student about the task. It is especially important for older students as they get the understanding of the aims of the task and the skills that are worked out);

  • outlining the timing (Timing is important to be clear with the program of the class. In other words, if the timing is well planned and the student is aware of it, it in a way guarantees the completion of all the exercises)

  • answering the questions (Sometimes a teacher may miss something in the first step. In such cases s/he has to make sure that the student understands the task and doesn’t have any more questions)

If one of them is missing, the completion of the task is likely to fail. For instance, providing the student with insufficient information on the task will result in spending two times as much time on this task as it was planned. Neglecting the importance of timing will lead to not having time for something else crucial which is planned for the class. Finally, missing the Q&A step will, again, double the time spent on the task.

I would like to illustrate the mentioned above with the help of a matching task. The improvised task has two columns with mixed halves of the sentences. The goal of it is to practice conditionals. The task is given below:

First, the teacher should mention what rule this exercise is directed at. In our case it is conditionals. The teacher should be very careful with the fact that such a task implies that all types of conditionals are studied and practiced at least separately. 

Then, the task itself is present. The teacher should mention that the student is to find and join two halves of the sentences which are mixed. The student should pay attention to the types of the conditionals and focus not on the meaning of the sentences only, but also the grammar. 

After that, I suggest completing the first sentence together with the student identifying the type of the conditional and searching for the second half.

Secondly, the timeframe is outlined. Teachers themselves establish it depending on the student’s knowledge, level of English, and own approach to completing tasks. The average time spent on such a task may be 15 minutes including the discussion of possible mistakes.

Finally, the student may miss some details of the task or have other problems. For example, they may forget the rule, find several options to one half or fail to translate some words. The teacher should help here and ask questions if the students understand everything. The former may also ask the student to look through the halves. Remember: the successful completion of the task is 100% understanding of it by the teacher.

As far as I know, what it is like being a student, I tend not to neglect any of these steps. Before doing any exercise I usually make a leading task or a question for discussion, which is usually a hint for the upcoming task. Then I explain the task in detail mentioning its purpose. If there are any questions, I motivate students to formulate them in English and then help to answer them. One more crucial point in the way I approach the tasks is the fact that I suggest doing the first sentence/question together to check the understanding. The student will have plenty of exercises to do, but at the same time, the understanding of the task will be much better.

That’s all for now!
Stay amazing ♡