Do you understand?

In my experience as an English teacher, I have observed other teachers’ lessons and been observed countless times. It is probably safe to say that the majority of teachers are much more concerned about what to do than about how to do it. However, the ‘hows’ can be as important as the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’, and we teachers very often fail to realize that clear, concise instructions can mean the difference between a successful lesson or activity or an absolute flop.

My own impression is that giving instructions is a very much neglected skill in the teaching practice and that it is almost let alone to take care of itself. How many of us have been seriously taught how to give instructions? How many times have we seen our students staring at us as if we were speaking Greek? And as students or trainee teachers, how many times were we unsure of what was expected from us?

Becoming more aware of how effective we are may not be an easy task, but it is not impossible. For instance, how would you answer the questions below? Are they true, false or partly true in most of your lessons? Or wouldn’t you know how to answer them?

 1. I always give instructions in English.

2. My students always understand what I want them to do the first time I tell them.

3. I think it’s possible to use only English to give instructions independent of the students’ level.

4. I always demonstrate what I want the students to do.

5. I usually ask “Do you understand?”.

I would like to suggest that by paying more attention to how and when we give instructions to our students would certainly avoid the need for asking “Do you understand?” as many times as I believe we usually do in class. So as to do that, I propose we should:

  • Become aware of our own practice – for example, by recording ourselves, asking a colleague to attend a lesson and paying attention to how we give instructions or by asking the coordinator or another person who is in charge of attending our lesson and provide us with feedback to focus on instructions).
  • Take action – if we realise that “Do you understand?” is a common utterance in our lessons, how can we make it less frequent?

Below are some guidelines on giving effective explanations and instructions suggested by Scrivener (1994) and Ur (1996). Although it is not new material, it is valid and useful, even for experienced teachers:

  •  Don’t say things that are visible or obvious (e.g. I’m giving you a piece of paper.).
  • Don’t tell students things that they don’t need to know at that point of the lesson (e.g. When you finish we are going to do exercise 3 in the book.).
  • Demonstrate rather than explain whenever and wherever possible.
  • Make sure you have the class’s full attention
  • Present the information more than once
  • Be brief
  • Give time for students to grasp what you mean
  • Illustrate with examples
  • Get feedback
  • Keep your language within the student’s range of comprehension

It also might be worth it to pre-plan our instructions (i.e. prepare what we want to say so as to use clear language) for a couple of activities and see if it works. The important thing, I believe, is never to take for granted what and how we actually do things in class.


SCRIVENER, J.  1994. Learning Teaching. Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.

 UR, P. 1996. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. CUP


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Elaine Hodgson is a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer, as well as a supervisor on the Distance MA in TEFL at Birmingham University (UK). She holds an MA from UECE and a PhD from UFC in Applied Linguistics. You can read more about her work at Email:

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