Giving clear instructions

It seems such an obvious concept and such an easy thing to do, but then, you set up a task, or ask for an action, and it does not come up as imagined. Sometimes, students just understand or get partial information on what they are supposed to do and so, undesired behaviour comes to play.

For me this is a constant struggle and I see lots of teachers in the same situation.

Instructions are not something to be overlooked, in fact, giving the right sort of instruction is crucial to a good flow of a lesson and performance of an activity.

Failing to do so can result in a huge waste of time, not to mention a series of interruptions with the very same questions or, what I call ‘interrogation mark faces’.

Very recently I had to get in contact with a reasonable number of students to request a certain task to be developed and presented. I wrote the instructions, read, re-read and read again in order to guarantee that it would not be misleading. I really tried to follow the basic rules of it as:

Get students’ attention;

  1. Be clear;
  2. Use short sentences;
  3. Be chronological;
  4. Support students;
  5. check understanding.

To my surprise, most of the students seemed to have understood it, but when the homework started to get back to me, only a very small number of those students were able to fulfil all the requests.

At first, I went back to my instructions, tried to improve them and send them all again by e-mail. This second time, more students were able to complete the task as demanded, but still some were not. Frustration was the feeling but we cannot give up.

Reading authors talking about giving instructions, two basic rules seem to be present in most of them:

  1. Instructions need to be kept as simple as possible; and
  2. Instructions need to be logical.

As a teacher, we need to ask ourselves questions such as:

  1. What is the core command I am trying to convey?
  2. What students must know to complete the activity?
  3. Which info needs to be given first?
  4. What materials are needed?…

There are some tips for the success of instructions delivery:

  1. Try and be short, simple and precise;
  2. Attract students attention first;
  3. Give all the instructions prior to the beginning of activities;
  4. Make use of body language, written commands, etc… Do not only count in spoken language;
  5. If possible, demonstrate the task;
  6. Be consistent about the way you give instructions so on the long run it will make students lives easier;
  7. Don’t through your instructions – groups them in order to build a repertoire of instructions and how they worked. In the future, you will only improve what you have already done before without so much trouble.

All in all, being clear is the best way to reduce the possibilities of interruptions and misunderstandings. Producing well delivered instructions teachers will help all sorts os students – from attentive to more dispersive ones.

From my point of view, this is the most important quest of a teacher.

Beatriz Meneguetti

Mª Beatriz Magalhães Silva Meneguetti Teacher, teacher trainer, school director and sworn translator with over 30 years’ experience, graduated in English, post graduated in methodology, linguistics, school management and marketing. Holder of major proficiency certificates from Cambridge and Michigan Universities and holder of the DELTA and MA in Professional Development for Language Education from Chichester University. Academic director of ABCI - Brazilian Association of Culturas Inglesas.

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