Topics abound when it comes to the classroom. Some more famous (positively or negatively) than others, there is an interminable source of subjects to be dealt with, discussed, debated, digested or denied, dissected, detested or merely … got used to (no D-words that fit!).
Giving Instructions is arguably one of the top-ten topics.
I have never met a teacher who was instruction-perfect or error-free as far as instructions go. Learning to deliver instructions is a process, and as such needs practice and good coaching. I strongly defend peer-observation and peer-support, for teachers very often suffer from blurred vision or poor hearing when teaching, so we tend not to notice what goes wrong when we teach. We just know that ‘something’ went down the drain…The observer, however, calmly watches from the crow’s nest and is able to identify our ups and downs. Giving instructions is, more often than not, in the ‘downs’ list.
OK. We know bad instructions can spoil an activity entirely, can totally remove the enthusiasm of a game or can confuse learners to such an extent that the teacher himself ends up changing whatever it is he had planned in the first place to a whatchamacallit he cannot honestly define. Life in the classroom… As it turns out, this is not the worst part. Bad instructions can turn avid learners into lost students, and it may bring upon them a sensation of stagnation in the language learning process that is sticky and extremely difficult to remove. They often think they are the problem, since they do not manage to understand what it is that the teacher wants, causing the activity to fail and their sense of achievement reach profound depths. Sad, but it may happen.
A little less conversation, a little more action, please. What then can we actually do to make instructions more effective and a little more error-free? Simple ideas go below in the order they should happen:
• Attention first. Before starting your instructions grab everyone’s attention and make sure they are 100% focused on you;
• Deliver instructions a bit at a time. Do not throw a paragraph at students. Go sentence by sentence, step by step. If you can simplify your sentences to key words, do it.
• Pause. Pause to give learners time to let what it is you are saying sink in. They need time to process language;
• Give reasons. Say WHY you are proposing an activity and what the purpose is. You are going to practice the Present Simple for routines, or make sentences using a set of phrasal verbs. Students (people in general!) work better when they know why they are doing something. Learners are no different;
• Check. ALWAYS ask students if they understand, and do not be happy with a hasty yes. Probe them, asking them to explain the instructions to you, in their own words, or even in L1, depending on the level. It won’t hurt, you’ll make time and everyone will know what they have to do;
• Model. After explaining and checking, demonstrate with one student, or better still, ask two (if this is the case) students to demonstrate what they have to do to the whole class. This will bring out questions and doubts and make the activity happen more smoothly;
• Monitor. You simply cannot have a marguerita while your students are at work. This is the time to observe, correct on the spot, collect data for further exercises or very importantly, for future praise;
• Stick to your time limit. If you told students they would have 10 minutes to finish the activity, finish at ten minutes, even if some of them are still doing it. This will prepare learners for testing situations with a time limit or better, real life situations, when you do not have all the time in the world to “Find someone who”.
• Give feedback. This is usually better when given to the whole class to avoid embarrassment if correction is needed and also to foster group work if the result was very good. Praise is very positive here, and you may tell your group how well they worked together, helping each other complete a task, or how natural they sounded when making their sentences;
• Collect feedback. Ask students if they enjoyed the activity (so you can repeat it in the future), or if they would change something in it. Or would rather never have it again. A small tip may be the secret you had been looking for to make an activity work or to make a group work;
• Trigger their sense of achievement. Show students for how long they have talked, or how many sentences they were able to produce. Show them they can use this and that item of vocabulary perfectly and this is progress. Ask them what they learnt with the activity and what difference it has made in their learning.
What I wrote above is sheer common sense. It is the result of experience and priceless sharing with my colleagues and students. If you cannot remember it all, here is a three-word summary: keep it simple.
As I said before, good instructions come with practice, patience and perseverance. What works for one group may be a disaster in another, and there are no tried and tested methods. Fine tuning is required at all times, many times. However, every time it works, the reward is a bright smile on everyone’s faces – it worked!