Today in my academic English class we were reviewing signpost words, and I had a quick game planned for them to practice using them. I quickly went through the instructions of the game I’d created, gave one example and thought they’d be able to go for it. I was wrong.
I rushed through my directions, didn’t follow my normal procedure and ended up wasting more time than I would have if I’d followed my usual plan. Read on for my advice on how to give clear directions in both your low-level YL classes and your more advanced classes.
Or, if you’d like to get a step by step sample of how to give instructions for a game for teens and adults called “The Generation Game”, you can gain access by clicking on the button below.
Low Level Young Learners
Let’s face it, they are not going to understand a thing you say when you give them directions. For the first course or two, every time the teacher gives directions, it’s like a mini lesson in itself. Even something as simple as circling the correct picture on a worksheet involves a mini presentation of the language “circle”, “picture”, “page 26”.
The answer is not to give directions verbally, but to give directions through body gestures, examples and other visual means. As they tell beginning writers, “show don’t tell”. For the example that I gave above, the teacher should:
- Give simple instructions with gestures (circle in the air and say “circle” the picture while pointing to a picture).
- Give an example, by actually circling an answer on a sample worksheet.
- Ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) in this case the teacher could ask, “One circle or two circles?” Or “circle the picture or circle my nose? (Loud laughter)”.
- Repeat the instructions and check that they understand.
- If ABSOLUTELY necessary, have the teaching assistant translate the instructions into the students’ L1.
- Monitor the students to make sure everyone is playing the game or doing the activity correctly.
Low Level Adults
Giving instructions to low-level adults is really not that different from giving directions to low-level young learners. The steps are basically the same, but the tone needs to be slightly different; your sense of humor tuned to an older audience.
Too their fault, adults are not as open to feeling ridiculous as children are. This means that they are not as willing to take part in games and activities as children are. It means that they are even more fearful of making a mistake in front of others. It means that if you don’t make your instructions clear, you will never be able to get your activities working. Instead, you may be tempted to talk the whole lesson instead of getting your students to practice the language. In short, the stakes are higher.
The steps are very similar to those above, however, if you are going to make jokes with low-level adults, try to make yourself the focus. You don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
- Write the instructions on the board or have them on a slide.
- Give the instructions in a simple way adding gestures as often as possible.
- Demonstrate the activity using one of the stronger or more outgoing students in the class.
- Ask ICQs repeating instructions where appropriate
- Start the activity and monitor that students are following instructions.
- If necessary, stop the activity and repeat the instructions.
Higher Level Students
With more advanced students, that have a fair amount of language under their belt, giving instructions is both easier and more difficult. In general, the games and activities that are done with low-level students are quite simple. The higher the level, the more the students will need more complicated activities. Despite this, keeping game ideas simple is still a best practice. If you try explaining the idea to another fluent English speaker and they look at you dumbfoundedly, it’s probably not going to be a successful idea.
An important thing to do while planning a new activity for your higher level classes is to make the rules and interactions as clear as possible in your own mind. I highly recommend visualizing the students interactions and how the game will be played. Doing this helps you to work out the kinks and discover potential pitfalls before they occur.
Another method to make sure that your idea is clear before verbalizing instructions, is to actually write the instructions down. By doing this you will become more aware of confusing instructions and, potentially, ways in which your game or activity may not work. Everyone is different, so find a method that works for you. That said, make sure your idea is clear before you try to instruct your students.
So, you go into the classroom with your activity crystal clear in your mind and potentially some written instructions. It may be tempting, like I did this afternoon, to just rush through the instructions to get to the game. However, like me, you may end up either ruining a good activity or spending more time getting the activity going than if you’d given instructions correctly in the first place. Here’s what I should have done:
- Make sure that the students are fairly comfortable using the language you’re expecting them to use in the activity. If not, you may need to clarify things a bit before moving into the game.
- Give the instructions in a simple step by step format.
- After giving the instructions, demo the activity with a strong student.
- Then, ask instructional checking questions (ICQs) to make sure they understand all points of the activity.
- Finally, ask whether they have any questions.
If you start doing an activity and it becomes clear that the students are confused, it’s ok to stop it. Try to get everyone’s attention, go through the instructions again and clear up any points of confusion. Then, restart the activity. Sometimes, only by trying the activity will students really get it.
Good instructions are essential, but often overlooked. Many times the success or failure of an activity is due to how it was set up and presented. If you take the time to give clear instructions and make sure that everyone knows what to do, it is worth the extra minute or two you might feel you’re wasting.
If you’d like to check out a sample script of instructions that I have used with a class, you can gain access to the resource by clicking on the button below. This is for a fun game that I created for teens and adults called “The Generation Game”. As I’ve been saying in this post, sometimes seeing how to do something makes it clearer than just reading or listening to instructions.