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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

4 steps to giving clearer instructions to language learners

4 steps to giving clearer instructions to language learners

If you were teaching someone to fold an origami crane for the first time, how would you do this? Would you explain every step at once, using the technical names for each type of tuck and fold in the paper? or would you break these steps down by giving out the instructions on paper (a task)? Would it be enough to hand your student the instructions and tell them to 'make a paper crane'? This is exactly what it can feel like for a student who is not prepared for the task that is in front of them in the language classroom.

Communicative language activities can be quite complex, so it is essential that students know what they are supposed to be doing, so that they can complete activities with focus and without wasting time. In this way, they can make the most out of the tasks and activities that students take part in.

To achieve this effectively, we can follow an instruction routine with four simple steps: Display, Instruct, Check, Hand out (or Hand over, for the online classroom). Following this routine ensures that students have a clear purpose for what they are doing, and that they can get to work straight away, without too much discussion about what to do first, what to write where, or how to use the task.

Display the material

Moving into a language task involves a shift in the way that students are thinking. Up until the point that they see the screen or worksheet they will be completing, they may have been listening to you, doing some reading or vocabulary work, or some other activity in the lesson.

In order to focus the class on what is coming in the next lesson stage, spend a minute or so showing the students what their next task looks like. Display the task screen, or hold up the material for everyone to see, and guide them through it. Are there words for them to use? Are there boxes to complete? Are there pictures for students to work with? Guiding the class through the ‘flow’ of the activity, and focusing on the section you want them to start with, can ease them into the material and give them an idea of what to expect in the task

Instruct the task

Once the students have an idea of what the material looks like, you can start instructing the actual task. For this, you will need to use simple language and direct instructions to tell them what to do with the task. Even higher-level groups need to be very clear about how to complete a task for it to be successful, so grading your language to use simple vocabulary and grammar is important.

Things to avoid when instructing a task:

  • Don’t start instructions with ‘What I want you to do is…’ - this is a complex and unnecessary phrase, which does not add anything to the instructions themselves, and sounds like a quick, confusing blast of words to many students’

  • Don’t use phrasal verbs in your instructions. Phrasal verbs can be very idiomatic and unclear for students, so could cause confusion. Use single-word alternatives to verbs like ‘fill in’ or ‘go through’ (complete) / ‘pick out’ (choose) / ‘put down’ (write).

  • Don’t ask ‘do you understand?’ - this is a question that language teachers should never ask, and it is common to hear in task instructions. Rather, check specific understanding of your instructions by using Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs), as below:

Check your instructions

When you have been through the stages of the task, it is essential that everyone knows what they are doing and what they should not do while completing it. To do this, we use ICQs to confirm the details of the task with the students before they begin.

ICQs can be planned along with instructions, and should be simple yes/no or binary questions, where you offer the two possible responses for students to confirm. ICQs might include questions like:

Are you doing this alone or with a partner?

Are you choosing words from the list at the top of the page?

Do you need to use present or past tenses?

How long will you take to do the activity?

Ask individuals to tell you these details, and this checking stage will become a routine which makes students pay more attention to what you are telling them to do. The potential embarrassment of not knowing the details of the task in a checking stage will motivate them to listen more carefully and follow the instructions more closely.

Hand out / Hand over the materials

Finally, once you have confirmed that students understand what to do with the task, you can either hand out the worksheets, ask the students to open their books at the task page, or (in the case of online lessons) assign them into groups and hand it over to them to start.

Important: Don’t hand out your printed materials too soon! If students are looking at the task in front of them while you are instructing, they will be distracted from the detailed instructions you are giving, and may miss what to actually do with it.

By following this DICH procedure (Display-Instruct-Check-Hand out), your pre-task stage may take a minute or two longer, but student work will be more focused, and there will be a lot less of the blank faces and the ‘what do we have to do now?’ which can take up a lot of time and re-explaining for individuals who weren’t paying attention.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.


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