How to avoid blank stares when giving instructions

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You are in class setting up for an activity. You have just given careful, step-by-step instructions to a task. You ask your students if they have any questions, as any good teacher would. A hand goes up. 'Yes, please!', you say with a smile, only to hear the most disheartening question at this point: 'Teacher, what to do!?'

Are you still smiling? Or are you feeling frustrated and flustered all at once? Have you started panicking about how are you going to fit in another instruction stage and still make everyone complete the task before the end of the lesson? Are you now wondering if anybody was actually paying attention while you were speaking? Are you questioning if you should have even bothered with setting up this intricate, though methodologically sound activity?

If any of these thoughts are going through your mind, just know that you're not alone. I've been there myself more times than I care to admit and I have listened to many a colleague complain about exactly this phenomenon. The more stories I heard in the staff room and the more often I experienced this during classroom observations, the more I wondered what the cause was. What was I doing wrong? What were the students doing? Or not doing? Could I do anything differently?

I started experimenting with ways to simplify the instructions I give and here are some of the things my students responded to positively:

  1. Use fewer words. I know, it sound so simple, but it is the single most important step that any teachers can do to ensure that EAL students are able to follow instructions in any classroom. When planning your instructions, think about what is the fewest number of stages you need to explain and what the key words for each of those are. Can you use demonstration or mime for any of those? Are there pictures that could aid comprehension?
  2. Break. It. Up. The longer the instructions, the more likely you are to lose students. Any students, not just the EAL ones. However, EAL students are much more likely to tune you out if you speak in long sentences without a break. If the task involves many steps, stage your instructions and only move on to the next step when your students have completed the current one. This helps them focus on the task at hand instead of worrying about what is coming.
  3. Sequence your instructions. Plan them carefully and make sure that you tell your students what they need to do in the order they need to do it. This is especially important for young learners and SEN students.
  4. Use visual aids. Use pictures, demonstration or even short, written instructions to consolidate what you are saying. However, you want to avoid yet another distraction, so think carefully when and how you are going to let your students see these. Reveal them step by step or after you delivered them all, but make sure that you aren't competing with funny pictures for your learners' attention.
  5. Chest materials. Before you hand out any materials, show them to the students. If you use hard copies, hold them in front of you while you are talking about them. If you can project them, point to specific parts when appropriate. This way attention is still focused where you want it to be.
  6. Use signposting - verbally and visually. Pictures can help punctuate what you are saying as long as you are careful about when and how you reveal them. However, they are best when used together with verbal signposts such as First..., Then..., Finally... We all rely on signposts when processing language, so even your non-EAL students will thank you for these.
  7. Stay put. Some teachers have the tendency to move around the classroom, which can be distracting, especially for those who don't speak the language very well. Keep in mind that some of your students might be watching you lips very closely when you speak. Think about the best place for you to be when you are giving instructions and try not to move much while you speak. If you teach primary aged students you might want to stick to the same place in the classroom every time you give instructions. Routines and consistency help.
  8. Ask ICQs. Instruction Checking Questions are a great way of ensuring that your students are on task. Fight the urge to ask "OK?" or "Do you understand?" and ask specific questions to check if students understood particular points. For example, you could ask "How many things will you examine under the microscope?" and nominate an EAL student to answer.
  9. Ready! Set! Go! We all have one of those eager students who gets too excited and starts filling in the worksheet before they know what you want them to do. Don't give out the materials until the last moment and make sure nobody starts working on them before you say "Go!".
  10. Don't lose them before you start! Under no circumstances should you ever start giving instructions before you got everybody's attention. Classrooms can be stuffy and sleepy and exciting and distracting all the the same time. You have to break your students out of their daydreams. Use sound effects, flick the lights, count down, whatever works, just make sure that all eyes are on you before you start telling them what to do.

For more ideas on giving instructions, check out Scrivener's Classroom Management Techniques (CUP, 2012). You can find more information on how to help very young learners follow instructions here.

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About Adri

My name is Adri. I am an experienced English Language Teacher and academic manager with a passion for transforming education. A life-long student and a reflective classroom practitioner, I actively look for ways to develop my skillset and help others do the same.