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Follow these instructions

instructions teacher talking time ttt Sep 20, 2021

Have you ever had that cringe-worthy moment in front of your students where you gave instructions to an activity, expecting them to get started with it, and then right before your eyes, NOTHING HAPPENS?! There’s complete silence and your students are looking around for clues about what they should be doing. The problem, like most issues of confusion in the classroom, is rooted in what you, the teacher, did and/or didn’t do. Giving poor instructions is a common pain point in many classrooms but there are several ways to improve them.

Let’s look at some common reasons for poor instructions and I’ll offer a few solutions for improvement:

  1. Your instructions are too wordy and students can’t follow the main idea (eg. “Okay, you can go ahead and find a partner so that it’s a bit easier for you to complete the activity.”)

    THE FIX: Eliminate any unnecessary words and keep things as simple as possible (eg. “Find a partner.” or assign partners by saying “Sam, please work with Sarah.”). Be thoughtful in the words you choose to eliminate from your instructions. We’re not going for Tarzan-speak here. Use complete sentences because everything you say to your students serves as a model for communication for them.

  2. Your instructions have too many steps and although the words are easy to understand, there’s too much to remember. (eg. “Find a partner for this activity, read the article and identify the verbs in the past tense. Then, check your work with another group. Once you’ve done that, write a short story using at least 3 of the verbs from your list and we’ll share them after”).

    THE FIX: Give your students the instruction they need when they need it (eg. “Find a partner.” Once you see that everyone has a partner, give the next instruction. “Read the article with your partner and identify the verbs in the past tense.” Continue the process as needed.)

  3. Instructions aren’t direct and clear; instead, they sound like an option (eg. “First, try to write a few sentences using this tense and if you are able to do that, see if you can write some questions as well.”)

    THE FIX: Be as direct and clear as possible. (eg. “Write 3 sentences and 3 questions using this verb tense.”). You’re more than welcome to say “please” to make your instruction sound less demanding but I promise, if you smile while giving direct instructions, your students won’t interpret your directness as rudeness.

As a guide, follow these steps to deliver clear, concise instructions your students will understand every time:

  1. State the action: What is it that you want your students to DO? Begin this part of the instruction with a verb/action word.
    Examples: “Write 4 sentences”. “Read the dialogue”. “Say a word that has the “th” sound”.

    Other great action words to use when giving instructions are: Think, Listen, Imagine, Create, Draw, and Make. And don’t forget, SHOWING your students what you want them to do is one of the best ways to convey a message. Lead by example or do the first part of an activity together so they can see what you want them to do.

  2. In pairs, alone, or in a group?: Tell your students who to work with here. If you want them to work alone, say “work alone”. To work with a partner, say “find a partner” or simply create partners or groups to take the hesitation and guesswork out of things.

  3. Give a time limit: Tell your students how long you want them to work on this task for. Be as specific as possible. Say “you have 3 minutes” or “use 2 to 3 minutes”. This step is especially important when you have asked your students to produce a piece of writing, create something, or answer some questions after reading a text. Be sure to keep an eye on the time as well as your students’ progress during the task. Be sure to let your students know when time is running out and if you see that they need more time, give small increments of time.

    Follow these steps to multi-part activities as well. Remember, only give the instructions needed at the time to complete each stage of the activity.

  4. Ask for clarification: If you feel that you’ve given unclear instructions, you can either rephrase the instructions or simply ask your students “What do we do?” or “What are we doing for this activity?”. If they can express back to you what to do, you’re in the clear! If not, take a breath and follow the instructions again, being thoughtful and purposeful with your language.

One last thing! After you give instructions, be sure to observe your students as they start the activity (but please don’t stare at them – use this time as well to reflect on how things are going in your lesson and review the next steps in your plan). Observation during an activity is important because it will tell you if your students have understood the instructions and if they need any help with the activity.

Time to test these tips out in class! Don't forget to reflect on the process once you've put some of these tips to the test.