Feb 5

CELTA TP Potholes - How NOT to give instructions

Classroom Management
CELTA - Giving brilliant instructions
One of the areas that trainee and novice teachers often struggle with is giving effective instructions for activities. Here are some helpful hints on how to ace this area of classroom management and some of the pitfalls to avoid.

I’ve got something that I want you to do. I’m afraid it’s a bit tricky but if you can just listen now and if you don’t mind opening your books to page 67… just hang on a minute while I get this slide up on the screen… oh sorry… here we go – I can’t seem to find it… right, here we are. Now, as I said before, I’ve got this video we’re going to watch and you have to watch it – it’s about 2 minutes long – and then after that, I’m going to give you a task and you can jot some ideas down and chat about it with you partner and then report back to me what you’ve found out.Do you all understand?

This is an example – in case you haven’t guessed – of how NOT to give instructions. If you’re interested in analysing exactly what’s NOT so good about this example and finding out how you can give clear instructions, keep watching…

I’m Jo Gakonga, form ELT-Training.com, I’m an experienced CELTA tutor and teacher educator and I know that one of the most difficult things that trainee and novice teachers have to learn is how to give clear, concise instructions. It should be easy – just tell them what to do – but somehow it’s a lot more tricky than that. Let’s look at it all in a bit more detail.

Why are good instructions important?
This might seem self-evident – the learners need to know what to do – but giving clear instructions also means that your lesson runs smoothly and efficiently and it builds trust and rapport with your learners too – they’ll have confidence in you if they’re clear about what to do. It also increases opportunities for student talking time, because you're not there. babbling on too much - you can actually get things going so there's more of them doing something and less of you setting it up. These are all good reasons to give clear instructions – they’re a really central part of professional classroom management.

What can go wrong?
Think back to those first instructions I gave you – they were awful! But what was so bad – let’s see…. 

I’ve got something that I want you to do…
  • I’m not sure whether this gets their attention but I can certainly think of better ways of doing it. They need to be listening to you when you give instructions – make eye contact, don’t shilly shally around – be decisive.

I’m afraid it’s a bit tricky...

  • Ahh – don’t tell them it’s difficult – this won’t inspire confidence – and don’t be apologetic. You’re the teacher – you chose what to teach them. If you think it’s too difficult, plan something else that’s more appropriate.

but if you can just listen now and if you don’t mind opening your books to page 67…

  • It’s really humanly normal to be polite to people but politeness tends to lead to more talk. Think about this – Page 67, Open page 67 in your books, Could you open page 67 in your books, please, if it’s not too much trouble, could I ask you to open page 67 in your books, please? See what I mean? It’s OK to be direct – you can just make your intonation polite and say please! Page 67 please.
  • Of course it becomes second nature eventually, but when you first start teaching you need to think about whether all of the language you’re using is necessary. This is especially true at lower levels, remember that any extra talk is just noise and it has to be decoded – you don’t want to overwhelm them or confuse them.

just hang on a minute while I get this handout up on the screen…oh sorry… here we go – I can’t seem to find it… right, here we are...

  • This is called commentating – the teacher telling the learners what she’s doing as she goes along. This tends to be caused by nerves, but it isn’t very helpful- again, it’s just another thing for learners to try to process. Try to keep it zipped.

Now, as I said before, I’ve got this video we’re going to watch and you have to watch it – it’s about 2 minutes long...

  • Long, repetitive unplanned instructions are a problem. If you haven’t thought about this before it’s not as easy as you’d think. You might even want to try writing down what you’re going to say to get it straight in your head – listen though – I’m NOT suggesting reading that out. It’s just to help you practise being clear and succinct.

and then after that, I’m going to give you a task and you can jot some ideas down and chat about it with you partner and then report back to me what you’ve found out.

  • There are a couple of problems here. The first one is that we’ve got four instructions in one. Don’t do this. Break it down – give one instruction and then let them do it. Then give the next one. They don’t need to know what’s going to happen in 10 minutes time – they just need to know what you want them to do now.
  • The second issue with this part is the language - Jot down some ideas? Chat? Report back? Do they understand these expressions? You want them to understand your instructions so grade your language so that it’s easy for them.

Do you all understand?

  • This is a classic. Of course it’s good to make sure that they understand but this question isn’t very reliable. Will they be brave enough to say ‘no – I’m the stupid one who doesn’t understand?’ or maybe they THINK they understand but they don’t. There are a couple of better ways to check that they’re with you. You can ask what are called Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs) – questions with short, easy answers that can only be answered if they do understand (how many questions do you have to answer? Are you working with a partner?). But these can end up sounding quite patronizing and for my money, the best way to make sure they know what to do is to demonstrate. Do the first one or two questions with them, or demonstrate the interaction you want with a stronger learner.

Some useful guidelines

So, to summarise - what do you need to think about when you’re giving instructions?

Plan. The first thing is to plan your instructions, especially when you're a novice teacher. Maybe even script them - Not all the time. But sometimes - to help you get some clarity and practise keeping them succinct.

Get their attention. The next tip is get their attention. They have to be listening to you, in order that they're going to understand your instruction. So get their attention first. Doesn't have to be anything major - right, okay. Something of that nature, but get their attention. This is even more important online because you can’t see so easily if they’re with you. You could get them to write ‘hi’ in the chat or a smiley – something to show you that they’re listening.

This might seem obvious, but if you’re in a physical classroom, speak to the whole class - If you're standing here, for example, and talking to this table, then your back will be turned to quite a few of your learners and they won't be able to hear you. here might be a better place or possibly even here, but make sure they can all see you, and you haven't got your back to any of them. If you’re online, use the Gallery view so that you can see them all more easily and check to see if they look confused.

Next, your instructions need to be clear - Speak clearly, project your voice, make sure they can hear you if you’re online. And grade your language - Use short sentences and simple language. This is particularly true at lower levels, of course. But even at higher levels it’s good practice. Visual cues can really help with clarity – Use gestures, facial expressions show them where the exercise is on the worksheet, you might find that writing some instructions on a PPT slide is helpful, especially if you’re online.

Clear is important, but so is succinct. No need to be too wordily polite - stay in the moment - One instruction at a time – tell them what they are doing NOW, then let them do it. And cut the commentary – you don’t need to tell them what you’re doing – they can see!

Final tip. Check they understand – demonstration is usually the key here and then monitor when they’re doing the activity to check they’re on the right track – this is easier in a classroom obviously. If they’re in break out rooms online, you’ll need to sweep around into the different groups to check them.

One final thought - here's a good question. Should you give a worksheet before or after the instructions? I think this depends a little bit on what your task is. As soon as you give a handout to anybody, they’ll read it, their attention will be on it. That's for sure. It’s human nature. So if you're giving out for example, a reading task, and you give it to them before you give the instructions, they will start to read it even if you ask them not to. But it might be easier to explain what to do if they’ve got the worksheet, so you’ll have to balance these things and make a decision for that particular activity. 

I hope that these thoughts help a bit. If they did, check out the other videos on my free CELTA Toolkit covering classroom management, teaching skills and language and a whole raft of other useful stuff. Good luck with your instructions and your classes and thanks for watching.
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