Making sure students understand your instructions

19 ways to save class time and help everyone’s confidence by improving your classroom instructions

Although the importance of clear instructions can be over-exaggerated (having to be corrected how they are doing a pairwork task rarely has as much impact on student learning as, for example, a wrong grammar explanation), students not understanding instructions can waste classroom time. It can also have a major impact on confidence- the teacher’s confidence in their teaching, and the students’ confidence in English as something that they can understand (and perhaps even in the teacher). Here are some tips to help anyone who has ever had their instructions met with blank faces or the complete opposite of what they were intending- meaning almost anyone!

1. Pre-teach
It always seems strange to me that teachers who pre-teach before every reading and listening don’t do the same with instructions, as for me it is the other way round. For example, before a board game I will show the students the board, dice and counters and elicit their names and the actions you can do with them, and then start explaining (or eliciting- see below) how to play that actual game.

2. Teach useful instructions language
An extension of the idea of pre-teaching the language you will need to explain the next activity is to set aside a class, part of a class or regular slot of the class to present and practice language that they will often need to understand your instructions. This is easy to justify, as that is language that will be reinforced many times in class, and most of it will have applications outside class too, e.g. “pass the…” being useful at the dinner table too. Things which could be useful to teach include classroom objects and action verbs. This can be tied in with target language from your syllabus, e.g. presenting sentences like “pick ____ number and write ___ number down” for articles.

3. Elicit the instructions
This is another much used TEFL technique that could do with some extension into instruction giving- getting the students to guess what you will ask them to do. This is easy if it’s what you usually expect them to do (“What do you think I want you to do the first time you read through the text?” or “Should you use a dictionary the first time you read?”), but is also possible with new activities and games. For example, you could give out the playing cards and get them to guess what they should do with them (perhaps discussing in their group first), then confirm or correct their ideas.

4. Instruction checking questions
These are similar to the concept checking questions (CCQs) that they are often confused with. The teacher follows up the instructions with questions that check whether the students understood, e.g. “How long should you play for?” and “What kind of questions should you ask?” Just like CCQs, these can be good if some students get everything straightaway while others aren’t listening or don’t understand as quickly. Aiming the questions at people who don’t seem to have understood can help with this. Also like CCQs, though, instruction checking questions can seem quite patronising. You can lessen this effect by asking them to explain the rules to you in full instead, perhaps using that stage to write a summary on the board for them to refer to during the activity.

5. Give them written instructions
This can also work well in groups where some students understand spoken instructions much slower than others, as it allows them to reread bits they don’t understand and use their dictionaries. The disadvantage is that by using a text you miss a great opportunity for real life listening, something your students probably need more than most if they don’t usually understand spoken instructions. You can combine the two by getting students to listen to you explain the instructions after they read to spot the one part of the written instructions that wasn’t correct. You can also add speaking by giving pairs of students half the instructions each and getting them to put them together (e.g. matching sentence halves or putting stages in order).

6. Recorded instructions
You could also help students who don’t understand you by allowing them to listen to your instructions many times, e.g. by giving them a recording or video that they can listen to or watch as many times as they like before they start the activity.

7. Write your instructions down
Even if you aren’t going to give the instructions out in written form, it can still be well worth the effort to write out what you are going to say in full. This will help you think more carefully about how you are going to explain it and allow you to edit yourself for difficulty of language, length and complexity of sentence, etc. You could also show it to a colleague for them to check the same kinds of things, as well as the possible inclusion of key words (see below). If you still think writing the instructions out in full is a waste of time, you could recycle it as part of a TEFL article or blog post explaining that game to other teachers.

8. Read the instructions yourself
Another way you can use TEFL articles and blog posts is Googling the activity you want to try and finding how it is explained there. The same thing can be done with the index or contents page of a TEFL book. You could underline the parts of the instructions that you think you could use with your students, compare it to your own written instructions, and/ or edit it to make your own version.

9. Mime and gestures
Although it is possible to elicit the entire instructions with the use of mime, it is usually much more useful as a way of reinforcing and explaining what you are saying, and hopefully the combination can also lead to language learning. All kinds of things can be explained with the use of gestures, e.g. “work in pairs” (two hands pointing at people and then brought together, or the same with two fingers), and “take turns asking questions” (one finger moving from one student to the other, then back again). If you write all your instructions down, you could think about how gestures could be added and put them into the text in brackets or italics, e.g. “Stand up and move around the class (open palm lifted up, then move finger around in a squiggly shape)”

10. Pictures
These can be used in the same ways as other parts of your class: matching the written instructions to the pictures, putting the pictures in order by the stages of the activity, spotting which picture shouldn’t be in the sequence, comparing the spoken instructions and the pictures, etc. It might also be good to make a poster of typical instructions with pictures to illustrate each one.

11. Choose and emphasize key words
This is perhaps the tip that has helped me most in recent years- finding one or two words that will make the instructions clear to the students even if they haven’t understood most of the rest of what you have said. These words are often ones that are similar in L1, e.g. “hint”, “drilling”, “roleplay”, “dialogue”, and “detail” in most of the countries I have worked in. “Hint” is a particularly interesting one, as most of my students seem to understand that while being totally confused by “clue”. If you haven’t been in the country long and/ or don’t know the students’ languages well, you could ask a colleague or brainstorm useful key words for instructions in a teachers’ workshop. Ways of making sure those words stand out include writing them on the board as you say them, putting them in the first sentence of the instructions (e.g. “Today/ Now, we are going to roleplay a business meeting”), stopping after those words to ask students what they mean (e.g. “What does drilling mean?”) and exaggerating natural sentence stress to make those words stand out more (“Now we’re going to ROLEPLAY a business MEETING”). These are all tips that can be used more generally to help instructions too.

12. Explain (and maybe play) the game that it is based on first
Another category of key word is the name of the game it is based on. Most of my students don’t know “dominoes”, “snap”, and “battleships”, but they might know “pairs”, “consequences”, “Who wants to be a millionaire?” and “rock paper scissors”. Even if they don’t know the English name, taking a normal pack of playing cards and playing Happy Families with it will help make it much easier to explain the TEFL version. For example, I found the game Pronunciation Battleships from the classic photocopiable book Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock impossible to explain until I thought to play a round or two of normal battleships first.

13. Choose the activity based on the instructions
If you often have problems explaining the instructions in one particular class, it might be worth bearing that in mind whilst actually deciding which activities to use. Things to take into account include TEFL activities that they (probably) already know the original of (e.g. if most people in that country play the card game pairs, it will help explain a pelmanism), activities that are similar to other things you have done recently (e.g. a jigsaw listening if you have recently done jigsaw readings or pairwork dictation), activities whose instructions are likely to include recent language covered in class (e.g. TPR if body parts were in the textbook), and activities that can be explained in very few bullet points. If you have chosen to do something similar to what you have done before, you could start by reminding them of that thing, e.g. “Do you remember the guessing game we played last week? What exactly did we do?… Good. Well, this game is similar, but…”

14. Demonstrate
Often the easiest way of getting rid of problems with explaining is just to stop explaining and demonstrate instead. The easiest way of doing this is with another teacher, perhaps recording you two doing the activity and then playing that mp3 file or video for the students. You can do similar things with a student who you know did the same thing in a previous class, or you can take the role of both people playing against each other. If some students or groups tend to catch onto such things quicker than others, you could then get them to demonstrate the activity in front of the whole class before a group work stage. Alternatively, you could do an example of the pairwork activity with halves of the class taking the roles of the paired students or the teacher competing against the whole class.

15. Avoid distractions
The classic tip for this is to show them what you want them to do with a worksheet before giving it out, so that they don’t start reading through while they should be listening to you. The same thing can be done before you let them open their textbooks. You could also ask them to close all books and put away all worksheets before the instructions stage, as this both avoids distraction and marks a transition into a new stage. Other things that could help include: making sure you have an “Any questions?” stage at the end of the previous activity; clearly marking a new stage in the lesson (e.g. by changing your position in the classroom or cleaning the whiteboard); and making sure all chatting has stopped before you start.

16. Unfinished sentences and statements as questions
One general hint on teacher language that can be particularly useful with instructions is mixing up your normal statements and questions with these two forms, e.g. “And the winner is…” and “The best thing to do is read every word carefully?”

17. Use the same language every time
For example, stick to one of “Hint”/“Clue”, “Change partners”/ “Find someone new to work with” and “Find someone who”/ “Mingle”. It’s easier to discipline yourself to do this if you have taught the language as suggested above, or if you have a poster of useful language on the classroom wall.

18. Opposite instructions
This is something that I only recently noticed works well. If your students are likely to get the wrong end of the stick, it can be very useful to plan the negative things that you will use in your instructions, e.g. “It isn’t a roleplay” and “I’m not going to give you a dice”. Brainstorming potential misunderstandings and other problems (e.g. “They might show their worksheets to each other”) can help with this, and is in fact generally a useful thing to do if you have problems with instructions.

19. L1
Actually using L1 (the students’ first language) in the instructions stage should be a last resort, as listening to (or reading, or speaking while guessing) instructions is one of the main real uses of the target language for students who rarely use English outside the classroom. Translating English instructions should especially be avoided, because then students get the idea that English is something you ignore until L1 comes along. There might, however, be times when you would have to abandon the activity just because you couldn’t explain it just in English. Choosing something that is easier to understand may often be the right response but if you can’t think of an alternative that is nearly as useful, some sensible use of L1 might be better than giving up on the activity. Ways of stopping the whole instructions stage becoming L1 include: pre-teaching key phrases with L1 translations then giving the instructions in English; explaining the game it is based on in L1 and then explaining the TEFL variation in English; and providing a list of useful classroom instructions vocabulary with translations for them to study at home before the lesson with the tricky instructions.

Written by Alex Case for May 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Maher Siala says:

    Dear publishing staff,
    It’s a wondrful article; the best I have ever read in this field.
    Best regards,
    Maher Siala

  • brand says:

    Regarding 19, as far as I think the facilitative role of L1 shouldn’t be ignored. There are occasions when using L1 is the fist and last choice especially at lower level of proficiency classes.

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