As English teachers, we give instructions of all kinds to our students every day. “Stand up. Sit down. Walk, don’t run! Open your books. Work with a partner. Make groups of four. Read the first paragraph. Answer the questions on page 23…”

Some instructions are easier than others. Some are very complicated and need to be broken down into smaller sections. But how often does it happen that after we have given our instructions, the students don’t do what we want or expect? Or perhaps they do nothing at all.  That has certainly happened to me! Those moments are frustrating but sometimes it is worth observing what the students actually do – then reviewing the instructions we gave. What seemed clear to us, obviously didn’t seem clear to the students. Where did we go wrong?  Sometimes, just by observing we get a sudden realisation that one word or phrase misled the students, or perhaps we omitted something that seemed too obvious to include.

In order to prevent these false starts from happening too often, it is worth having some schemes for making instructions clearer, and some ready questions to check that the students have understood our instructions in the way intended.

In this article, we will suggest some strategies to make giving instructions more effective.  We will also provide some useful examples of Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs).

First, be clear about the aims and objectives of your lesson – this will inform the type and style of instructions given. If you want to revise or emphasise reading comprehension, for example, you might give most of the instructions in written form only. If you are going to have an activity-based lesson you will probably need to break your instructions down into stages. Plan how you’re going to give the instructions before you go into the classroom and make sure that your instructions (written or spoken) are understandable for the ability range within your class.

Are you going to rely on spoken instructions only? This might be appropriate sometimes as a test of your students listening comprehension skills but probably in most cases, it would be better to reinforce spoken instructions with something written that students can refer back to. Also, research shows that, on average, one in every ten students has significant difficulties with working (short term) memory.  Finally, writing your instructions down is good practice, because it provides you with a chance to double-check they make sense, particularly because mistakes or confusing phrases tend to stand out more when they are written down.

If you are going to give written instructions, how are you going to do this? Are the instructions short and simple enough that you could write them clearly on a black or whiteboard (preferably before the lesson begins)? If not, you might consider projecting pre-written instructions via a computer smart-screen or an overhead projector. Or perhaps you should print off written versions of the instructions that could be issued to the students individually or in pairs.

When giving verbal instructions, be sure they are clear and explicit – don’t take anything for granted. We are only human, and we might have done a similar activity several times before. It is easy to forget that what is obvious to us might not be obvious to our students. For example, if we hand out worksheets that we want to use again we will need to explain that the students should take care of them and NOT write on them. If they need to write things down, we need to tell them where to write their notes.

Don’t start giving the instructions until you have the students’ full attention. Make sure they have stopped whatever they are doing, are turned towards you, and are listening.

Think about how much you’re going to explain at a time. If you have a long, complicated activity, don’t explain everything at once. Issue your instructions in well-thought-out stages. Only issue new instructions when students have completed each stage. Before setting the students off on a task or activity, check they have really understood what you want them to do. A simple way of checking is to ask one or two students to repeat the instructions back to you. However, this only really confirms they have heard what you have said. It doesn’t demonstrate understanding. For that, we need some well thought out ICQs.

Instruction Checking Questions (ICQs)

Let’s look at a couple of examples of instructions with some suggested Instruction Checking Questions.

A relatively simple instruction might be as follows:

“Please do exercise ‘A’ on the worksheet, filling in the gaps with the correct word. When you have finished, check your answers with the person sitting next to you and then wait with your arms folded so that I can see when everyone is ready for the next stage.”

That instruction sounds simple, but is it really? I wonder what you understand by the word ‘check’? In some languages, check translates as ‘control’ or ‘correct’. If you want the students to correct each other’s work, how do they know who has the correct answer? Perhaps it would be better to rephrase the question with the word ‘discuss’. This would imply that discussion is a significant part of the activity. Depending on the level of the students, you might want to stipulate that they discuss in English only.

Let’s look at some ICQs you could use to evaluate the student’s understanding of the instructions. The questions could be addressed to the class in general or you could nominate particular pupils to answer each question.

  • Which exercise should you do?
  • Should you do exercise B?
  • What should you write in the gaps?
  • Where should you write the correct word/answer?
  • What should you do when you have finished writing?
  • Who should you discuss your answers with?
  • Do you need to move around the room to discuss your answers?
  • What should you do when you have finished discussing with your partner?

In reality, you may not want or have time, to ask all the questions mentioned above – so based on your knowledge of the students you need to decide which ICQs are most important to the activity and the personalities in your class. You might also, of course, come up with some completely different questions of your own.

Now let’s look at some more complicated instructions aimed at higher intermediate level students.

“You will each be given a character information card. Read the information on that card. If there are any words you don’t understand make a note of them in your workbook and put your hand up. I will come round and explain anything that is important to the task. When I tell you, you should get up and walk around the room. Take your workbook with you. You will be playing the part of the person on your information card but put your information card in your pocket. You shouldn’t look at it while you are speaking to others around the room. Try to act the role! You should speak to as many people as you can within five minutes. You should try to find three people who have similar interests to your character and make a note of their names in your workbook. After five minutes you will return to your seats and fill in box 3 in your workbook explaining which of the characters you have met would make the best business partner and why. I will then ask you to read out your answers.”

Firstly, I hope it’s obvious that there is far too much information to digest in one block. You could back up your spoken instructions with something in writing for the students to refer to. However, even in this case, it would be better to break the instructions down into shorter sections; each input followed up with some ICQs in the style suggested below.

“You will each be given a character information card. Read the information on that card. If there are any words you don’t understand make a note of them in your workbook and put your hand up. I will come round and explain anything that is important to the task…”

  • What should you do when you get your card?
  • What kind of information will you see on the cards?
  • What should you do if there is vocabulary you don’t understand?
  • Will I translate or explain EVERYTHING on the cards?
  • What things will I not explain?
  • Should you write on the cards?
  • Where should you note new or important vocabulary?

Again, you will need to use your own judgement about which of these questions are appropriate for your particular students and you might realise that some things need more explanation or different questions. Once we are sure the students understand what to do during the first stage, set a time limit and allow them to get on with the task before issuing the instructions for the next stage, followed by some more ICQs.

“When I tell you, you should get up and walk around the room. Take your workbook with you. You will be playing the part of the person on your information card but put your information card in your pocket. You shouldn’t look at it while you are speaking to others around the room. Try to act the role! You should speak to as many people as you can within five minutes. You should try to find three people who have similar interests to your character and make a note of their names in your workbook. After five minutes I will tell you what to do next.”

  • When should you start moving around the room?
  • What should you take with you?
  • Should you look at your information card while you are going around the room?
  • Where should you put it?
  • Are you acting as yourselves or somebody else?
  • How many people should you speak to?
  • What information are you trying to find?
  • Are you looking for people with the same jobs or the same interests?
  • How many people do you have to make notes about?
  • Where do you write your notes?
  • How long do you have to complete the activity?

By now it should be clear that for every sentence used in your instructions there is at least one possible question, and often many more possibilities. This is not simply a statement of fact but an indication of the possible confusion your students might experience. As a general guide, the higher the students’ ability the more open your questions can be.  For example, ‘what should you do after that?’ For lower-level students use closed questions, for example, ‘should you do A or B?’

In the mingling activity described above, once the allotted time for the mingle has elapsed, ask the students to stop and sit back in their places. Then, when you have the students’ attention, issue your final instructions for the activity.

“Now look at box 3 in your workbook and fill it in. You should explain which of the three characters you have made notes about would make the best business partner, giving the reasons why you think so. I will then ask you to read out your answers.”

  • Which box do you have to fill in?
  • How many people do you have to write about in Box 3?
  • What exactly do you need to write about?
  • Are you writing about who would make the best friend or who would make the best business partner?
  • What extra information do you need to give?
  • What are you going to have to do when you are finished writing?

In the examples above we have tried to use the type of instructions that are fairly common in English Language Classes and therefore the ICQs used should be easy to adapt for other instructions. To help you further we have compiled a list of generic questions that can be used for Instruction and Concept Checking. Please hit the link below to download it for free.

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