So you’ve got a really cool activity in mind: it’s educational, it’s fun and it’ll get students talking, collaborating and practising different skills. You just know that once your students are able to understand what they are meant to do, they’ll love it. But you find yourself getting tied up in knots as you try to explain how it all should work.
Experienced teachers and trainers often do this seamlessly … so seamlessly that students can hardly remember how those instructions were given; they just remember suddenly knowing what to do.
So if your students are constantly lost and unsure of what to do although you’ve just told them, or if you fear the setting up of more complex tasks because you don’t know where to start, or even if you’re new to teaching or leading activities and simply want to improve the way you set up your tasks, read on…
Like many traits of good teaching, in order to become good at setting up activities, you need to give it careful thought at the planning stages. Planning your instructions is just as important as planning other aspects of your lesson. Don’t rely on improvising your instructions when you’re in front of the class, at least not until you become good at it. So, as you’re planning your next lesson(s), ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you want them to work on their own, in pairs, or in groups?
If you want students working in groups, how many should be in each group? How do you plan to group them? Is it completely random? Will students create a group with people they sit near to? Or will students of similar interests or similar opinions group together?
You might find it better to occasionally allow students the chance to get to know students sitting further away from them. An easy way to do this randomly is to number students according to the total number of groups you want in class. For example, if you have a class of 20 and you would like 5 groups (with 4 students in each group), assign the numbers 1 to 5 to each student, pointing to each student and saying, ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on’. When every student has a number, you say, “All the number 1s, come sit in this corner of the class; all the number 2s, over there; all the number 3s, by the teacher’s table; etc.”
2. How many stages are there to this activity?
Imagine you’re trying to set up this multi-stage classroom activity: you want students to brainstorm a certain topic with their group, after which they might change groups and relate what they’ve brainstormed to their new group mates.
Do you tell them all that’s going to happen right from the start? Or do you get them to do the first stage before giving instructions on the second stage?
Giving instructions for only stage 1 could make it simpler but without knowing stage 2, students might not have taken notes or been prepared to relate what’s been said. However, giving all the detailed instructions in one go might over-complicate the task and leave students feeling overwhelmed and lost.
One way around this is to give instructions stage by stage but offering a simplified overview of what’s going to happen. When setting up for the task above, for example, you could say, “In your groups, think of ten things you would like to do in your English class. Don’t forget to take notes, because later, you’ll have to tell the other groups about your ideas.”
Obviously, every task and activity is different, so consider the different stages of your activity and decide how you might like to divide them up.
3. How exactly will you word your instructions?
When I was doing my CELTA decades ago, I remember being told to script my instructions. When I first heard this, I secretly sneered at it. “How difficult can it be to give instructions? Why do I need to script something so simple?” I thought incredulously to myself.
But like the obedient trainee I was, I sat down at my laptop and started thinking about the words I’d say…and found myself quite stuck. I ended up revising how I’d say something at least three or four times, and marveled at how I wouldn't have had these chances of revisions if I had simply blurted out the instructions in class without planning.
Of course, I no longer script my instructions, but the rigorous exercise in my earlier days of teaching had me thinking about instructions in a systematic way. And now, when I think about delivering an activity, the fixed instruction-giving chunks of language immediately come floating to me from a familiar space of past practice.
4. How short and simple are your instructions?
Long convoluted instructions can confuse students especially when the instructions are in a foreign language. Students often start switching off when instructions go on for too long. (And this is true for adults as it is for children!)
So follow the KISS principle and Keep It Short and Simple!
Avoid superfluous, unnecessary words with lots of pre-amble:
“This is going to be a easy activity for some of you to do and I think it’s going to be quite fun because it will get you thinking about the last time you went on holiday. So I was wondering if you could work with a partner … maybe the person next to you can be your partner … And if you could maybe tell them what you might bring on holiday with you if you were to go on holiday. Maybe just tell them three things and they tell you three things, that’d be enough. And don’t forget to give reasons why you chose those three things because this is a speaking activity, not a listing activity, ok?”
Instead, be direct and say what they need to do:
“Think of three things you would bring on holiday. Tell the person next to you what those three things are and why you chose them.”
5. What examples can you give them?
One of the best ways of telling someone what to do is to show them how it’s been done.
“Tell your partner about the types of holidays you like or dislike, and remember to say why. For example, ‘I like beach holidays because I get to relax and have time to read books,’ or ‘I don’t like beach holidays because I don’t like having sand in my mouth and the hot sun on my face.’”
If you’re demonstrating a role-play or an interaction, take on different roles when exemplifying.
“Without showing your partner your diary, find a date when you’re both free to meet. For example,
‘I’m free on Tuesday at 10am. What about you?’
‘Oh, I’m busy on Tuesday morning. How about Tuesday afternoon?’
‘I can meet any time between 1 and 4pm but not after that.’”
6. Do you need to give them a time limit?
Sometimes, giving students a time limit for the task gives them a clearer idea of what is expected of them.
Look at the following two sets of instructions. How different might the execution of the task be?
“Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of online shopping. You have three minutes.”
“Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of online shopping. You have ten minutes.”
7. What do you do when students stop listening to your instructions (even when they are short and simple)?
You’re two words into your instructions and your students are already chatting to each other and raring to go. How might you ensure that they listen?
First, make sure you’ve got everyone’s attention before you start giving those instructions. It’s hard for students to listen if they’ve already missed the beginning of what you’ve said.
And if they get distracted mid-instruction, sometimes, a simple ‘Sorry, can I finish?’ or ‘Please listen because you don’t know what to do yet,’ said in a respectful way can bring the attention back to you.
If that doesn’t work, try checking their understanding of the instructions after you’ve given them. (See below)
8. How can you check understanding?
Asking ‘Do you understand?’ can be an extremely unreliable way of checking understanding because students who don’t understand might not be keen on putting themselves out there and admitting it.
Other teachers like to ask ‘What did I just say?’ to check if students were listening. But having students repeat back to you word-for-word the instructions they’ve just been given does not guarantee understanding, and might seem like a scary challenge, especially if the instructions are long and complex.
One way is to check understanding of specific parts of the instruction you’ve given and make it easier for students to answer you:
“Who will you be working with?” (Example answer: the person next to me)
“Is it enough to tell your partner three things you’d bring on holiday? What else do you need to do?” (Example answer: Give reasons why.)
“What do you need to do when listening to your group’s ideas?” (Example answer: take notes) “Why?” (Example answer: Because we need to tell the other group later.)
Another way to do this is to have students volunteer to come up and demonstrate the activity. In other words, perform a roleplay for the rest of the students.
And if your students have written instructions to an activity, you could get them to read it and explain it back to you.
9. How will you monitor the activity?
When you’ve set up the activity, you want to ensure that it is going the way you want it to go. Depending on the activity, the way you monitor it might differ greatly.
Would you be able to observe and listen from the teacher’s seat?
Would you need to walk around discreetly and listen to what students are doing?
Is there a spot in the classroom where you can sit and observe unobtrusively?
And when things are not going exactly the way you’ve planned, how quickly do you interfere?
Do you give students the autonomy to iron out the problems with the activity?
How long should you wait before jumping in?
10. Are you prepared to stop an activity if it’s not working and re-starting it?
So the activity isn’t going as planned and you’ve realised that you had forgotten to mention something important in your original instructions. Or that most of your students had misinterpreted something.
Don’t ignore an activity that is going wrong.
Get your students’ attention, stop the activity and set it up from scratch again if necessary.
And don’t feel bad about it. It happens to the best of us.
Just as no two activities are the same, no two students are identical either. It is essential to remember the students we are setting up the activities for, and tailor our instructions so that we avoid condescending them but instead fill them with passion for the task that lies ahead.