How to Avoid that Deer-in-the-Headlights-Stare: Start With Simple Instructions
We’ve all experienced the all-too-familiar blank stare right after giving what you thought were amazingly clear and concise directions.
The blankness is then followed by whispers, confused looks and lots of questions. I’ve developed some targeted methods to dodge that deer-in-the-headlights stare, and to ensure that students will not confuse themselves or others during an activity. Follow these steps, and you’ll be an expert at giving simple instructions that truly payoff.
Tips to Simplifying Instructions
Use simple Language and Keep it Brief
The number one key to giving simple instructions is to keep your language simplified at all times. Think ahead of time how you are going to explain it, and make the assumption that the activity is completely new to the entire class. Explain things with short sentences, easy words, and uncomplicated grammar. It takes some getting used to cutting out extra language and to say only what you need to say.
Use the Board or Provide a Visual
Utilizing the board to get your point across can greatly take the pressure off your verbal instructions. If it is a game, you can show them how you are going to organize teams and keep score on the board. If they will be using the board to play the game, lay it out in front of them as you explain. Tic Tac Toe is a great example. As you explain, you can draw the diagram and explain that one team is X and the other team is O. One person takes a turn and answers my question. If it is the X team’s turn, one person answers correctly, then the team can put an X in one of the nine boxes. This would be quite difficult to explain only using language. For more complex activities, a handout that they can refer to during the activity is a great tool. Showing it on the board or providing a handout with explicit step-by-step instructions will make your job a lot easier!
Model the Exercise: Give Examples
Never begin a game or an activity without first going through a few examples! You can use your sharpest students as your helpers to go through your instructions and your expectations. Then model the game or activity. Show them exactly how it will go in the beginning, the middle and the end. For games, you’ll want to stress what the goal is and how to win the game. Be sure to include two to three concrete examples in your modeling.
It always helps to be repetitive so that you can be sure you didn’t leave anything out. Go through the directions a second time especially if you can see that students aren’t 100% sure about what they are supposed to do. You can also just repeat the model, using a different example.
Do Comprehension Checks
Don’t assume that all the students understand! Check to make sure and this will save you time and agony later. A few ways to do this is to question random students about the activity or game. For example, “John, how many X’s do I have to get in a row to win the game?” or “Jane, do I get to put an O in my square if I get the answer wrong?” It may seem simple, but checking to make sure comprehension is there may prevent you from having to interrupt the game to explain again. Another tip is to focus some of the comprehension checks on students that chronically have problems following or understanding instructions. It is a pretty sure bet that if one of the weaker students is with you, the rest of the class is on the same page.
Answer Question Before you Begin
Don’t forget to answer their questions before they jump into the activity. This is especially important when they will be working in groups or pairs. Give the students a chance to look through any handouts and see if that sparks any additional questions.
When giving instructions to any ESL class, it is essential to become an expert at giving good, clear, concise activity instructions.
Your students will appreciate it and it will save you a lot of grief. Don’t forget to use humor, be as animated as possible, and remember, there are no stupid questions!
I am an ex-ESL teacher who has transitioned from that industry into the field of adult education. I have a long history of teaching ESL in numerous countries and varied classroom settings. I’ve also taught a variety of learners, but found I loved teaching teens and adults the best. I spent three years certifying and training want-to-be teachers in China and the Czech Republic. I am also a writer and editor interested in anything to do with education, travel, and lifelong learning.
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