How to give understandable instructions to students during English lessons

Giving proper instructions to English learners

Giving proper instructions to English learners


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

Have you ever been in a situation where you asked your students to perform a particular task, and, a few minutes later, found them doing a different thing or sitting and staring at the ceiling? 

Have you ever thought about why this happened? Why do teachers often find their students asking questions or being busy with quite the opposite of what was told in the instructions? The answer may lie on the surface: bad instructions can simply ruin the whole activity.

The best activity in the world is a waste of time if the students don't understand what it is they are supposed to do.

Jeremy Harmer

Here is a short guide on making your instructions as clear and as understandable as possible.

How to prepare and deliver instructions

Instructions are an essential part of the task cycle as well as students completing a task, the teacher managing it, and feedback. Therefore, ideally, we have to plan our instructions, i.e. think of what and how we are going to explain to our students, in advance.

You might think that giving instructions is a child's play, but it is not. Before giving instructions, it is a good idea to ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is the important information I am trying to convey?
  • What should my students know in order to complete the task successfully?
  • What information do they need to know first?
  • Which should come next?

If you give your students only vital information, they are likely to perform the task successfully. When you are saying a lot, there are high chances that your students will not understand what to do. So keep your instructions short.

This also means that you have to reduce your teacher talk and stop commenting as well as start grading your language. By speaking more slowly or by employing simpler grammar and vocabulary, you can make your message more digestible for lower-level students, for example. The problem here is that students at the elementary level process everything a teacher is saying. Therefore, when you are speaking for a few minutes about things that can be said in 1-2 short sentences, they get confused. Before the activity even begins, students do a significant amount of additional work.

Use the same terminology. We often do similar exercises or use the same interaction patterns in our lessons. Students will be better able to understand the teacher's instructions if they are delivered with the words and expressions they already know or if a teacher uses the same gestures or any other non-linguistic means.

 For example, "Work in pairs", "Discuss in groups", "Read the text quickly and answer the question", etc.

According to Andrii Pigariev, the author of the  "Superb EFL/ESL Classroom Management" course by Grade University, instructions should include:

  • Purpose of the task. This will help students understand how the previous stage is linked to the next one. 
  • Interaction patterns. Depending on the task, this could involve individual, pair, or group work. In an offline classroom, it is also important to say/show who their partner is going to be. 
  • What to do. Instructions as for what should be done and how should be brief and imperatives used. The simple language will help students better understand what to do.  

Before you give instructions, make sure that students are listening to you and are not sidetracked by their own stuff. Otherwise, they are unlikely to understand what needs to be done.

Spread any handouts or other materials for the activity only after you've given the instructions if you intend to incorporate them. This will allow students to focus on what they have to do rather than on the task on a handout or in a coursebook.

Classroom management and student organization during online lessons

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There may be a few stages involved in some tasks, while others may be too complex to explain. It is a good idea to demonstrate the activity. You can model the task yourself, or, if this is an activity to be done in pairs, take the role of Student A, and invite one of the students to be Student B. 

Doing #1 with students is an additional strategy for assisting them with challenging or unfamiliar tasks. Encourage them to complete the first option on their own, then ask them to explain why they have chosen it in open class.

It's also important to set time limits and give a signal to start.

Superb EFL/ESL Classroom Management

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How to make sure students understand your instructions

After the instructions have been delivered, it's crucial to check that the learners know what and how needs to be done. Always do this before they start completing the task.

Many teachers ask the question: "Do you understand?" it's an epic fail because not all students can answer it honestly. Some might be too shy. Asking such a question should be avoided, and it can be done in several ways. 

First, of all ICQs or instruction checking questions. By asking them we can easily figure out if there is a problem with understanding the instructions or not. Anticipate the problems that students might have and ask them short questions to clarify what needs to be done. 

For example, "Do you have to speak or write?", "Do you have to work in pairs or alone?", "What do you have to brainstorm?", "How much time do you have?", etc.

Second, if the instructions are in the textbook, ask the learners to read them and tell you what they actually think they have to do. This applies to activity types that the students are already familiar with.

In our course on classroom management, we look at the task cycle in more detail and teachers practise writing proper instructions for their lessons. We also analyse 'good' and 'bad' instructions and offer guidance on how to improve them.

Article authors & editors
  • Yulia Chorna

    Yulia Chorna


    DELTA Module 1, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English



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