Giving Instructions: Is less really more? (Part 2)

Have you read the four sets of instructions I typed in the previous posting? What are your thoughts? How can they be improved? Let’s see if we think alike.

SET 1 – Particularly in the case of pronunciation, it’s not enough to provide a single model and expect all students to reproduce it. Modeling along with a brief breakdown of the process and a useful tip or two would strengthen the all too simple request, “Listen. Ssssssss. Okay? Now you try. Ssssssss.”  Consider these more detailed instructions: “Gently pull your lips out. Your front teeth are close together but not touching. Make your breath go out between the front of your tongue and the hard bump behind your upper front teeth. (Teacher shows the position of the articulators with his or her hands or draws a picture on the board, too.) Listen. Ssssssss. Okay? Push the air between those two places. Now you try. Ssssssss. Think of the sound a snake makes. Good. Watch my lips and try again. Ssssssss.”  

SET 2 – In some cases too many details can easily overwhelm. With a new exercise format, give students the opportunity to catch on by observing you do an exercise item or even trying an exercise item themselves. It may be unnecessary to break down the process for them. You should also avoid teacher lingo. Students may not understand what you mean by cloze exercise, but very likely by looking at the gapped text and a set of suggested answers, they can figure out what needs to be done. Having you model the first completion or allowing a volunteer to have a go at it would avoid a lengthy how-to explanation. Consider this: “Let’s move on to Exercise 2. The text is missing some information. Let’s try to complete the first sentence together. See our answer choices below? What answer fits best? (…) Good. Now let’s take turns with the remaining sentences. Carla? Why don’t you start?”

SET 3 – Giving students the opportunity to catch on is a good practice, but a teacher must be careful not to assume too much. Even if the class has done a similar exercise in the recent past, it’s worth briefly reviewing what needs to be done. Perhaps a student was absent from that previous class, or maybe another simply doesn’t recall doing such an exercise. You might also need to offer some prompts or reminders: “All right. Look at Exercise 4, please. We did a similar exercise yesterday. You change the quoted speech to reported speech. Remember that most verb tenses shift back a tense. Who remembers what other changes often need to be made? (…) Right. Pronouns, time words, and any reference words. Let’s do number one together to make sure we all understand. (…) Good. Take note of the punctuation we used in the reported speech. Now I’ll give you several minutes to work on numbers 2-8, and then we’ll correct it together, okay?”

SET 4 – Use of the students’ native language(s) in the classroom is a whole other discussion. However, I will say that instructions can always be given in English. From the beginning, it’s a good idea to arm students with common classroom phrases, from what they will hear from you to how to ask for help. Open your book. Listen. Look. Write your answer. I don’t understand. Repeat, please. What does… mean? Etc. Instructions for students with minimal English can be given in the simplest words and with very clear modeling. The final set of instructions I wrote in my previous posting were in Russian. The task was to fill in the blank with an appropriate verb. One alternative to giving a Russian-speaking group of students those instructions in Russian would be to model the completion of the first item, invite the class to complete the second one with you, and then start asking for volunteers for the remaining items. Additional support through prompts should be given as individual students require it:  “Please look at Exercise 1. Number 1. I am hungry. I want to … . Hmmm. I need to finish this sentence. I need a verb. Which verb? I am hungry. What does hungry mean? It means I need food. I want to eat food. EAT. I’ll write “eat”. Let’s read the sentence now.  I am hungry. I want to eat. Okay. Number 2. Read with me. I am tired. I want to … . We need to finish this sentence with verb. What does tired mean? (…) Great. Let’s write “sleep”.  Pasha, please read the sentence now. (…)”

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