We have all experienced that moment whilst teaching students a foreign language. A blank or bewildered look, sometimes causing them to revert to an “I don’t understand” in their mother tongue. This reaction to an attempt of giving instructions can be unsettling to a new teacher, and cause one to feel like an unscrupulous charlatan. Not a teacher, but merely an individual feeding off the global need for native English speakers- the universal language for today and tomorrow. This disconcerting feeling is not pleasant, but necessary to make us look at our own teaching idiosyncrasies and so we can adapt them to make the instructions we give as easy to understand as possible.
This artilce will look at the ways in which we can practically adjust our manner of giving instructions to optimize the understanding of our students and minimize teacher talking time. Specifically, we will look at a mill drill, which is a versatile questionnaire where the students are given several questions and have to walk around the class asking their classmates, writing down their answers. This can be relatively free or controlled depending on the level of the students.
The order in which you structure your instructions can vary class to class, student to student, and depending on a myriad of factors such as confidence, level of receptive English, speaking ability and age. My typical order (excluding very young students) would be firstly to verbalize the instructions, then model the activity and your expectations and finally ask concept/ instruction check questions.
When giving verbal instructions, there are several things you need to be aware of and plan to accordingly. One of the most important facets of this stage is graded language. Why use the word “conviviality”, when “happy” would do? Use the most commonly used, most easily understood language at all times. Another equally important part of the verbalizing stage is to leave out unnecessary language, don’t start with “Ok guys, what I want you to do is copy this question that is on the board”, begin with “write this question”, while pointing at the questions you want the students to ask and answer on the board. Not only does this reduce the unnecessary amount of language that can bog the students down, it also reduces teacher talking time, which in turn optimizes the amount of time the students have for speaking.
When planning an activity keep these things in mind. Write in your lesson plan the exact phrases that you will use for the instructions, with the most commonly used language, as well as being as concise as possible whilst still being understandable and grammatically correct. Also ensure that your instructions on your lesson plan are staged correctly. The last thing you want happening is to have to say “oh wait, actually before this you should…” and bang! You’re back at stage one.
The next stage (or coinciding with the verbal instructions) would be to model the activity and offer the students visual support. This visual support can be a great addition to the verbal instructions, and can be implemented in several different ways. If you have an interactive whiteboard (IWB) use it. There is a whole host of ways that can make your instructions more visual, from drawing pictures of what you want to happen, to writing on the board instructions, vocabulary or sentence structure that you will be eliciting. For example when explaining the mill drill you should write on the board 1. Write the questions. 2. Stand up. 3. Ask the questions. 4. Write your friends answers. With this activity you should also ensure the questions you want the students to ask are visually accessible on the board. Whether or not you have an IWB is not that important, you will have some resources available to you, use these in creative ways to supplement your verbal instructions.
Following your verbal instructions and use of visual support, modeling should be carried out by either yourself or a student. In either case, model exactly what you want to be carried out. For the mill drill, after you have written the instructions on the board, make a show of copying the questions onto a piece of paper, leaving room for the answers. Then ask a strong student the questions and write down their answers. Model expectations for every part of the activity. Don’t worry about spending too much time on this part, ensuring your instructions are clear at this stage will reduce time wastage later on in the activity, either by correcting behaviours or having to re-explain yourself.
Concept Check Questions
Concepts check questions (CCQ’s) and instruction check questions (ICQ’s) are incredibly important. Do not wait until you have given out instructions for the whole activity before you begin with these. At each stage of instruction, ask a variety of students from a varied level to explain or demonstrate the instructions or concepts. For example, after writing the questions on the board, and telling them to write the questions, ask “should you write your answers now?”. By asking weaker students, you are making sure all of the students understand, and by asking more advanced students, you are giving the whole class another chance to see or hear what is expected of them.
Finally, hand out whatever materials the students may need to complete the activity. Never before the instructions! This is an unnecessary distraction that students don’t need. With the clear, concise and visual instructions that you have provided, never again will you have to come face to face with the accusatory, glaring eyes of a confused student.