Directions, are they really useful

a pretty useless string of directions in staircase form

a pretty useless string of directions in staircase form

The other day I was watching and transcribing a video of a class I had run earlier in the day.  It was a lower intermediate class on mental and physical health with some of the material drawn from a coursebook.  The 14 high school students in the class had been working with this particular language for about 2 weeks.  When planning for the lesson, I had struggled to find a way to make the language seem, if not vital, at least fresh again.  Before I was an English teacher, I had been a social worker in Chicago and part of my was doing intake evaluations at a community mental health centre, and later at a large state mental hospital.  So I decided to pull my past experience into to classroom and teach my students how to do a basic mental health evaluation to check if a potential patient is physically able to take care of themselves, and is oriented to time, place, self/person, and situation.  The students were engaged from the beginning to end of the two consecutive 50 minute lessons.  And in general I though the class went pretty well.  But going over my transcript, I noticed that I had given the following directions during the lesson:

  • Stand up, change partners, and have the same conversation again.
  • First write your answers to the questions down in your notebook.  After you’re finished, close your notebook and then say what you wrote to your partner.
  • Make sure you are listening to your partner.

Now I could be off a bit in my estimates, but I would guess that I have probably given these 3 directions to students about 123,678 times in language classes over the past 15 years.  I have also transcribed my classes almost 100 times at this point. And yet, yesterday was the first time I noticed just how strange that collection of sentences seem.  They are something you would only, ever, hear in a classroom (and perhaps primarily a language classroom).  They underestimated my students’ ability to think for themselves and naturally understand what they should be doing.  And each and every one of those sentences, with minor tweaking be turned into language that a student might actually hear or want to use outside of a classroom.

Why would I say, “Stand up, change partners, and have the same conversation again,” when I could just as easily say, “You all have some very interesting things to say.  I bet someone else would be interested in hearing it.  Why not tell someone else about it?”  In fact, since most students finish doing fluency practice (which was what was going on when I said this) at different times, I could also just as easily walked over to a pair of learners that had finished practicing a conversation and said, “That sounded really interesting.  I bet [insert name here] would like to hear about that.”  And I’m sure there are many, many more ways to give these instructions in language which seems to value what the students say as meaning based conversation (not just language practice) and which can also be used outside of the classroom.

And then there is the long string of directions, “First write your answers to the questions down in your notebook.  After you’re finished, close your notebook and then say what you wrote to your partner.” These seem to be to be particularly ripe for some tweaking.  Having to understand and remember 3 steps in a process seems to put an unnecessary burden on the students.  I could easily separate out all three steps and modify them so they end up looking something like: “Why don’t you organise your thoughts by writing them down first.” And then, when a student (or all the students) have finished, I could add, “How about if we exchange some opinions.”  I don’t think I would need to tell students to close their notebooks at all.  The students who felt comfortable talking without their notes would, the students who needed the notes to comfortably engage in conversation could use them.  In fact, I could probably lose that last bit of instruction entirely.  Instead of telling the students to talk to each other, i could just model the behaviour by going up to a student and sharing my ideas on the topic which they have just spent some time preparing themselves to talk about.

Finally, the idea that I need to tell my students, “Make sure you are listening to your partner,” seems particularly egregious.  My student know that they should listen to each other.  When they can’t, there’s usually a good reason for it.  Mostly I find that the language they have to produce after their partner finishes speaking is so overwhelming that they are pretty much using up all their working memory just trying to make sure that they can say what they are supposed to say next.  And let’s say they could listen to their partner but don’t, I’m guessing that this is a sign that our ideas of what constitutes ‘listening’ might be different things.  Instead of telling them to listen, if I want them to exhibit a particular kind of listening, probably I should model it and encourage them to do it. as well.  For example, having students repeat the key points of what their partner says before they start to speak themselves is a good, solid, active listening technique.  It’s rarely used in Japanese conversations.  And not only does it require listening, it’s a skill that they can use in many communicative situations.  And I do in fact teach this type of ‘active listening’ or mirroring technique in some of my classes.  So if my students don’t seem to be listening to each other during a conversation focused activity, I could just encourage them to use these types of active listening techniques as opposed to the slightly rude and rather vague listen-to-your-partner thing.

With a little bit of thought, I could probably turn a lot of the directions I give to students into something more useful, and by useful I mean the directions themselves could be a source of language input.  I’ve spent a fair number of hours (smashing my head against a wall) wondering why students sometimes don’t bother to listen to activity directions.  Perhaps some of that time could have been better spent asking myself, ‘is what you’re saying really worth listening to?’

[A big thank you to all my friends who helped my write this post by joining in on the #isitreallyuseful twitter party.]


15 thoughts on “Directions, are they really useful

  1. Thanks for this. I suspect that many of us do this as we are so used to the rubrics in course books. Even when we write rubrics ourselves, we generally have to use standardised phrases. I will be more aware next time I tell a group what to do and try to make it sound like ‘real’ communication rather than something I have gotten used to saying in the classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Marjorie for the comment. I think you’re right that much of our rubric-isms are due to the influence of how directions are written in coursebooks. I think ‘Switch partners and…’ is probably a chunk of language which might be traced to teacher’s guides for various coursebooks (i.e. ‘Have students switch partners and…’). I’m not sure we have to always use ‘real’ sounding language for rubrics, but I do think that if we are asking our students to engage in communication in which they can find some personal value, we might be able to explain how to do that in language that mirrors the task at hand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting thoughts! Thanks Kevin. I think we do instructions like this because there’s a part of our American communication culture that makes a point of sort of idiot-proofing any directions given, especially when coming from an authority figure. (e.g., “Caution: May contain hot liquids” on a coffee cup.) There’s a sense that if you do this, you’ve shifted the burden to the receive of the information. In that sense, it can be useful in class to head off any excuses by students that they didn’t understand something, or didn’t understand your intent. I know with my students (adult academic), if it’s not explicit, they tend to treat instructions (e.g., “How about we…”) as optional. But maybe that’s because that’s just how I’ve conditioned them. I agree that it is condescending and that there is more useful language that could and should be learned for these situations. I think we use that condescending language for a reason, but I think your post questions whether maybe we’re defaulting to it in situations where we don’t need it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Steven,

      It’s interesting, the idea that we give directions so as teachers we can shift responsibility for the success of an activity or lesson. I know I’ve blamed my students for not listening to what I thought were very clear instructions. Unfortunately many of my students simply misheard the instructions and what I thought was ‘clear’ was anything but. I’m not sure that making directions more ‘conversational’ in register will do much to fix the problem in the long run, but yesterday and today I did try a few tweaked directions out, and actually took some time to highlight some chunks of language (‘~ might like to hear about that’). Two students out of twenty actually wrote the chunk down in their notebook. That’s two more than, up until now, have ever taken the time to make notes on the language from my classroom instructions.


      • That’s inspiring to hear about the idea of highlighting chunks of language in instructions. I’m going to keep that in mind as I move forward. Another thought is to provide both sets of instructions and let them notice how phrases like “How about…” often mean “Please do….”

        Liked by 1 person

    • Josette,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I would love to hear if alternating your instruction style leads to different reactions from your students. I leaned towards a more conversational register today, and also wrote most of the instructions on the board as well, and there were a couple more students making notes of some of the phrases/chunks in the directions themselves. I’m taking it as a pretty good sign.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting and thoughtful and well-written post. Thank you. Please allow me to disagree a bit (and more verbosely and probably more politely than I did on Twitter)
    You ask if directions are useful. I ask if they are useful for what? For getting students to do the thing you have decided you want them to do? Or to give another round of input? I am not sure what I really think (because my instructions are often quite “natural” which can also mean confusing and long-winded) but your posts and tweet helped me revisit my belief that directions are for giving directions. There can and *should be plenty of opportunities for input in other part of the class but maybe the directions part is simply about giving directions. I guess I still think the primary criteria for the usefulness of directions is to convey the idea clearly and quickly what the teacher wants the students to be doing next.

    This reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend/colleague a while back. He was saying classes should be only English and I wondered about instructions as well. He said this was a great chance for natural input and I stated that I am not sure about that for 2 reasons.
    a) directions purpose is for directions.
    b) there is nothing natural about instructions and it the same stuff over and over again.

    It seems like you have addressed B here to some extent.
    ]I have ignored the defining of “natural” and “authentic” and the idea that a classroom is its own natural authentic realistic context of its own for the purpose of this response.]

    Another thought I had while reading the post was if your issue here with yourself was about the language you chose to convey the directions or the lesson choices or ideas themselves. Looking at the first example, you said, “Stand up, change partners, and have the same conversation again.” Just wondering if you’d said at the start “Please share what you can in 8 minutes” and then simply rang a bell to indicate when it was time to change. This bell ringing would be far less natural (and more Pavlovian?) but it would prevent you from saying what you said when you said it. Or maybe “Ask the three most important/interesting questions before changing partners.” Or maybe the next version/stage/round of the conversation has a catch or requires students to behave in a different way so that your instructions would (potentially mean students need to attend to what you are saying more. I hope I am not coming across as too suggestion heavy here. I am really just wondering what % of your issues with what you said comes from the planning choices and what % comes from how you chose to convey this. I should add that in my comments here it seems like I am mostly talking about just the first set of instructions

    You talked about things only being said in a class (esp language class) but I again wonder if this is due to (again with the first example) the desire for repetition and practice that students might not otherwise get. I am pretty sure I am rambling so I will stop here. Thanks for the post and thanks for reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. And I’m glad to have a bit of push-back on this post. Personally this isn’t a matter which is settled for me at all. I do think that very clear and specific, teacher-ly instructions can serve a purpose. Students are used to them, and even with half an ear they can usually follow basic instructions and do what they are supposed to do. Then again, I do wonder if that is because they actually heard anything, or they are just following the lead of the 1 or 2 students in class who did bother to listen. And if there are only a few students listening, and those students are actually listening, why not reward them with a bit of language which is more interesting (and potentially more ‘useful’).

      I also think you are making a good point that there’s a kind of blurring here between my being uncomfortable with what I actually said (the form of the instructions, I guess) and with the nature of the activities themselves. Taking a hard look at those instructions–and reading your comment–let’s me see how the things I was telling my students don’t quite match up with how I think language learning actually works. For example, I don’t think, even in fluency practice, having the “same conversation” really does any good at all. It is the subtle differences between successive conversation where students are developing. So what I said was kind of nonsense, even to myself. Which is why, at least for the next few times when I transcribe my lessons I am going to pay particular attention to my instructions. I have a feeling that they can serve as a quick and dirty barometer of whether my beliefs are in line with my practices.

      Thanks for the suggestions of activities, and I’ll be thinking of them tomorrow during my lessons. And if you ever get the chance to transcribe a set of your ‘natural’ instructions, I would very much like to read them. It could, maybe, find a home at:


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for making me think about this.
    After watching a lot of trainees this year, I think if I told them to use more natural speech, they would probably do exactly what Mike said and become moree long-winded and less understandable. Having had a lot of trouble with my own instructions/directions for many years, I’ve only really managed to make them efficient over the past year when trying to show others how to do it, so I believe giving clear, concise (inauthentic to the outside world?) instructions is an important skill that all teachers need. If you’re doing it right, it’s also a model for the students of how to use imperatives, since they don’t get much input on that elsewhere.
    Having said that, once students are used to particular activity types, the idea of changing the way that you give the instructions sounds like it could be very valuable. Perhaps you ‘train’ the students first, then start pushing them by expanding the range of language later.
    Thanks again for the food for thought,


  5. Pingback: Is it really useful? | Wednesday Seminars

  6. Really got me thinking of something I haven’t really given much thought about.
    Sometime you just gives instructions automatically, you never really think about the outcomes.
    I teach younger kids ad I feel like they do needs these “rubrics” but your post got me thinking that maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t getting them to think for themselves.



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