Does your classroom language look like bad furniture assembly instructions?

We’ve all been in there before. Pieces of wood strewn across the floor. Packets of seemingly identical (but vitally different) nails encircle you. At the center of this carnage you sit with furniture assembly instructions on your lap which require the Rosetta Stone to decipher.


Is this how our students feel? Listening to instructions in a foreign language can be every bit as confusing as assembling a set of bookshelves. Next time you give instructions for an activity, G-I-V-E instructions.


G - Get students’ attention. The other steps are interchangeable, but attention comes first. If your students aren’t listening, there’s no point in talking. With adults, get attention by raising your voice, clapping your hands or if you play background music during activities, turn the music up, then off. With young learners, you can use any of the above, sing a sing with actions or shout the names of people/objects around the room for students to look at, ending with you.


I – Instruct. Tell students what to do. Some teachers just skip to giving an example, but I think our instructions might be the most genuine listening practice our students get. What better motivation for students to decode meaning than finding out what they need to do next?


V - Validate understanding. Check everyone knows what to do, especially if the activity is either complicated, important, difficult to understand, or all of the above. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean asking concept checking questions (“What are you going to do?”). It can be as simple as reading students’ facial expressions or monitoring the class after the activity starts. If things go wrong, you’ll want to find out as soon as possible so you can get the class back on track.


E – Example. There aren’t many silver bullets in language teaching, but giving examples is one. If you’re demonstrating a dialogue, draw to faces on the board and mimic both speakers; if it’s a game that involves several players, call some star students to the front to help; if it’s making something, give students a here’s-one-I-made-earlier example. When you see students’ “a-ha” expressions, you know you’ve nailed it.


The first step in going anywhere is to find out where you are. Ask a colleague to come to class to transcribe your instructions for one or two activities and use G-I-V-E to analyze how similar your instructions are to a furniture assembly manual.