Beyond the




A Guide to Giving Clear Instructions to Students (That They Will Actually Follow)

A young boy in a blue shirt shrugs his shoulders.

Shrugs and confusion can often be avoided with better instructions.

Teachers are sometimes surprised to discover just how much giving clear instructions to students can affect students' success in the classroom. When given effective directions, students can engage with the material more effectively and ultimately have more productive experiences.

There are several steps teachers can take to ensure that their students understand instructions and are able to complete assignments with ease.

1. Use Clear and Precise Language

Thirty-three years ago, Chilcoat and Stahl wrote the definitive framework for giving clear directions. They advised using short, complete sentences and precise, concrete terms so that students will be able to understand what's expected of them. They also suggested using nouns instead of pronouns—especially when teaching younger students—and avoiding vague terms such as "some," "a few," or "a couple."

Further Reading: A 'how to' for aspiring teachers.

Teachers should also clearly articulate the expectations of the assignment or task. Explaining what students have to do, how they have to do it, and when they have to complete it by can help them understand—and follow—your directions. Providing a strong, detailed rubric with the assignment can also make both the teacher's and the student's job clearer and easier.

2. Repeat Your Directions

We assume that our students listen when we speak—but anyone who has been teaching for more than five minutes knows this isn't always the case. A teacher might give directions and find that their students haven't been paying attention, or that the students only half-grasped the instructions. A quick look around the room, some redirection, and some repetition can ensure that every student is focused and understands what they need to do. I often write assignment directions on the board, on the assignment sheet, and in our computer platform so that students can refer to them as they work.

3. Explain the Purpose of the Task

When you explain to students why they're being asked to complete an assignment, they're more able to appreciate the experience. Connecting the task to existing student knowledge, previous lessons, or covered material will help students feel more confident about tackling the task.

4. Make Sure Your Students Understand

After giving them directions, ask your students to repeat or rephrase what's expected of them. Ask them specific questions about the requirements. Clarify any confusing points. Provide students with feedback that can help them comprehend and complete the task.

5. Use an Appropriate Tone

It's not just what you say; it's also how you say it. Don't yell, mumble, or castigate. Ensure the pace of information is appropriate for grade level and ability. Don't rush or move too slowly. Pause frequently to give students time to digest the information.

6. Describe the Specifics

If the assignment requires specific materials or a particular format, be sure to let students know. In my class, for example, every question must be answered in a complete sentence, and one-sentence responses are usually not sufficient to answer a question. Creating and clearly explaining such specifics sets your students up for success.

7. Provide Examples

In 1965 (but I remember it like it was yesterday), my first grade teacher had us create an alphabet booklet. I was excited about the assignment and worked hard on it every day for a week. After I handed it in, I realized that many of the students had created clever covers for their booklets. Because I didn't have an example to mirror, I didn't include a cover, and my pride in my work quickly faded.

That I remember this lesson nearly 55 years later underscores the importance of using examples when giving instructions. As a teacher today, I almost always provide my students with examples of outstanding work from previous years, and as a result, students clearly understand my expectations. Doing so has also helped me build better relationships with my students.

8. Break Tasks into Manageable Chunks

If an assignment is large or multifaceted, section it into smaller tasks, especially if you teach younger students who can't handle a long list of directions. Breaking assignments into manageable tasks can help students feel more confident in their work.

Further Reading: 5 Active Listening Strategies That Work

Giving clear instructions to students can ensure that they fully comprehend what they need to do to achieve in your classroom. It will ease students' nerves, assuage their insecurities, and help them confirm your expectations so that they can be happy and successful in school.