Tips for Giving Instructions When Teaching English Online

ELTCampus Online Workshop Series with James S. Heal

Teaching Online: Giving Instructions in an Online Class

Poor instructions ruin a lesson. That simple. When you haven’t planned what you want to say regarding instructions and how to say it, we compromise the timing, the activities and the objectives that form our lesson. So what happens when we are teaching online?

The other morning my colleague James and I enjoyed the company of teachers from all over the world as we ran an online workshop about giving instructions when teaching online. This workshop forms part of a series looking at what effective online English teaching looks like. The following article is a summary of what we discovered together about giving effective instructions with online teaching.

First, James put on a music video that was full of instructions, to demonstrate how fast instructions can be given and how stressful it is when you are receiving them and expected to respond.

Teaching moment: We experienced a classic online teaching problem: the video was very jumpy because of the server, so a lot of us couldn’t watch it properly. Jumpiness is part of online reality – sometimes a video may not play as we want. So, we need to have a back-up plan.

What backup plans can we have for when things get glitchy online? We can:

  1. Tell the teacher it’s not working via the chat. (make sure our students know they can give us feedback and tell them how to do it – teach your students and use gestures that communicate situations like “We can’t hear you”, “Look at the chat”, “no audio” etc.
  2. The teacher stops the activity and supplies the video link in the chat and everyone can find the video and watch outside the zoom/skype/google hang out meet/ platform.

Using reformulation techniques and the online chat for checking instructions

James frequently asked a workshop participant to reformulate the instructions as a way of checking that we have understood. This is a good technique to keep students focused – they could be asked to repeat your instructions! However, I know from experience that the prospect of being singled out to answer a question from the teacher can be terrifying. You know your students best. You decide if this is an effective technique for your context.

The online chat is also a way that we can check our students have understood what we want them to do. Get one of your students to write in the chat about what you want them to do. This also gives them a written reference for instructions that they can access later.

Our workshop participants wrote in the chat their tips for effective ways to give instructions when teaching online.

  • Write instructions on the board
  • Keep language simple, graded to the level and succinct
  • Rephrasing or recasting the instruction with simpler language can help at more advanced levels, but confuse beginners, depending on what the instruction is
  • Speak clearly
  • Giving instructions broken down into stages and in sequential order
  • Ask students to write instructions down
  • Ask ICQs (Instruction checking questions – we look at that in our CELTA Preparation Bundle
  • Model: Use what’s available in your online lesson platform- show how to do an activity on your screen and they follow or copy
  • Show or support your words with pictures, examples, clear gestures
  • Use the imperative with please at the end
  • Write out the instructions on the board or share on a word document
  • Use the chat. Ask less confident students to reformulate in a private chat so they aren’t embarrassed
  • Get kids/adults to copy or take notes of simple instructions into their notebook so they can refer to them during a breakout room activity
  • Ask ss to demonstrate by doing the first part with you monitoring – a form of modelling
  • Have a separate slide for instructions only (if using slides)

Hooray for Breakout Rooms!

James modeled a way of setting up an information gap speaking activity. He had us go into a breakout room in pairs and our only task was to decide who was going to be “A” and who was going to be “B”. He then got Amy to write in the chat the instructions. Why did he do this?

  1. to check she had understood the instructions
  2. to offer a written version of the instructions that others can access (to help our weaker students)
  3. to give Amy a chance to shine
  4. to give Amy an opportunity to practice her written English

We went into the chat rooms to choose who was A and who was B.  I also had a nice opportunity to talk face to face with more of our teachers. Such a pleasure! These little moments help build rapport among our students. This is another good reason for breaking the class down into manageable small groups.

We then came back together. James welcomed us back and asked student “A” to photograph the screen with a mobile phone so they would have the material of the information-gap activity on their phone to use.

Another way:

communicating in a small window teaching online

Another thing we discussed was the fact that we need to remember the very limited "real"estate" we are working with: We have to express ourselves inside a small frame.

Use of L1 (Our first Language, i.e. not English) when giving instructions in online teaching.

The Sandwich Technique

The sandwich feedback method consists of praise followed by corrective feedback followed by more praise. We can also use this sandwich technique for instructions too. With weaker less confident learners, we can give instructions in English, then in L1, then again in English. The L1 is sandwiched between the instructions given in English. We can begin this way and gradually remove the L1 support as students gain confidence.

The important thing to consider is the objective of an activity or a lesson – is the objective to spend all our energy on instructions in English and little time on what we want to practice? If the instructions are an obstacle to the objective, then perhaps we need to reconsider.

If given in L1, that can help us to set up an activity and get us to the place where we want to be, quickly. Don't forget that instructions are part of language learning. They are an exercise in writing, reading, listening or speaking in the target language.