Approaching my 20th year of teaching, I am thinking about how different my practice is now, compared to my first years. There’s so much that methods classes just don’t teach you! Some aspects of teaching can only be learned through experience, but today I want to share some tips that you can learn from MY experience, so you don’t have to stumble quite as much. 

There’s nothing quite like giving directions that you think are crystal clear, only to find that your students have interpreted them in a dozen different ways, or they checked out halfway through. So here are 13+ tips for giving better directions to your students in your classroom.

1. Get the student’s (or students’) attention FIRST.
Students should look at you, though you should be aware that they might not all be comfortable making direct eye contact.

2. Give one instruction at a time when possible.
If there are multiple steps, try to break them down so that you can give the first one and let them do it; then give the second one and let them do that; etc. Plan ahead how you will break it into manageable tasks.

3. If you’re giving more than one step in one go, number them.
“Step 1…Step 2…Step 3”. You probably don’t want to have many more steps than that.

Children need time to process what you’ve said. Students who are still learning your language of instruction may need even more. So expect a bit of delay between you giving the instructions and the students responding.

5. When you are giving directions, give directions.
What I mean by that is, don’t ask a question, like, “Could you please…?”, Would you…?”, or “How about…?” Anyone who has spent time with small children knows not to ask a question that you don’t want the answer to! Give directions: “Please put your recorders on the floor in front of you” or “Listen to the music without any talking.”

Tone means a lot! What are you communicating to your students when you give them instructions in class? 13 Tips for Giving Better Directions Share on X

6. Tone means a lot.
I’ve known some teachers whose tone makes me feel like they expect me to do something wrong, and it’s led me to focus on my tone. We want to be clear in how we give instructions, but at the same time we need to communicate to the students that we believe in them and that we are there to support them if they need more support.

7. Be specific.
For common routines, you might be able to give general instructions. But if there’s any doubt, or room for confusion, clearly state what needs to be done with each step. This will be especially helpful for students who might struggle with working memory, processing, distraction, or other executive functioning skills. Prevention is better than a cure: Once you have twenty students moving, it can be hard to spot a student who’s gone off track.

8. Go multimodal.
Visual or kinesthetic reinforcement can make a big difference, both for understanding and for memory. For example, when giving several steps, students may hold up one finger while you give the first step, then two fingers for the second step, etc. Or you might have a visual cue in the form of little pictures or icons on the board. Visuals are also great for students who might forget; they can independently reference the pictures instead of having to ask for directions to be repeated.

9. Think about your pacing.
This is probably one you already know, but if you’re a rambler like me, then it may sometimes slip from your awareness. Know what you are going to say so you don’t have too much dead air, or go on too long.

10. Related to that, be concise.
Challenge yourself to use as few words as possible and still get your message across clearly.

11. Explain WHY.
Learning is always better when students understand the purpose of what they are learning. But even in initial stages, the steps will make more sense if they can understand the end goal and make connections to prior learning. 

12. Check for understanding.
Ask for a thumbs up after giving directions so you can quickly scan. You could even have a signal for students to give when they need a bit more support. Then you can repeat if anyone is giving you their silent indicator that they don’t quite understand. This is more reliable than asking if anyone has questions, because students often are afraid to the the *one* who doesn’t understand. In the case of multiple steps, have the students repeat each step. 

13. Take actual steps!
Another multimodal tip for giving directions with steps is to actually take steps. Move from (their) left to right to emphasize each step (i.e., give step one, then take a step to your left and state step two, then take another step to your left and state step three, etc.). That simple visual has made a surprising difference in my classes!

13 tips for giving better directions

Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) you’ll have students who, for one reason or another, are struggling to follow your instructions. These students often just need you to discreetly go over to them to get them started. They may just need a nudge to initiate a task, or you may need to ask/tell them what they should do first. Here are some things to look out for:

  1. Students who are looking around to see what others are doing: This could be a great thing, because it means they are problem-solving. But still, it’s good to keep an eye on these students to see if they are solving their problem, or if they are just now tuning in and trying to play catch-up!
  2. Students who don’t get started when the rest of the class does: This may just be about processing time, but if you see this, go over to the child and ask what their first/next step is going to be. Something may have gotten lost in the processing, or simply in the chaos of everyone else initiating.
  3. Students who get stuck in a small detail: This could be a lot of things, and will likely just need a small nudge. But sometimes it’s a child who doesn’t know, or can’t remember, what to do next, so they engage with something else (sharpening a pencil, or taking a long time with an instrument case) until they can figure out what they are supposed to do. 

It can be frustrating to give directions that you think are clear, but that students can’t follow. Be gracious to yourself as well as your students. We are all learning together, and we all communicate–both directions–in our own ways. By following these tips, and giving your students the cues and reminders they need, you will help them to see that they are respected and supported in your classroom.

Want to learn more about classroom management? Check out these tips for classroom management routines!

13 Tips for Giving Better Directions
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