Using English Instructions in Class: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

by David Brock 
David Brock is the Hovd Aimag EXCEL Supervisor for English Language Institute.  He has taught English in Mongolia for four years. 

    Almost all teachers agree that it would be good to use English instructions in class.   However, almost all teachers also think “If I just used English instructions in class then my students won’t understand.  Maybe they won’t do what they are supposed to.  Maybe my Principal will come in and my students won’t understand and he will think I’m a bad teacher.”
    This is not a bad thought.   It is, of course, very important that our students understand clearly the instructions.   But at the same time, it is very important that we give instructions in English.  Why is it so important to give instructions in English?  Because students know that the most important communication in class is instructions.  Giving instructions in English is a great opportunity to demonstrate real communication.
    So how can we use English commands in class?   This is where the slow and steady becomes important.   Stephen Krashin, a famous ESL theorist, suggested the L +1 theory.  This theory says that students will learn the most if they are presented with language that is just a little bit above their knowledge level.  This means that if we have a class of fourth graders who just started studying English we can not give all of their instructions in English and expect them to understand well.  Instead we must build up instruction knowledge in English slowly.
    Unfortunately, the national text books do not devote a lot of time to teaching instructions.  In Book 1 there is only a single lesson on classroom instructions (Unit 2 Lesson 3).   This focus on the “please + instruction” form, but is mostly focused on simple actions such as open your book, close your book.   It does not really help us much that when the instruction we want to say is “Please tell me if all the students are here today.”  The lesson on giving instructions in Book 2 (Unit 4 lesson 4) is linked to cooking but can be adapted to multi-step classroom commands.
    This means that we will need to teach instructions alongside other topics.   I know many of you are thinking “I don’t have time to teach the lesson as it is and you want me to teach instructions as well?”  Well, the first thing to do is relax.  If you are teaching fifth graders now, they will have four more full years of English to learn commands.  No one is expecting your students to suddenly understand all English instructions.  The key is to remember the L+1 principal; that is, try to add a little bit at a time.
    In teaching commands, I suggest teaching one instruction a month.  Now some of your classes can do much more than that and that is great.   If your students can learn more, teach them more.  Just remember to check to make sure the slow students understand.  If the students don’t understand the instructions, how will they learn?    If we teach one instruction a month, by the time students finish six years of language study, they will know 54 instructions. (There are nine months of school, so one instruction a month for 6 years equals 54 instructions.)  I doubt many teachers give more than 54 different instructions.  This means by the time students graduate, they will receive all of their instructions in English class in English.
    We can start with easy commands (Sit, stand) and than move to the harder ones.     One reason that teaching instructions is helpful is that they are actually used in class.  This means that the students’ learning is reinforced and they feel like they are learning something they can use, not just words in a book.   At the beginning of the month, teach the students a new command (preferably by modeling or some other interesting way).  Than make a point of saying the command in English in every class.   If at first the students don’t remember, it is okay to remind them of the meaning of the command; or better yet, model it for them again.   Tell the students that it is the command of the month, and put it on a poster in your classroom.  If you are excited about teaching it, your students will be excited about learning it.
    When it is time for a new command, teach the new command, but make sure to keep using the old one.  It is okay if you don’t use a command every day, but you probably want to use it at least once a week for three to four months to make sure the students know it really well.  If you teach a command and then don’t use it again for a few months, the students will probably forget.  So it is important to think first what commands you commonly use in class.
    Many teachers say “I use English instructions all of the time in class but my students still don’t seem to understand them.”  Here is what often happens.   The teacher tells the instruction in English, but as soon as she says it in English, she says it again in Mongolian.  This means that the teacher is speaking English but she is not communicating in English.  The students know that the teacher will repeat what she said in Mongolian, so they do not try to understand the English.   To avoid this, a teacher must make sure not to repeat English commands in Mongolian.  If it is necessary to repeat them in Mongolian, first repeat it two or three times in English and try to model it.   If the students still do not understand, it may be necessary to explain again in Mongolian.  But the next day try again in just English.
    Remember, slow and steady wins the race.  It is not how many commands that the students can learn in one lesson and remember for one week that is important.  Instead, it is much more important how many commands that they can use and understand for life.