Now are you going to read this blog post or lick the screen?
If you’re anything like me, I doubt you bothered to deign this question with an answer. And yet, this is exactly the type of task check/instruction check question (ICQ) that I often hear when observing teachers. Some of my other all-time favourites include:
Are you going to listen alone or in pairs?
Now I want you to tell your partner about your weekend. Are you going to speak?
Please listen and fill in the gaps. Where are you going to write your answers?
And of course, the classic:
Do you understand?
The list goes on…
So why does this happen? Most of the teachers I observe are intelligent, capable educators with good people skills, and yet they often admittedly have serious issues when checking tasks. Having spoken to many new and experienced teachers, it seems that they frequently feel that they have only two options:
1) Ask obvious ICQs, feel silly, patronize the students
2) Don’t ask ICQs, hope for the best
Everyone I’ve spoken to also seems to agree that making sure students understand the instructions is important, especially at lower levels where there is more chance of a communication breakdown. So I thought maybe I’d look at a few viable options that have worked for me, to help clarify my own thoughts on the topic, and maybe help out anyone else having similar issues.
When is instruction checking appropriate?
First it is important to recognize that obsessive instruction checking is a real teaching disorder. Luckily there is a simple remedy: remember that your students are intelligent adults. If something is patently obvious even without spoken instructions, there is no need to check it! After all, it is the language the learners have trouble with, not simple concepts like what to do with a gap-fill or which skill involves using a pencil.
On the other hand, some tasks are more complicated and might require an ICQ if they include
- multiple stages
- different roles for different students
- necessarily tricky language in the instructions
- things that it is critical that students do/don’t do (e.g. not look at each other’s paper during and info gap activity)
Regularly, it is possible to anticipate when ICQs are likely to be needed during the planning stage, assuming you’re into planning activities beforehand. And of course, if after giving instructions a sea of puzzled faces are staring up at you, it might not be a bad idea either!
What are some alternatives to ICQs?
Naturally, ICQs should not be thought of as the only, or even the most effective way to make sure learners understand a task. In fact, the majority of the time, I feel the following typical ways of checking understanding are just as valid and often more comfortable for the teacher and learners:
1) Do the first question/activity/example as a class
2) Get students to demonstrate the activity (possibly with teacher guidance)
3) Elicit the instructions from the students
After all, if the learners can show you or tell you what they need to do, chances are they understand! Also, don’t worry if not everyone understands absolutely everything – it might just be that they weren’t paying attention. Usually a little monitoring after setting the task can take care of the rest.
One more thought…
Sometimes it does seem to me that a more hard-line approach to checking everything is preached on teacher training courses. While it may work for some, it also appears that many other teachers are turned off from the practice of ICQs altogether. Maybe with a bit more reflection about when and where to ask ICQs in the first place, more teachers could find a comfortable balance between the linguistic needs of the students as language learners and the affective needs of the students (and teacher!) as people.
Do you know what I mean? Ok? Is that clear? Innit? Get my drift? Know what I’m sayin? Right?