3. Instructions

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Peps McCrea

We want to give all pupils the best chance of success in their learning. Teachers need to give clear instructions so that pupils know what to do and how to do it. Good instructions can also help to create an effective environment and improve pupil behaviour. When teachers give instructions, they have the chance to explicitly state their expectations so that everybody can meet them. We can achieve a lot with a few well-planned words.

Presenter main

The moments when a teacher sets out the activity instructions matter a lot. Good instructions can increase desirable behaviour and help pupils to get on with the tasks and activities set. So teachers need to plan their instructions carefully.

Firstly, you need to think about what you will say. Provide manageable, individual steps and specifically point out what pupils should do. And try to keep instructions short. Cut out redundant words. In an EYFS setting, for example, you might say, “first, let’s stand up with two feet on your bug spot”, instead of a more long-winded version like, “first I want everyone to stand up and stand right on your bug spot so that we can get ready to move back to our seats.” We can only think about a few things at once, so it’s important to limit the number of steps or words in our instructions. Focus on what matters the most.

Ordering steps sequentially also helps pupils to follow them. For example, “first you need to highlight a key phrase, then you need to label what it means.”  Another approach is to tell pupils what to do with their mouth, their body and their brain. For example, you might ask pupils to “work in silence on your own and order the fractions from smallest to largest.” This format won’t be appropriate in all instances, but where it is, it can help both pupils and teachers remember what to do.

Visual supports can also help pupils to understand instructions. For example, you might want to add a recognizable hand gesture for activities that pupils are familiar with. And you might also wish to include a list of written instructions to accompany your verbal instructions so that pupils can refer back to them.

As well as thinking about what to say, you need to think about how you will say it. Think about how you’re standing and your tone of voice. You need to make it clear that what you’re saying is important and that pupils should pay attention to it. Teachers need to stand at a spot where they can see all pupils and they need to stand still. This allows both teacher and pupil to focus on the content of the instruction. As for voice, it’s good to speak in a formal tone when delivering instructions.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of instructions. Teachers spend lots of time thinking about what pupils will learn and designing a great task, but can sometimes forget to plan how they will explain it to pupils. There’s a risk that this planning time will go to waste because pupils won’t know how to get on with the task. It’s worth scripting out what you will say and practicing it. The more you do this, the quicker you will get at it, and the more effective your instructions will be.

When pupils have a good understanding of how to do something, they’re much more likely to give it a go.

Presenter exemplification framing

In a moment, you’re going to watch a model of how to deliver effective task instructions. As you watch, pay particular attention to the following:

  • Manageable, specific and sequential instructions
  • Uses voice and body to ensure pupils pay attention

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

In this example, I want you to imagine that I’m teaching a year three class who are working hard on an independent writing task. I’m going to gain their attention and give instructions for what to do next.

“Pens down, hands on desks and eyes on me in three, two, and one. Thank you.

Okay, I need you to listen really carefully for what to do next.

One, put your book in your folder. Two, put your folder in the middle of your table. Make sure they are facing up. Three, put your hands on your desks and look at me so that I know you are ready.

I need you to do all of this without speaking.

Okay. Mohammed, where do you need to put your book?

And Stewart, where are you going to put your folder?

And Ashley, how are you showing me you are ready?

Thank you. Okay, 30 seconds, off you go.”

In this model, I made sure that my instructions were manageable by breaking down the task into three small steps. I was really specific, telling them precisely where to place their books and their folders. And I presented the steps in a sequential order. First, they put their books in their folder. Then they put the folder in the middle of their tables. I also included non-verbal signals. For example, placing the books in the folder, to help draw attention to this step.

I used consistent language. “Pens down, hands on desks” is a phrase that I repeat throughout my lessons, which helps it to stick.

As I spoke to the pupils, I used a formal tone of voice. I use this tone of voice for instructions because I want to signal that what I’m saying is important. It encourages the pupils to pay attention.

Overall, the instruction had clarity, both in terms of content and delivery. All of this together helps my pupils to know precisely what I’m asking them to do, making it more likely that they will be successful.

Presenter key ideas

Effective task instructions can have a positive impact on behaviour and learning when teachers make it crystal clear to pupils what they need to do. Before we finish, read over the key ideas that we have covered in this video. Which of these do you feel that you can improve on in your practice?

  • Using consistent language and non-verbal signs
  • Giving manageable, specific and sequential instructions
  • Making the steps in a process memorable, and ensuring pupils can recall them
  • Delivered using an appropriate tone of voice

Presenter summary

Giving effective instructions is something that teachers can learn to do well. And when they do, pupils are more likely to know what is being asked of them and get off to a great start.

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Teaching challenge

For Ms Silva, the most challenging pupil behaviour occurs during ‘transition’ parts of her lessons – for example, when she moves from giving an exposition to asking her pupils to do some independent work. At these times they often take a while to settle, and sometimes even do the wrong things. She also finds herself having to repeat her instructions multiple times which can take up valuable learning time. How can Ms Silva best manage these transitions to help her pupils get on with their learning quickly and independently?

Key idea

Setting high expectations and providing clear instructions are powerful ways to foster good behaviour and create an effective learning environment.

Evidence summary

Teacher expectations matter

Setting and communicating clear expectations has a strong influence on pupil behaviour (Murdock-Perreira & Sedlacek, 2018). For example, conveying low expectations can generate a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where pupils end up behaving according to the expectations we have set, rather than what they are capable of (Tsiplakides & Keramida, 2010). Sometimes teachers can communicate low expectations without realising. This can happen when we ask certain pupils more questions than others, or when we permit pupils to call out when they shouldn’t.

To mitigate this, Ms Silva should be intentional about holding and communicating high expectations for her pupils. This means:

  • Continually assuming that all her pupils are capable of behaving well and making progress in their learning.
  • Relentlessly communicating to pupils that she knows they are capable and that she expects nothing less than exemplary behaviour and learning from them.
  • Regularly providing clarity to her class about the kind of classroom culture that she values.

Clear instructions can make a huge difference

Giving instructions is a great opportunity to embed high expectations into your lesson. Delivering instructions effectively can help make lesson transitions go smoothly and foster a purposeful and effective learning environment (IES, 2008). Effective instructions can reduce challenging behaviour, reinforce desirable behaviour, and make the classroom more structured and predictable for pupils (Kern & Clemens, 2007). For example, directing pupils to sit in a seating plan and giving them clear instructions for how to begin the starter activity increases the chances of an orderly entrance and successful start to the lesson.

Instructions are powerful because they act as a reference point that pupils use as a guide for what to do and how to do it. However, giving effective instructions is not always easy to do well. In particular, there are two features of how pupils think that can thwart our efforts:

  1. Limited working memory: People can only think about so many things at once. If we give our pupils too many instructions to hold in their heads, it is likely that they will be unable to retain any of them.
  2. Forgetting: People forget things. This is especially true when instructions are overly lengthy or for unfamiliar classroom activities (Gathercole et al., 2006).

Both of these situations are exacerbated by the mental demands of the classroom. During our lessons, we often ask pupils to both hold instructions in their heads and think hard about lesson content – for example, when we expect pupils to remember our instructions for conducting a paired discussion while also considering complex questions about Caesar’s invasion of Britain. To make it feasible for our pupils to meet high expectations, we must make sure our instructions are easy to understand and put into practice.

Issuing effective instructions

Bearing in mind the above features of how pupils think, classroom instructions are likely to be more effective when they are:

  • Stepped: The best instructions are broken down into a clear sequence of manageable steps (Gathercole et al., 2006).
  • Brief: They include as few steps as possible and get straight to the point, especially when giving instructions for new or unfamiliar activities. If you are struggling to achieve a low number of steps, it may be worth looking at making the task itself less complex.
  • Visible: Displaying instructions in addition to communicating them verbally means that pupils won’t have to remember them while also thinking about the lesson content.
  • Checked: Pupils can easily misunderstand initial instructions. Checking that pupils have understood the steps before letting them get on with the task can increase the chances that they do the right thing (Rosenshine, 2012). This also increases the chances of them remembering the instructions.
  • Supported: Consistent language and non-verbal actions for common classroom directions also make them more likely to be memorable.

Nuances and caveats

It is important to think about how we communicate instructions. Timing, tone of voice and how we model instructions can all make a difference to how well they are taken on board. Providing clear instructions is beneficial to all pupils but it can be especially important for younger pupils, those with Special Educational Needs and those with lower working memory capacity (Gathercole et al., 2006).

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can improve pupil behaviour and learning by understanding that:

  • Holding and communicating high teacher expectations can improve pupil behaviour.
  • Effective instructions can both prevent problems occurring and reinforce desired behaviours.
  • Delivering effective instructions involves a concise ‘what’ and a clear ‘how’.
  • Checking that pupils understand instructions before letting them start increases the chances of success.

Further reading

Gathercole, S., (2008) The Psychologist.


Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

IES (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Kern, L., & Clemens, N. H. (2007). Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior. Psychology in Schools, 44, 65–75.

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018). Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010). The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching, 3(2), 22-26.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Silva can improve pupil behaviour and learning by understanding that:

  • Holding and communicating high teacher expectations can improve pupil behaviour.
  • Effective instructions can both prevent problems occurring and reinforce desired behaviours.
  • Delivering effective instructions involves a concise ‘what’ and a clear ‘how’.
  • Checking that pupils understand instructions before letting them start increases the chances of success.

Reflect on the following questions

1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?

2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?

3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?