Consider the three instructions for the same matching exercise for students at the A2 CEFR level:

1. We kindly request that you review both columns carefully and take the time to make connections between the words in column A and the words in column B. It is important to ensure that each word is properly matched and that you have considered the relationship between the words before making a final decision.

2. Connect words that go together.

3. Match the words in column A with the words in column B.

The first instruction is a ridiculously complex and hard to follow. The second lacks clarity and does not give the students enough information. The last is a good example of a successful instruction. It is easy to understand, providing enough information for the student to do the task.

Good instructions involve less Germane load. If you have never heard of that term before, Germane load describes the amount of mental effort which is required to understand and process information related to the task. It is the responsibility of both the content writer, and the live session teacher, to manage Germane load in a way that students are able to focus on main tasks and retain the target language. This can be best achieved by writing concise and clear instructions.

Ok! What are the essential ingredients of good instructions?


This reduces Germane load because the students can focus on doing the task and not waste time unnecessarily trying to decipher the instruction.


The purpose of an instruction is not to teach language, it is to explain how to do a task. The students can focus on the task a lot better if they use less of their cognitive resources trying to understand the complex instruction.


The content of the instruction should only contain words which are necessary, and not contain irrelevant words or parts. This will only increase Germane load, causing a reduction in the cognitive resources remaining for the task itself. If an instruction is embedded in a lot of unnecessary background information, it is much less likely be understood.


It is important that if an instruction is used for a task type, the same instruction is used when the task reoccurs. If the student is familiar with the words and structure, they are more likely to understand the task. Germane load is increased when students are confronted with an entirely new format which they are not familiar with.

This is not all, as there are many more tips that can help you write top class instructions. Here is my top ten tips:

  1. Consider the level of the students and tailor the instructions accordingly. Don’t use language which is more difficult than the level you are writing for.
  2. Use a limited subset of words for all of your instructions. For example, verbs like match, complete, connect, read, write, listen, and use.
  3. If you find you need to write a very long instruction, then perhaps you need to simplify the activity and not the instruction.
  4. It makes sense to break activities up if they are too complex, so different instructions are used at different stages.
  5. Always use the same instruction for the same type of task. This aids consistency.
  6. It is sometimes good to highlight an instruction in bold, so that it stands out from other information relating to the task.
  7. Break instructions into smaller steps. This can make a complex task seem easy and manageable.
  8. Use the imperative and avoid grammatical complexity like the passive voice.
  9. Place the instructions in the correct stages of an activity. What comes before the main part, and what comes after.
  10. Provide clear goals and objectives so students know why they are doing a chance.

Our goal is to write tasks that are appropriate for the learners’ language proficiency so that they are not frustrated or overwhelmed by what they have to do. Consider the following instruction:

You are going to be reading the conversation aloud and you will probably notice that there are a lot of gaps. You need to complete the empty sections with the phrases in the box. Then you are going to have to listen to an audio track and make any necessary corrections to your responses.

Are you feeling frustrated when you read that? There are a lot of things wrong with this example:

  • long sentences with the subject pronoun
  • irrelevant content
  • complex grammar structures
  • uncertainty

This revised version is a lot better:

Complete the conversation with the words or phrases in the box. Then listen and correct your answers.

It is clearly broken into two stages, the imperative is used, and it is clear and to the point.  Now simplify the following gap fill instruction:

Choose the appropriate terms or expressions that are the most applicable based on an analysis of the context in which the sentences will be incorporated, taking into consideration the desired clarity and accuracy in communicating the intended message. The correct and accurate sentences should be incorporated into text.

It is hard to even know what kind of task is required, and the learners’ entire cognitive resources will be used to decipher this long instruction. Germane load will be through the roof, and there won’t be any resources left to do the actual task. The simple version is astoundly short and effective:

Choose the correct words to complete the sentences.

In conclusion, it is evident that clear and concise instructions are essential for successful language teaching tasks. Clear instructions ensure that learners understand the assignment and can complete it effectively, language teachers should use language that is appropriate to the context, is easy to comprehend, and that is broken down into manageable steps.

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay


No responses yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *