When designing effective instructions for language learning tasks it’s crucial to provide clear rubrics which do not increase the cognitive load of activity. Instructions that are unclear and complex will only serve to increase the cognitive load, placing more mental stress on the learner and increasing the chances of failure. The following 10 rules to create effective instructions for language learning activities will help you create well-structured instructions that cater to various language proficiency levels and support the learning objectives of your activities.

10 Rules

1. Consider the proficiency level of the students doing the task.

It is very important to align the instruction to the students’ skill levels. A starter course might include very simple instructions such as:

Listen to three conversations. Match them to the pictures.

Notice the limited number of words in each sentence. A listening exercise from an advanced course should include context, and obviously a much more challenging task involving higher-level thinking. For example:

Listen to three people talking about their experience of working in other countries. Was each person’s overall impression positive or negative?

2. The language of the rubric should be less complicated than the language that is being presented.

This is similar to the previous point. A good rubrics should utilize clear, easy-to-understand language for students. Consider the following B1 listening task:

You will hear an eminent professor lecturing on demographic decline, and after immersing yourself in the auditory tapestry, you will be prompted to respond to a series of exceedingly nuanced questions.

Any student will panic when they read this, and they will experience cognitive overload as they desperately try to decipher this encrypted rubric. The instruction would be a lot better if it was written in simple language:

Listen to the presentation and answer the following questions.

3. Limit the complexity of words you use in your rubrics.

A very effective way to reduce complexity is to form simple imperative instructions using common action verbs like:

complete, choose, read, write, put, match, change, work, listen, etc.

4. Consistency is essential, so use the same rubric throughout your course for the same type of task.

Don’t be tempted to change the instruction just for the sake of it. These two examples are similar:

Complete the text with the words and phrases below.

Fill in the gaps using the words and phrases in the box.

The first instruction is better and should be reused for all similar gap-fill tasks in your course. Publishers will often supply content writers with a list of allowed rubrics. This practice should also be adopted for online exercises as students will get used to certain instructions and expect them to be used consistently.

5. Limit the length of instructions:

Keep the rubric concise and focused. If an activity requires an excessively long rubric, consider breaking it down into smaller tasks. This instruction clearly outlines a series of steps that need to be broken down:

Listen to a 10-minute audio recording of a conversation between two individuals discussing their favorite hobbies. As you listen, take detailed notes on the main ideas, supporting details, and any new vocabulary words you encounter. Next, use your notes to write a 300-word summary of the conversation, ensuring that you accurately capture the key points and the overall essence of the discussion.

That took a long time to read, didn’t it? If you need an excessively long rubric, then there is probably an issue with your activity. You will need to go back and see where you can break the activity down into smaller elements. The objectives of each activity need to be realistic and achievable.

6. Staging an instruction is very important.

You need to think which part of the rubric should come before or after the main exercise. Let’s use the rubric above as an example, shorten it, and divide it into two smaller steps.

a. Listen to a discussion between two individuals discussing their favorite hobbies. As you listen, note down the main ideas, and the new vocabulary.

[Play Audio once or twice]

b. Use your notes to write a 300-word summary covering the main points of the discussion.

The second instruction is clearly staged after the listening phase. In an online lesson, teachers can use a blocking tool to carry out “progressive reveal,” so learners focus on each part individually.

7. Refer back to previous tasks, so that you can recycle and consolidate previous material.

Match the answers (1-4) to the questions (a – b) in Exercise 1.

This also allows you to thematically link different learning steps. You can get students to complete a table, but then recycle and consolidate the information in a subsequent exercise.

Use the information in the table in Exercise 1 to write a product description.

8. Encourage interaction:

Design rubrics that promote student interaction, collaboration, or discussion to enhance language learning. For example:

Work in small groups. Discuss these questions.

Work in pairs. Discuss whether you agree or disagree with the following statements.

9. Include examples.

Provide examples to help students better understand the task requirements. This will help scaffold tasks for your students. For example:

Work in pairs and take turns. Ask and answer questions about your daily routines.

  • A: What time do you get up?
  • B: I get up at seven o’ clock.

10. Avoid mixing contextual information and the rubric in the same instruction.

The following instruction is rather long and is difficult to take in:

Listen to Professor Lang giving a presentation on demographic change in Japan and answer the multiple-choice questions below.

It would be better to split context and rubric into two separate sentences. This would reduce the cognitive load, and allow the learner to focus better on the task. For example:

Professor Lang is giving a presentation on demographic change in Japan. Listen to the presentation and select the correct answers below.

At higher levels it is possible to mix more context into an instruction, as students are able to process much longer chunks of language. This is a good example where the combination of context and rubric works very well.

Read the extract from a brochure about business in Japan and answer these questions.


By adhering to these 10 rules for creating effective instructions for language learning activities , you can skillfully craft rubrics that enhance the learning experience and promote language acquisition in a structured and organized manner. Always remember to seek feedback, review, and revise your rubrics as needed to ensure they remain relevant and effective in guiding students through their language learning journey. With well-designed rubrics, you’ll equip your students with the tools they need to succeed.

Bild von Gerd Altmann auf Pixabay 


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