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Trying to give instructions and make sure they are clear and fully understood can be difficult even under the best of circumstances. Giving instructions in a language a student isn’t fully fluent in can make that even more difficult. Despite the difficulty, nothing helps put students on the road to success more quickly than ensuring they fully understand instructions and expectations. 

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It can take longer than seven years for students to fully understand the language of academic settings, referred to as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. This includes fully understanding words and phrases such as “compare and contrast” and other precise terms.1 Many students may speak English well in other contexts and still struggle with these concepts. To ensure your students are able to learn and discuss a variety of topics despite having not yet achieved cognitive academic language proficiency, you may need to consider modifying oral instructions. This can involve simply speaking more slowly or emphasizing critical words in the sentence to help students with comprehension. You may also need to simplify your speech by using fewer contractions and pronouns and less complex sentence structures.

Scaffolding is an essential instructional strategy when helping English Language Learners with oral instructions. You may have to break the instructions into simpler parts and work on those first, helping students build towards a complete answer.4 Often open-ended questions can be broken down into a series of yes/no questions to assist students who are struggling. 

Other vital instructional strategies include using gestures, props, or other visuals to help students understand and follow instructions.2 These actions may include doing things like holding up fingers to emphasize a number or showing students a picture of students raising their hands when you discuss expectations about raising hands in class. In addition to the teacher using gestures, students should also be encouraged to use gestures when learning new words. Total Physical Response (TPR) can help students remain engaged as they learn a new language and retain new vocabulary words.

If you know that the instructions contain words that may be unfamiliar to students, you can teach those words first and provide them with definitions before beginning the instructions. You may also want to provide students with written versions of key points in the instructions, as this may aid in comprehension and allow students to double-check the instructions if they are uncertain about something. 

Providing a framework of what the student’s answers should look like can help students with the wording of more complex sentences and can help ensure students answer all parts of more complex questions.3 Writing out the sentence with blanks for students to fill in can be a useful way of providing students with this framework. Another way to show students the correct format of their answer can be to model an answer to the question yourself. This method works especially well with answering questions that don’t have just one right answer, such as “what did you do today?” or “what is your favorite color?”  

It can be frustrating if students don’t understand you even after you have repeated yourself and used strategies to modify the instructions. Remember that this language barrier is frustrating for students, too, and try not to get discouraged or let students get discouraged. Language acquisition is a process, and you may need to use different ELL strategies for different students. Understanding where students are in Bloom’s Taxonomy and what phase they’ve reached in Krashen’s Input Hypothesis can help you know what modifications your students may need to understand the material better and answer complex questions.  

Often you may find that different students in the same class may need different levels of modification on instructions. Below are some differentiated instruction examples:

For an advanced student: What is the best tourist destination in China, and why is it the best?
For an intermediate student: What is your favorite place in China? Why do you like_____________?
For a beginner student: Do you like Shanghai or Beijing? Is ____________ a beautiful city? Is ___________ a busy city?

For an advanced student: How are you today?
For an intermediate student: Are you happy (point to smile to show happy) or sad (point to frown to show sad)?
For a beginner student: Are you happy? (Point to your smile for happy) Are you sad? (Frown to show sad.) Then prompt the student to say “I am happy/sad.”

After you’ve used simplified questions to understand what the student thinks or feels about the topic, you can help the student put those words into a template to answer the original question. 

Remember that understanding and communicating is key. Work with your students to help them feel comfortable and confident speaking and answering questions in English. Learning your students’ likes, dislikes, and comfort level with speaking in English can help you ensure they have a positive experience and continue to grow and develop in English fluency. 

Citations for Instructional Strategies for Modifying Oral Instructions to English Language Learners
1,2 Giblin, G., & Reiss, J. (2005). Strategies for Working with English Language Learners. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from 
3 Kaplan, E. (2019, April 12). 6 Essential Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners. Retrieved November 06, 2020, from
4 5 Instruction Strategies for ELL Students That Are Surefire Winners. (n.d.). Retrieved November 06, 2020, from

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