Quality of Verbal Instruction

I’ve been practicing Bikram Yoga now for about 9 months.  It has utterly transformed my default mental state but that’s the subject of another post for another site somewhere.  During my classes, I sometimes compare my wonderful yoga teachers’ teaching practice to my own and ponder what I can learn from them.  Bikram Yoga is a specific sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercise and is always exactly the same day in, day out, the world over.  The instruction is all done verbally with very little demonstration.  The classes can be 40 or more people and it generally relies on having the more experienced people at the front so those behind can watch and see what they are supposed to be doing.  But is also relies on the the very clear and very well-practiced verbal instructions of the teacher.

Last week I attended the nRich Teacher Inspiration Day  which included a session on Origami led by Fran Watson, the Primary PD Coordinator.  Origami is clearly Fran’s “thing” and she has probably run these sessions many times. One of the things we built, she managed to get us all to do with purely verbal instructions, not even moving her hands – very impressive!

So hopefully you can see where I am going with this… Both my Yoga teacher and my Origami teacher have a well-honed set of verbal instructions.  In neither case, however, is it a script.  If it was they could just load the YouTube video and press play.  They show care for their students by observing closely what they are doing and adapt the script accordingly. It is sometimes more difficult in a classroom to observe your students’ progress but not impossible. Mini Whiteboards are a big help here, whether students hold them up or just work on them on their desks. But also simply looking in your students books at their work. This is something that I used to find really difficult but I know has got a lot better with practice, maybe because I have a better idea of what I am looking for.

So here are the specific techniques that I have seen employed that I think are helpful.

  • Say it once, very carefully and very clearly. These are the pieces of script, the stock phrases that have been practiced and refined through experience.
  • Develop a tone of voice that says “this is the important bit, listen actively now
  • If you need to repeat, use exactly the same words. This makes it clear that it is a “missed instruction” rather than a “new instruction”.  This takes confidence and a self-belief that you have chosen the best form of words in the first place. But that comes with practice and experience.
  • Keep your instructions to the whole class until you make it clear that we are changing “mode” and students are now free to do their own thing. If you need to add clarifying instructions (in response to what you are seeing) you say this to the whole class even though it might be in response to what you see an individual doing. Chances are everyone will benefit.

I’m not saying that there are times in every lesson where this very didactic approach is the right one to use. But when there is a specific task you want students to do, maybe to set them up for the next piece of learning, this is a useful tool in the toolkit. It’s one that I know I’ll be practicing for years to come.


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