Following Directions - How to Easily Teach Struggling Students

Posted by Erica Warren on

Learning to follow both aural and written directions is a crucial skill for students to master. It is the foundation of learning and difficulties in this area can impact a student’s ability to focus, follow a sequence of steps, take notes, answer questions as well as show their knowledge on written assignments and even tests.

Kids learning to follow directions

What Causes Difficulties in Following Directions?

Even if a student appears to be listening, it doesn’t mean that they will actually follow directions. Once a student hears the information, the brain needs to make sense of the sounds, and weaknesses in attention, auditory processing, visual processing, reasoning, executive functioning, and language processing can block one's understanding. Clearly, if students do not understand lessons, we can't expect them to provide the needed response.

So What Can be Done about This?

The best solution is to exercise and strengthen the core cognitive skills required for following directions. Students need to learn and practice the subtleties of linguistic cues, by carefully analyzing each word, synthesizing relationships between words, and deciphering the message.

Whether it involves listening comprehension (auditory, receptive language and reasoning) or understanding written directions (reading comprehension), there are a number of things teachers and parents can do to assist students with this process. What’s most important is to make the process fun.

Learning Tools that are fun

3 Fun, Free Games that Strengthen Listening Skills:

1) One game that has been around for a long time is Simon Says. In this game directions are presented orally.
  • Ask the players to stand in front of you. Instruct them that you are Simon and that they must follow your directions to win the game. If you say, "Simon says" before you give the instructions, the players must do the action(s). If you do not say, "Simon says" before you give the instructions, they should ignore the instructions.
  • Start with simple, one-step directions such as, “Simon says put your hands on your hips.” In the beginning, “Simon” can demonstrate the directions with the players.  Later, “Simon” can stop demonstrating and multi-step instructions can be added. For example, “Simon says, hop on your left foot, then hop on your right foot, then sit on the floor.”
  • Typically students are out of the game when they make a mistake. I recommend giving points or tokens to those that follow the directions perfectly so that the ones that make mistakes can continue to play. The player with the most tokens at the end is the winner
2) Another game, Follow My Words, is best played with 2-4 players. One player is blindfolded and the other player(s) gives directions.  It is very important to stress safety, and the directions must be carefully planned so that no one is hurt or misguided. Remember the one that is blindfolded is placing all their trust in the other players.
  • The player that is blindfolded must follow the oral directions of the other player (s). 
  • You can do simple activities such as make a sandwich, draw an image, or build something out of blocks.
  • Each player should take turns as the one that is blindfolded and the one that is giving the instructions.
3) A final suggestion is a Treasure Hunt.  This game can be played with individuals or teams.
  • Explain to the players that they will be given a written clue. 
  • On the clue will be directions that they have to follow. 
  • The clue will lead to an object. 
  • On that object will be another clue that will lead to another object and so forth.
  • Directions can vary in difficulty level. For instance, a clue could read, I’m in a blue shoe in the closet, or it could say, I’m on page 3 of the book, “The Dot and the Line,” which is under the round table. You can even guide them to a key that will open a chest or a door.
  • At the end, you can offer a treasure or prize.

Would you Prefer Ready Made Materials that are Quick and Easy for Individual or Group Work?

I hope you find these ideas helpful. If you would prefer to use a printable document that can also be used on an iPad or computer, and that is filled with activities to strengthen students' abilities to follow directions, please check out my popular Following Directions publications  If you would like the free download samplings CLICK HERE.

Cheers, Erica

Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.


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