Setting up an exercise

For TEFL teachers, setting up an excerise comes with a lot of added difficulties. We have to explain to our students where we want them and what we want them to do. We have to make sure they move into place quickly and safely and that they know what is expected of them. It sounds terribly easy but when the students have very little English to call on then the task becomes a lot harder.

Before starting an exercise you need to get the students in the right place. Often, an exercise requires the students to be assigned a partner or group and it may include moving across the room or sitting opposite someone. Once this has happened you need to give an explanation for the task. You then want to make sure the students understand what they are meant to do, how and for how long. Finally, you need to start and stop the exercise in a controlled manner. If you follow the following process then you will make your own life easier and your lessons will run smoothly.


The first part of the process is to assign each student a name or number. Often when it is pairs we use 1 and 2; and when it is groups we use either 123 or ABC. Once your students have got used to the system of being numbered then you can pretty much replace the numbers with anything. For example, if we are in the process of teaching fruit then I may assign each person to be either apple or banana. If last week we gave a lesson on colours, I may label my groups redwhite and blue.

It’s going to sound really silly but your students may not understand they are being assigned to a pair or a group because they have been outside education for quite a while. Also, remember that you may not be able to use verbal instructions to explain what you want because it’s possible their English isn’t good enough.

To avoid confusion, walk directly in front of each student, stand still, make eye contact and, once you have their attention, point to them and say “A” or “B” or the group number etc. Most importantly, slow the process down; make sure you make eye contact so they are sure you are talking to them. It may be that you will have to wait a few seconds before they realise you are waiting for them to look at you, that’s fine. Move around the class pointing and giving them their assigned number or letter. Move around the class! Don’t stand in one place roughly pointing in a direction; take the time to move towards each student, standing just in front of them and telling them their number.

Taking a little extra time avoids confusion. If it isn’t done properly you will end up with people moving to the wrong place or not moving at all. You may also get people shouting across the room to their friends in their native language seeking clarification. If this happens, you now have to spend the time trying to straighten out the confusion, students start to get bored and you end up wasting time and perhaps getting flustered.


The etiquette of pointing is tricky for TEFL teachers because each culture has its own interpretation of what is acceptable and what is classified as rude. A good rule of thumb is to point with the hand open and the fingers together (as though you have just opened a fist). This way, you are unlikely to offend anybody.

Confirming Understanding

Confirming understanding

Once you have assigned each student the relevant number or letter, you then ask the students to confirm understanding by asking students assigned A to raise their hand (you give an example by raising your own hand and saying “A”). If you can see that the students are still unsure then you should move to the first person assigned A and signal them to raise their hand. You can continue to do this around the class and usually the students will pick it up after the first 2 or 3 goes. The next step is to repeat the process but for the next assigned group (B for example). You will normally find that after one or two exercises that require the students to be assigned groups they quickly learn the system and what you want from them. It’s important to remember that your students are not stupid, they just don’t understand English.


Once each student has been allocated a number, the next stage is to get the students to move into their new groups. You do this by:

  1. Moving to the nearest student who has been assigned to the group you want to move;
  2. Pointing to or touching the student’s chair;
  3. Moving to the position you want the student to move their chair to;
  4. Miming the action of sitting;
  5. Asking the first student to move as you have just shown;
  6. Repeating the action with the second student;
  7. Asking all the students to move as you have just shown.


You cannot take for granted that your students will understand your verbal instructions. As we discussed when talking about numbering, if your students don’t understand, they may move to the wrong place or not at all, they may start to chat amongst themselves or switch off. All this means that, as the teacher, you could lose control and that is the last thing we want.

And make sure

  • All students are paying attention;
  • You give the demonstration slowly and clearly;
  • You only allow all the students to move when they have watched the demonstration.


In most other situations in life (school, work etc.), we are told to explain exactly what is going to happen and the objectives for doing it. In the essays we write at school, in presentations at work, even primary school teachers! We are told that we must:

  • say what we are about to do;
  • why we are about to do it;
  • (then we actually do it);
  • (once we have done it) we say what we just did.

Bad example:

Today, I am going to introduce some grammar, then we are going to practise it with some exercises, then we will have some fun playing some games that involve the grammar. By the end of the lesson, you should be able to understand and have an idea how to use this new piece of grammar. Any questions?”

The practicalities of TEFL

Unfortunately, with TEFL students, this system can create confusion. Your students are there to learn English so it is possible that they will need to use a lot of words they may or may not understand. Because it is not their first language, it is also possible that they may forget half of what you say or misinterpret what you want from them. If this happens, it could escalate into the teacher losing control or having to fight to keep control whilst the students start asking each other what they should be doing.

How TEFL teachers do it

As TEFL teachers, we would much prefer to concentrate on giving ‘bite-sized’ pieces of information. We trim away all the fat and give them just enough information to be able to complete the next task. Even if the next task is just to move to the other side of the room and sit elsewhere. Once this bite-sized piece is completed, we move on to the next and the next etc., breaking it up into as small a piece of information as possible.

Good example:

Okay, A’s will speak for 2 minutes about their plans for the weekend.

Notice in the good example that there is no explanation why, nor do we explain what will happen after. Will B’s have a turn? Will students be asked to move? At this point in time, it doesn’t matter to the students so we don’t tell them.

Check Understanding

So far we have:

  • Numbered our students into groups or pairs;
  • Moved our students into position to be able to complete the task;
  • Explained just enough so our students can complete the next part of the exercise.

Having successfully got this far without losing control, we want to make sure that our students understand what we want them to do in the task. So we concept check or check understanding.

Being used to speaking in our native language and speaking to people who normally understand us we would just simply ask:

Do you understand?”

The problem with asking the above question is that many students feel that they are to blame or are embarrassed if they don’t understand so they all nod their heads in affirmation or just look blankly at you. Some will even look you straight in the eye and say “yes” convincingly. Unfortunately, as soon as the exercise or task starts, they will either immediately switch into their native language and ask the other students or they will sit there quietly doing nothing. Either way, the teacher is losing control and productivity and will have to gain control back and waste time re-explaining the task and consequently will lose even more productivity.

The solution is to ask open questions rather then closed questions. So, rather than asking “Do you understand?” where the answer can only be Yes/No (therefore a closed question), we ask questions where they must form their own answers (open questions).

Good example:

Teacher           So who is going to be speaking?

1st Student     A is going to be speaking

Teacher           And what are they going to be speaking about?

2nd Student    Plans for the weekend

Teacher           And how long will they speak for?

3rd Student     They will speak for 2 minutes.

This way the students answering the question are confirming they understand but they are also giving the other students a second opportunity to hear the instructions broken down into bite-sized pieces of information.


When setting up a task always give a time limit. Students like to know what is expected from them and how long they have to complete the task.

Even though you must give a time limit, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to stick to it, you can be flexible. If you find that your students are still in deep conversation, then you may decide to allow the exercise to continue longer than the time limit. Likewise, before the time is up, you may have a silent room and decide to shorten the time of the exercise.

Test it on yourself

To better understand what it is like speaking about a subject for a specific length of time try it yourself. Try to speak about your hobbies for 2 minutes. Did you try it? How easy was it to speak for that length of time?

How long?

It’s not easy to figure out how long an exercise should last. As we have to give a time limit, we need to predict how long an exercise needs. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time out, time management is a skill that is developed through experience.

Bear in mind that for lower level students it can take 20 seconds to say anything at all so 2 minutes feels like such a short time. On the other hand, students of a higher level can almost speak as fluently as you. They can say a hell of a lot in such a short time so 2 minutes can feel like an eternity.

Time markers: it is important to give markers as to how much time has passed or is left. It can take a long time for a student to decide what they want to say, translate it (in their head) from their native language into English and get it to their mouth. If you stop before they have time to say what they wanted, it can leave students feeling frustrated. By giving time markers, they are able to manage their own time.

Starting & Stopping

When starting or stopping an exercise you should give your students a countdown.

Start: ‘3, 2, 1, Start’

By starting the task this way, you are giving the students an opportunity to ‘start switching on’ to speaking English, rather than abruptly just saying ‘Start‘.

Stop: ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Stop’

This is extremely important, especially when it is a speaking task. There may be a lot of people speaking at the same time so the classroom is very noisy. You should never try to compete with your students by shouting so, by counting down, you give the students 6 opportunities to hear they are about to stop. By walking round the room whilst you are doing it, you also increase the chance that every student has heard they should be stopping.