I observed a class of 6 and 7 year olds totally fail to get on with starting a handwriting task. The teacher had expertly modelled what the children needed to do and given clear verbal instructions. The teacher had even prepared every child's exercise book with a handwritten example at the start of each line required. The practice of this teacher appeared exemplary but in spite of this the next few minutes were frantically spent going round helping unsure children to start. So what was going on. I believe that there were two important factors that conspired against the teacher for these few minutes.
Firstly, the teacher was not the full-time teacher for the class and so the children didn't apply the unconsciously learnt rule of 'if unsure, do what I normally do'. This underlines the importance of establishing 'daily habits and rituals' which children learn to follow without instructions. I personally remember always having to start my work by writing the title and date and underlining them in red. That was the expectation of every lesson involving writing. For the children in the handwriting lesson, not wanting to do anything wrong and unable to fall back on ritual they anxiously needed to seek reassurance of exactly what they must do.
Secondly, though the books had been prepared with examples they were located in the children's trays. The modelling by the teacher had taken place with the children sat on the carpet. Now they needed to go and fetch their handwriting books from their trays and then go to their seats at the desks. They needed to open up their book and take a pencil from the box on the desk. The problem here is that what looks like a really simple instruction is actually a series of simple instructions, each of which, required remembering. This together with the incidental distractions that children get when they move around the classroom meant that many of the class had now forgotten what to do.
Though every teacher does their best to convey instructions there can be nevertheless a problem with their students understanding and remembering. Consider how frequently teachers utter the following phrases:
'I have just explained what you need to do?'
Weren't you listening when I was telling everyone what to do?'
'OK, the next thing you need to do is...'
'No, I said do 'X' first.'
'Stop everyone. Listen. Let me explain this again...'
It is important to recognise that the failure of children to know what to do is our failure as their teachers. It is important to anticipate the ability or inability of students to hear, understand and remember the instruction given.
Establish and reinforce common task behaviours so students know your general expectations. Having a poster of these can help embed them and support students who struggle with this.
Move students to where they will do the task before giving the task specific instructions.
Simplify and limit the number of instructions given at one time. Particularly at the start of a task give only the directions they need to begin.
Use instructions sheets or task boards to provide visual prompts of what is required.
Consider how you may need to differentiate task instructions - and not necessarily the task itself - to support the various needs of the class.