The SLP's Gift of Clarity
Clear and easy-to-follow directions are like a compliment. They make you feel better about yourself. Confusing and poorly explained directions are like an insult. They have the potential to lower your self-esteem and your belief in your own abilities. As adults, we've seen poor directions related to our purchases. Some products have the warning "some assembly required." When directions aren't clear, we may be left with component pieces scattered everywhere. As adults, we have a fully developed sense of self, and belief in our skills and aptitude. Even with this self-assurance, we can still doubt ourselves when faced with unclear directions.
We might feel confusion, frustration, insecurity, self-doubt or anger. Our emotions may focus inward, e.g., "I'm so stupid. Why can't I do this? I'm so mad at myself for not knowing what to do," or outward, e.g., "These directions are so bad. Nobody could do this. I'm so mad at them for putting me in this situation." Fear of failing may be a risk factor in maintaining self-esteem.
We don't know who will internalize (self-blame) or who will externalize (blame others). Poorly explained directions might affect how children see themselves as learners. When you don't know what to do, you might think that you're not smart. Power differentials may exacerbate the problem, as respected people of authority often provide directions.
Poor directions typically lack an awareness of learner background knowledge (presuppositional errors). Poor directions don't meet learners where they are in the learning process. In contrast, clear directions recognize the amount of information that needs to be included. Clear directions use categorization, definitions and sequence.
Categorization of task into distinct areas:
- Big picture: Show, describe or provide a model of the completed project and how it is used.
- Rationale: Explain why it matters. Provide intention and justification for goal. Show how it will help and what you will gain from the experience or product.
- Connection to known information: Make comparisons to concepts that are familiar to the learner to activate relevant world knowledge, e.g., similes, analogies, etc.
- Materials needed: List the supplies needed and how to assemble (collect) them before beginning the activity.
Definitions for each term:
- Vocabulary for concepts: Provide a short definition for every new term (word or concept) and explain any acronyms.
- Specific verbs for actions: Use descriptive verbs to differentiate actions, e.g., count, color, watch, compare, contrast, list, etc.
Sequence of events:
- Linear order of activities: Present steps in the order that they will occur.
- Sequential terms: Use consistent markers that indicate order, e.g., (1), (2), first, second, next, then, etc.
Every time we give someone directions, we are in a position of power. That person's success is dependent on the quality of our directions. We can give children directions that make them feel successful, and we can use clarity that helps them believe in their own skills.