You need to choose very carefully when to do a full-blown lesson on giving directions with young learners, and not only because directions is a tricky topic for some adults, e.g. those who dread being stopped in the street to be asked how to get somewhere even in L1. You can, however, start on the basic language they need to do directions long before you actually practise standing in a street and asking where to go. For example, “right” and “left” are invaluable for classroom instructions and surprisingly fun to practice, as I hope to show below.
The next stage with directions is to add “forwards” and “back”, but I often do “up” and “down” first to get them used to work in two dimensions without needing to tax their imaginations yet with the use of maps etc. This article then moves on to longer phrases such as “turn left”.
Teaching “left” and “right” to young learners
The most important thing when teaching “left” and “right” is that all the students and the teacher be facing in the same direction (even if it means abandoning your more progressive circular or clustered tables classroom set-up just for these classes). For example, the songs Hokey Cokey (= Hokey Pokey) and The Pinocchio are usually done in a circle, but students often end up mirroring the teacher or their classmates, meaning it doesn’t really work as practice of “left” and “right” unless you do it in one or more straight cancan-dance-style lines instead.
Another good example of this is with the simple game adults often play with kids of hiding something in one of their hands and asking “Left or right?” The teacher will obviously have to do the hiding with their face towards the children and then turn around and hold their hands up so that they are facing the same way as the kids when they ask the question.
Hiding can also be used as part of a memory game. Put seven, nine or eleven flashcards on the floor and then turn them face down. It needs to be an odd number of cards because the teacher starts on the middle card each time as they ask questions like “Which card is the post office?” or “Where is the fire station?” The students then shout out “Left” and “Right” until the teacher’s finger is over the card they think is the answer to the question.
A similar game can also be played with the alphabet or phonics. Put the whole alphabet or the part you are practising (e.g. just the vowels or just the letters A to G) in order along the board or one wall. Ask students questions such as “Which letter is E?”, “Which letter is pronounced /b/?” and “Which letter does ‘cat’ start with?” for them to shout out “Left” and “Right” until you are pointing at the right one. This can also be done with the person pointing to having their eyes closed or being blindfolded to add some real communication to the “Left” and “Right” instructions.
Blindfolded students can also spin round right or left to their classmates’ instructions until they are pointing at the flashcard or thing in the classroom they have been told to, but they might need more precise instructions like “A little bit left” to do this. In a similar way, computer games where students only have to move left and right such as ones where the background scrolls past can be played with a student who can’t see the screen having the controller.
A variation on Hangman can also be played with “Left” and “Right”. Ask the students to give you instructions until you are pointing at the letter they want to guess or be given as a clue.
Teaching “forward”, “back”, “left” and “right”
As I mentioned above, it can sometimes make more sense to move to two dimensions with “up” and “down” before “forward” and “back”, but as they are not strictly directions no games are given for those here. Most of the games below are easily adaptable to that, however, and indeed most of these games are variations on the games given for “left” and “right” above. Most of these could also be done with “North”, “South”, “East” and “West” instead.
The flashcard memory game described for “Left” and “Right” above can be adapted for two dimensions by laying the cards out in a grid instead of a line, e.g. 16 flashcards arranged into a four by foursquare. Students say “forward”, “left” etc until the teacher reaches the card the students are looking for. Something similar can also be done with a picture revealing task, e.g. covering a square picture with 16 smaller blank pieces of card and getting students to give directions to which card they want you to remove next.
A computer screen or tablet computer laid flat on the table can also convert many games so that they are suitable to practise this language. For example, picture reveal tasks like that described above are very easy to get for computers and a lot easier to set up than balancing lots of pieces of card on top of a big picture and then trying not to sneeze!
The hangman variation above can also be adapted to two dimensions by changing it into a grid with one word in each box rather than one letter. Students give directions to which box they want to guess or have revealed until they can guess that the whole sentence is “Which way to the post office, please?” or “Would you like sugar in your cup of tea?” Some of the squares can also be left blank to add to the fun by putting randomness into the game.
Teaching “turn left”, “turn right” and “go straight ahead”
Most of the games above can also be played with this language with the main additional complication being that once they have turned around “go straight ahead” will actually be to their left or right, or even back towards where they are sitting. For this reason, rather than the teacher’s finger, the place where they are now and the direction it is facing will need to be a figure that clearly has a front end, e.g. a toy car or a plastic animal.
Students are still not quite ready to give realistic street directions at this stage (they’d need lots of prepositions like “opposite” plus other instructions like “take the second left” and “go past”), but you can bring maps into the class at this point. For example, you could give them an almost blank street plan and ask them where they want to place certain things to make the perfect town, e.g. telling you “go straight, turn right” etc until you reach the place where they want to put the amusement park.
Following instructions can also be used around the classroom. For example, with a few additional phrases like “Take two steps (forward/left/back)” one team could try to lead someone blindfolded through the classroom without hitting any objects. The class could also try to lead the teacher to where they think a particular flashcard is hidden in the same way.