How to teach giving and asking for directions

Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for showing people where to go with "go straight ahead", "turn right", "take the second turning on your left", "opposite the station", etc.

Although technology is making giving and asking for directions much less common in everyday life, it is still often covered in many textbooks and syllabuses, practises all the places vocabulary and other useful language listed below, and ties in well with other topics such as showing guests to rooms and giving tours. It is also particularly useful for particularly situations such as IELTS preparation and training security guards and hotel staff.


What students need to know to give and ask for directions

In order to take part in conversations including directions, students will need to know about:

  • Starting conversations (getting people’s attention, offering help, etc)
  • Requests (“Can you tell me the way to…?” etc)
  • Offers (“Shall I show you on the map?”, etc)
  • Imperatives (“Take the second turning on the left”, “Don’t cross the road”, etc)
  • Directions (“right”, “left”, “northwest”, etc)
  • Prepositions of position and movement (“next to”, “over”, “along”, etc)
  • Lengths of time, distances and means of transport (“It takes five minutes by train”, etc)
  • There is/ There are (“Is there a post office near here?”, “There is a convenience store on the corner”, etc)
  • Future tenses (“If you get to the river, you’ve gone too far”, “You will see a big Chinese restaurant in front of you”, etc)
  • Names of things that they are looking for and will see along the way (“bureau de change”, etc, including many compound nouns)
  • Other words to describe things that they are looking for and will see along the way (“ruined”, “brand new”, “tall”, “narrow”, etc)
  • Different ways of saying the same thing (including British and American differences like “petrol station”/ “gas station”)
  • Checking/ Clarifying (“Can I check that back?”, etc)
  • Phrases to use when giving directions doesn’t work or isn’t possible (“I’ll take you there”, “Do you want me to show you on your phone?”, “It’s best just to get a taxi”, etc)
  • Ending conversations (thanking, acknowledging thanks, good wishes for the future, etc)

Especially now that Google maps and Siri most often give directions in the street, students are perhaps just as likely to need to ask for and give directions to the photocopier, toilet, etc inside offices and other buildings. This topic therefore also ties in well with vocabulary for describing inside places such as “escalator” and “basement”. They may all need to be able to give directions in an email or over the phone, meaning you can link this topic to those two vital business skills.  


Typical student problems with giving and asking for directions

As my students often tell me, many people have problems giving and understanding directions even in their own language. Tasks will therefore need to be sufficiently easy for students to be able to concentrate on the language (rather than trying to actually improve their navigation skills, something that not all books achieve). Problems specific to giving directions in English include:

  • Confusing similar forms like “Turn right and right again”/ “Take the second turning on the right” and “Go through the park”/ “Go past the park”
  • Problems with imperatives and requests (“Please turn right at the traffic lights” X, “Please repeat that” X, etc)
  • False friends in the names of places


How to present giving and asking for directions

As in many textbooks, I tend to take a Test Teach Test approach to teaching directions. First of all, ask students to do a task with the language that is possible even if they don’t know much of the language such as a map with one description and two possible locations on it, with one location clearly not the right place. The same thing works with labelling arrows with phrases like “go straight on”, with two possible arrows for each phrase, one of which is clearly not right. After answering any questions about the phrases and the wrong options, ask students to do a more challenging task to test how much they understood and can recall that language such as drawing the lines and/ or locations on a map, this time with no help. Perhaps after something like The Same or Different below to check their comprehension more thoroughly, they can then do more communicative tasks such as Map of Here.

Another possible approach is to give students a list of language to use in a task such as Directions Designing Places below and then test them on their memory of that language with gapfill tasks, brainstorming language, etc.


How to practise giving and asking for directions

Giving directions controlled practice

Directions miming and drawing

Getting students doing actions for “turn left” and “crossroads” is a great way of teaching the language in a way that really sticks. It is also useful practice of the kinds of gestures that they can use and might see during such exchanges. Drawing is also both a useful memory aid and a useful skill. Many phrases and words can be used in worksheets of both kinds (“go upstairs”, “cross the street”, “traffic lights”, etc). However, others are more suitable just for gesturing (e.g. “far from”) or more suitable just for drawing (e.g. “in the North”). In both cases, one student can draw or mime for others to guess. Alternatively, students can compete to be first to produce the right mime or drawing, and/ or they can compete to produce the best mime or drawing.


Directions tennis

Students listen to a word or phrase related to directions and shout back either a synonym or opposite as soon as they can. This can be played with a real beachball or with just the turns going back and forth without anything physical. You can use the scoring of tennis, beachball etc, or just get students to take turns testing each other.


Directions British, American or not?

Make a list of vocabulary and phrases with two or more entries on each line. Some lines should have British and then American English (“underground station/ subway station”, etc), while others should have British and/ or American English and a common student mistake (“amusement arcade/ game centre”, etc). Ask students to cross off any which are neither British English nor American English. After checking their answers, they can then try to remember correct synonyms, etc.


Directions the same or different

Students listen to two or more words or phrases and raise cards saying “The same” or “Different” that they have been given depending on what they think about the meaning, e.g. “The same” for “Go down the street/ Go along the street” and “Different” for “Mansion/ Apartment building”.


Directions dominoes

Dominoes can be made with each side being half of a phrase (whole sentence, compound noun, etc), having matching synonyms (“amusement arcade” on the right of one card matching “video arcade” on the left of another card, etc), or having matching antonyms (“cross the road” + “stay on the same side of the road”, etc). It is possible to make ones with several correct matches for each domino half, but it’s easier to make a pack where each one only has one correct match. Students can then work together to put all the cards together in the right way and/ or play an actual game of dominoes.


Freer directions practice

Map of here directions practice

Particularly if the teacher or a student doesn’t know the local area very well and others have more knowledge, perhaps the nicest truly communicative activity is to work together to draw a map of the area near where you are teaching. This can be drawn on the board or on (very) large pieces of paper such as the back of a poster. Tell students that each explanation needs to reference somewhere on the map or give directions from the classroom that you are in, so that someone who doesn’t know where that place is can draw it on the right place on the map. To make sure that there is lots of language, make sure that students don’t use gestures, point, etc. If you want to describe the contents of the building that you are in, it’s best to give one piece of A4 paper to represent each floor. Especially if all the students’ knowledge is so-so and so you might have to change the map a lot as you draw it, you can also do the same with the names of the places written on scraps of paper and put on the right places on the floor or table.


Directions designing places

This is like a fantasy version of the activity above. Students ask where places like “the swimming pool” and “the chillout area” are (depending on if you want to design an office, building or town). They listen to their partner’s description and draw or put the card of that thing in the place that they are told. I prefer the cards version, as this means that students can fold the piece of paper and put the other card inside it to show “in/ inside” (e.g. a folded “bank” piece of paper and putting an “ATM” piece of paper inside it). Giving distances and times can be very useful for this activity, so you need to decide if you will give students some kind of scale or if you want them to just say “Go straight on for five seconds/ two centimetres” to match this real communicative situation. Students generally start off deciding to put things in sensible places like “The swimming pool is behind the hotel” and then get sillier and sillier (“The post office is in the gym”, etc), something that I encourage. If you want an extension, you can ask students to describe where the places are as you take them off one by one, or you can turn over all the cards and see if students can remember where they are.


Directions treasure hunt activities

Students follow instructions to find letters (a, b, c, etc) around the classroom, around the school or outside the school. They then see what word, phrase or sentence those letters make (in the order that they were found). The letters can be hidden around those places, but I prefer to use letters of words that are already there such as “The third letter of the name of the shop on the ground floor”. The same thing can also work with a picture on a worksheet, using the letters in words on the street signs, billboards, etc in the drawing.

Students can then make up similar tasks to test each other.


Directions flashcards memory games

Flashcards are put on the table or around the room, and then maybe turned around to make for more challenge. The teacher or a student names one of the cards and the other students try to give directions to the right one. With flashcards spread on the table, this can be done with simple instructions like “Go straight ahead three cards. Turn left. Go straight ahead one card. It’s on your right”. This can be made more concrete and fun by giving students a model person or car to move as they follow the instructions that their partner gives them, or something similar can be done with their index and middle fingers making the legs of someone walking there.

The game can also be played the other way around, with the teacher or a student giving directions and the people listening trying to follow those instructions and say which card they end up with.

The Designing Places game above also has a memory game extension.


Directions guess the place

Perhaps after doing Map of Here above and hiding the map, students describe the locations of real places and see if their partners can guess where they are talking about. If they can’t guess from directions hints such as relations to other places and how long it takes to get there, the person speaking can give other hints like how often they go there, when they go there, what they do there, first letter and number of letters. The last two can also be combined to make Directions Hangman, with students guessing one letter of the name of the place for each hint that they hear.

The same games can also work for places in the classroom, with students listening to instructions and guessing that they should end up at the door, etc. One of the Flashcard Memory Games is also a version of this.


Directions roleplays

Roleplays to practise giving directions can either be simple things like “Ask where the nearest toilet is” or more difficult things like “You have got completely lost on your way to your partner’s office and have no idea where you presently are. Phone your partner to get instructions”. You could also include some emailing directions situations (with students just saying what they would write). Easy and more difficult roleplays can be combined by putting them in order of difficulty and getting students to work their way up the list from the easiest, skipping steps if they feel confident about trying a more challenging one next time. Alternatively, you can rank the roleplays from five points for incredibly difficult to one point for very easy and ask students to choose how many points they want to go for each time. Their partner then awards a percentage of those points depending on how the roleplay conversation or email exchange went.

Instead of choosing roleplays by level of difficulty, students can choose random numbers from a worksheet, roll a dice, or flip a coin. A dice can decide from six:

  • starting places
  • ending places
  • ways of travelling
  • problems to deal with
  • ways of communicating (phone, text, email, face to face, etc)

A coin can choose between two options for such things, or can be used during the roleplay to see if each thing said will get a positive reaction (= heads) or a negative reaction (= tails, for not understanding, not knowing the answer).


Making directions clearer

This is possibly the least fun and most useful of all the activities here, particularly with higher level students and/ or for giving directions in emails. Give students ambiguous instructions like “It’s at the end of the street” and ask them to add and change language to make it more precise, making better sentences like “Go all the way down this street to the very end. You should see it right in front of you”. It’s best if these directions are about real places or places on a map, but it also works with students just using their imaginations to guess what the person giving directions probably meant.


Directions pairwork information gap

This by far the most common communicative activity in textbooks and supplementary materials. Pairs of students are given Student A and Student B worksheets with the same map but with the names written in different places, e.g. the post office labelled on the Student A sheet but not the Student B one, which has the public toilets labelled instead. There is nothing wrong with this activity, as long as:

  • It’s clear to each student which information their partner doesn’t have on their worksheet (so that they don’t say “Go past the supermarket” when their partner doesn’t know which square the supermarket is in)
  • The map and the gaps on it have been carefully designed to elicit the language of the presentation stage (e.g. making sure that there is a bridge and it needs to be crossed if you presented “over”)
  • The instructions make sure that there is enough use of the language (e.g. banning miming, asking students to always start from the same place, asking them to both give directions and use locations of other things nearby such as “Go to the end of the street. It’s opposite the bank”, and asking the person listening to always check with “Can I check that back?”)
  • The places on the maps reflect where students are likely to really ask for directions to and/ or give directions to outside the classroom (e.g. that you have “temple” in it if there is a local one that visitors often get lost trying to find, or that you use London places if you have a particularly Anglophile class)


Directions blindfold games

You have to be very careful nowadays that no one hurts themselves by bumping into things in the classroom or each other, but it can be fun to have one person in a blindfold following instructions and seeing if they end up in the right place. Note that they will need extra instructions that aren’t so useful in real life like “Take one step back”.


Directions chain stories

As the name suggests, this activity is a version of the game Consequences. Students write a stage of some directions, turn over the piece of paper, and pass it to the next person to continue (without being able to see what was written before). After six to ten such stages, the last person opens the finished description and sees if it makes sense, and if so where the description might be talking about. To avoid waiting around and provide more practice, this works best with one piece of paper for each student, with different students starting and ending up with different instructions.

You can also play an oral version of this game in which students take turns adding a line to some directions and see if they agree at the end which place (that they know or on a map) they have been describing together.

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Written by Alex Case for Ltd

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