Every now and then someone may ask you instructions on how to do something. It may be something simple like how to operate a coin operated washing machine at a laundry mat or it may be something more difficult, like programming a remote control for a TV. Giving instructions may sound difficult, (especially detailed instructions) but if the instructions are broken into small steps and the steps are clearly identified, it becomes a more manageable task.


To do this use sequence markers. These are words which guide the listener or reader through the instructions, by giving them the order of steps to follow. Common sequence markers are:

first                        second                 third                   forth

after that                next                     before that          then

you begin by          the last step is     now                    finish



There are several standard expressions that can be used when asking for instructions. Look at these examples.

English Expressions

Expression   Response
How do you operate (…this can opener)?   First, put the can under that sharp wheel and push

that lever down.

Can you show me how to (…use this


  After putting the paper under the cover, enter the

number of copies needed and then press start.

Do you know how to (… use this rice


  Sure, put 3 cups of dried rice in, add 2 cups of

water, and hit the start button.

How do I go about (… baking a cake)?   Buy a box of cake mix and follow the instructions

on the back.


It’s likely to happen that when giving instructions the listener may become confused and need to have things repeated. This could also happen in any normal conversation between people- one person will not hear or understand what the other has said. Of course, there are other things that hinder communication besides not hearing someone. Examples include unknown vocabulary words, or idiomatic expressions that the listener does not understand, or the speaker is just talking way too fast for the listener to comprehend. Fortunately there are expressions that can be used to cover these situations as well. 

English Expressions

Expression   Response

I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.   First, fill in this form and take it to window 3.
Could you repeat that, please?   Certainly, the answer is no.
What did you say?   I said the answer is the planet Pluto.
One more time.   What is the chemical symbol for zinc?
Once more.   I said put the book in the refrigerator.
Come again.   The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
Could you run that by me again?   After mixing the ingredients, stir vigorously until well

blended, let it sit for one hour, and   then put it in the


Huh?   Do you have any money?
Please speak more slowly.   Of course, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry; I don’t understand the expression (… fill in this form).   It means to answer all the questions or supply the information on that piece of paper.
What does (… ingredient) mean ?   A ingredient is one thing of many that is in a dish or

food. For example, flour is an ingredient in cakes.

I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.   I mean you should be very careful.
Can you give me an example?   Things like necklaces, earrings, bracelets, etc.


If someone is in the middle of something, say giving instructions, and you become confused, you may need to interrupt them so they can repeat what they said or make it clearer. Interruptions in a conversation can be made for different reasons, not only to have instructions repeated. For example, you may interrupt someone who is working at a desk and you enter the office to talk to them, or you may interrupt someone who has said something that you disagree with. There are several expressions that can be used to interrupt someone. Look at the examples below. 

English Expressions

Expression   Response

During a conversation    
Wait a second, (… could you repeat that)?   I said a half past three.
Excuse me, ( … I didn’t catch that).   I baked an apple pie.
Now hold on, (… I totally disagree).   You have that right.
If I may interrupt?   Yes.
While someone is working


I hate to bother you but ( ,,, could I speak to you for

a minute)?

  Yes, what is it?
Sorry for bothering you.   No problem, what can I do for you?
Sorry for interrupting, ( …I just need a second).   I’ll be with you in a moment.
Excuse me, (… but could I have a minute of your


  I’m really busy now. How about in 30

minutes in my office?

English Dialogue

Students should work together in pairs and read the following dialogue, one student reading one part, the other student reading the other. Note the expressions used in the dialogue and the progression of the conversation. The dialogue can be used as a model to have similar conversations.


Tommy: Hi David. You look busy? What are you doing?

David: I’m trying to figure out how to make these cookies, but I lost the instructions that came with the box.

Tommy: Making cookies from a box is easy. Want me to tell you?

David: Yes, these have to be done in an hour.

Tommy: Okay, first, pour the cookie mix from that bag into a large bowl.

David: Is this bowl big enough?                                        

Tommy: No, you need a bigger one. You’re going to be adding more ingredients. Use that one.

David: Okay, now what?

Tommy: Next, add two eggs and a cup of milk to the bowl and beat until very creamy, with no lumps.

David: Won’t the egg shells be hard to eat?

Tommy: You have to break the eggs first, and just put in the whites and yolks. You throw the shells away. You’ve

               never cooked anything, have you?

David: No, this is my first time. What should I mix it with, a fork or spoon?

Tommy: You could use either, but if I were you, I’d use an electric mixer.

David: You mean this? No wonder mom put it out. That’s done, what next?

Tommy: Now, grease the cookie sheet with butter. Then put one tablespoon of cookie dough per cookie on the

              cookie sheet. You should space the dough evenly around the cookie sheet, leaving at least an inch

              between each cookie.

David: Got it. Now they go in the oven, right?

Tommy: Yes.

David: Okay, they’re in. How long will it take before they’re done?
Tommy: The way you did it, forever. You didn’t turn the oven on.

David: Oh yea, I forgot. What temperature and for how long?

Tommy: Cook them at 3250 and for about 35 minutes.



After reading, close your book and tell your partner a summary of the dialogue. Then switch and have your partner tell his or her summary. Start like this: This dialogue is about one person giving instruction to another for making…This may seem silly, since you both already know what the dialogue is about, but the purpose is to practice using your English, not to give information or test your reading skills.

Conversation Activities

1. Pair work- discussion

     When was the last time you gave instructions to someone? Tell your partner about it using some of the ideas

     for discussion below. Your partner should ask questions to get more information.

  • when was it
  • what were the instructions for
  • did the listener understand you
  • did the listener follow the instructions correctly
  • was it difficult

2. Pair work- practice

       Work with a partner and give instructions on how to do or make the following items. Be sure to use sequence

       markers in your instructions and to use complete sentences. Also try out some of the expressions for asking

       for repeats listed on the previous page, even if you don’t need them.


        Making an omelet                                Change oil in a car           


        Video taping a movie on TV               Playing Tic Tac Toe          


        Saving a file on a computer               Setting an alarm clock              


        Use a washing machine                      Getting a visa to a foreign country


        Using a camera                                     Converting Fahrenheit degrees to centigrade

                                                                           (Subtract 32 from the Fahrenheit

                                                                           temperature,  then multiply by 5/9)