Explaining to someone how to do something is a fundamental communicative skill in any language. If you are looking for ways to teach this skill to your ESL students, my favorite vehicle is the website Howcast.com, a perennially popular source of authentic “how to” listening materials. Want to learn how to decorate Christmas sugar cookies? Do magic tricks? Write an effective résumé and cover letter? Give yourself a spa facial at home? Save money on gas for your car? Howcast is your ticket.
As they watch these short, punchy videos that offer step-by-step instructions (many with a transcript following the video) on topics in categories ranging from “technology” to “relationships and dating,” “money and education,” “fitness,” “food,” and “health,” your students can learn how to do almost anything imaginable—and improve their listening and speaking skills at the same time.
I usually start my introduction to Howcast by showing a Howcast video on something topical. Back in October, it was “How to Make Halloween Cupcakes,” which showed viewers how to decorate cupcakes to look like bleeding eyeballs, spiders, ghosts, graveyards, and more. I played the 2-minute video in class several times, then asked students to decide which of the featured cupcakes was their favorite and remind their partner how to make it, based on the step-by-step instructions they had just seen and heard.
For homework, I gave my students the link to the Howcast website and told them to explore the website, choose any Howcast video that interested them, watch it at least five times, and come to class prepared to teach us what they learned.
Back in class, I put the students in small groups and asked them to tell their partners about their chosen Howcast video. Many of my students got deeply involved in the assignment, bringing into class the recipes they learned how to prepare, the cardboard frame they used to weave a friendship bracelet, and the table-top Christmas tree they had made from folded magazine pages—all based on the Howcast videos they had watched at home on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. I had them give their classmates step-by-step instructions that showcased their newfound skills. After they had shared their new knowledge with one set of classmates, I had them switch partners and teach a new partner what they had learned.
Finally, to add some public speaking practice, I asked my students to play their chosen Howcast video on the classroom’s video screen with the sound turned off so they could narrate the video themselves in front of the entire class. Another option is for students to use their smart phones with the sound turned off to showcase and narrate their chosen Howcast video for their classmates in small groups.
Weeks later, the lessons the students had learned from Howcast about how to provide a step-by-step explanation came to mind in an unforgettable way. Following a class discussion of the movie Food, Inc. about factory farming, a Saudi student mentioned that his favorite meat was camel. Immediately, all the other students wanted to know, “How do you cook a camel?” Without missing a beat, he began to explain, “First, you buy a baby camel . . . . ” Howcast, take note!
Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to use the howcast.com to my students. It will really give them a better understanding on why we need to give a detail instruction on everything and it will help them to communicate better with other people.
Thanks for your suggestions. However, I just clicked the link for Howto and the whole page was so full of unseemly stuff I couldn’t even stay on the page long enough to search for anything decent. Was it like this when you recommended it or has it changed to this recently?
I certainly couldn’t suggest any of my students look at it.
Hi, Colette: Thanks for writing in. I just checked http://www.howcast.com and the upper half of the landing page featured links like “How to Understand Heart Disease”, “How to Train Your Parrot” and “How to Play Country Guitar”. There are, indeed, some raunchier links featured further down the landing page, under headings like “Relationships and Dating” and “Dance and Entertainment”, but you can skip those and show your students how to use the “Explore” button on the upper right hand corner to find quite useful “how to” videos by category (tech, food, fitness, arts, parenting etc.). I used this link just a few weeks ago with my adult ELL students who used it to learn how to retrieve files they had inadvertently deleted on their computer, how to decorate cupcakes, and, yes, how to train a parrot. However, if you are teaching younger children, you might choose a different site.
Dear Claudio – I will be eager to hear how you decide to use Howcast in your classes. Please keep us posted! Warm regards for the New Year, Alexandra
What a great idea! I’ll definately be using this one – great title and punchline at the end!
I checked out: “how to make a pizza”
So glad you think this blog post might be helpful, Norman. Please write back and let us all know how you end up using Howcast in your classes so we can learn from your experience. Best wishes for the New Year, Alexandra
I love teaching students to write directions. And that HowCast looks awesome, I’ll have to try that. One of the things I really enjoy when having students do directions is giving them incomplete or imprecise directions and having them try and fail to do a task correctly. That leads into why it’s important to write in detail!
Thanks for your feedback, Walton. I’d love to know more about how you structure your “incomplete directions” activities. Warm wishes for the New Year, Alexandra
I actually wrote up a sample lesson on my blog: Details for the Process Essay. That one involved giving them vague instructions on registering a website. You could also make more concrete instructions that they can do in class–how to make a paper airplane, for example using vague modifiers (that side, this side, the thing) and missing instructions. Let them try to do it and then ask what information was missing that made it difficult to follow the instructions.
Very nice tip.
I certainly will check the website because I sometimes need a better strategy on how to give instructions effectively.
thanks for sharing.
Rio de Janeiro – Brazil