Besides narration, description, exposition, and argumentation, instruction is usually taken as the fifth basic text type in modern text grammars. This text type can manifest itself in various text forms, such as instructions proper from a subjective point of view or directions, rules, regulations and statutes from an objective point of view.
Instructions are those step-by-step explanations of how to do something: how to build, operate, repair, or maintain things. An instructional or instructive text is a text that instructs, advises or tells you how to do something or how something is done through a series of steps, that is, the writer tells the reader/audience what to do: A recipe wants to instruct you how to cook something, a leaflet with a piece of furniture wants to tell you how to put it together or take care of it.
The instructive text type is based on the action-demanding sentence. Commercial and political propaganda, directions, regulations, rules etc. are typical examples because they aim at influencing behaviour.
Examples of instructional texts:
1. recipes: “Put all ingredients into bowl together. Whisk until fully mixed.”
2. car manuals
3. computer manuals
5. directions to a place on information leaflets: “Go to the end of the road and turn left past the pub on the corner. Keep walking until you come to a park and then turn right into Hawker Street.”
6. party invitations
8. board games
9. card games
11. fire drills
14. knitting patterns
15. sewing patterns
16. craft instructions
17. medicine bottle labels.
Main Features of instructional texts:
1. Are written as though the reader is being spoken to
2. Use of the second person ‘you’: then you put…
6. bullets or numbers
7. Title which shows main purpose
8. chronological use: they are sequenced step by step
9. imperative verbs often at the beginning of a sentence: fold the paper, tmix the eggs, turn the page
10. often use ‘must’ and ‘must not’
11. direct and to the point, language is direct and unnecessary words are left out
12. Short, clear sentences in order
13. linking words (connectives) to do with time and place: firstly, next, then, now, afterwards, when, at this point, finally, lastly, here, immediately.etc.
14. Many start with a list of items or equipment needed.
The goals that a teacher pursuits working with instructional texts in class are the following ones:
ü The students are familiar with the typical characteristics of instructive texts.
ü The students are familiar with the typical goals of instructive texts.
ü Starting from the above, they are able to assess the quality (efficiency and effectiveness) of instructive texts.
ü The students are able to rewrite instructive texts in function of the target group and goal.
ü The students are able to optimize the layout of instructive texts.
ü The students are able to write efficient and effective instructive texts themselves.
A few guidelines to write clear instructions:
ü Prefix the instructions with a clear heading that summarises the task.
ü Show clearly who does what. If a process involves more than one person, write a different set of instructions for each person.
ü Start each instruction with a verb that instructs the reader to do something: “Open the valve…”, “Press the emergency button…”, “Tell your supervisor…”
ü Use a numbered list when the order is important. Use a bulleted list (like this one) when the order is not important (for example, when the reader can choose between different options).
ü Put notes and warnings at the start of the instructions, or before the list item to which they refer.
ü Ensure that any pre-requisite conditions are specified before the main body of the instructions.
ü Don’t mix instructions with conceptual information. Present any necessary background information before the instructions.
ü Write for your audience and use a level of detail that is appropriate to their skill level.
ü Avoid lists of more than about ten steps. Break down long lists into two or more sub-tasks.
ü Specify what the reader should do when the task is complete. The reader should not be asking, “Now what?”.
ü Make sure to include any cautions, warnings, or dangers.
ü Use short clear sentences with words that are common.
ü Avoid words with more than one meaning.
ü Your ability to put yourself in the place of the reader, the person trying to use your instructions.
Sections in instructional texts:
1) Introduction. Plan the introduction to your instructions carefully. Make sure it does any of the following things (but not necessarily in this order) that apply to your particular instructions:
· Indicate the specific tasks or procedure to be explained as well as the scope of coverage (what won’t be covered).
· Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and background to understand the instructions.
· Give a general idea of the procedure and what it accomplishes.
· Indicate the conditions when these instructions should (or should not) be used.
· Give an overview of the contents of the instructions.
2) General warning, caution, danger notices. Instructions often alert readers to the possibility of ruining their equipment, screwing up the procedure, and hurting themselves. Also, instructions must often emphasize key points or exceptions.
3) Technical background or theory. At the beginning of certain kinds of instructions you may need a discussion of background related to the procedure.
4) Equipment and supplies. Notice that most instructions include a list of the things you need to gather before you start the procedure. This includes equipment, the tools you use in the procedure (such as mixing bowls, spoons, bread pans, hammers, drills, and saws) and supplies, the things that are consumed in the procedure (such as wood, paint, oil, flour, and nails). In instructions, these typically are listed either in a simple vertical list or in a two-column list. Use the two-column list if you need to add some specifications to some or all of the items, for example: brand names, sizes, amounts, types, model numbers, and so on.
5) Discussion of the steps. When you get to the actual writing of the steps, there are several things to keep in mind: 1) the structure and format of those steps, 2) supplementary information that might be needed, and 3) the point of view and general writing style.
1) Structure and format. Normally, we imagine a set of instructions as being formatted as vertical numbered lists. And most are in fact. Normally, you format your actual step-by-step instructions this way. There are some variations, however, as well as some other considerations:
· Fixed-order steps are steps that must be performed in the order presented. For example, if you are changing the oil in a car, draining the oil is a step that must come before putting the new oil. These are numbered lists (usually, vertical numbered lists).
· Variable-order steps are steps that can be performed in practically any order. Good examples are those troubleshooting guides that tell you to check this, check that where you are trying to fix something. You can do these kinds of steps in practically any order. With this type, the bulleted list is the appropriate format.
· Alternate steps are those in which two or more ways to accomplish the same thing are presented. Alternate steps are also used when various conditions might exist. Use bulleted lists with this type, with OR inserted between the alternatives, or the lead-in indicating that alternatives are about to be presented.
· Nested steps. In some cases, individual steps within a procedure can be rather complex in their own right and need to be broken down into substeps. In this case, you indent further and sequence the substeps as a, b, c, and so on.
· “Stepless” instructions. Finally there exist instructions that really cannot use numbered vertical list and that do little if any straightforward instructional-style directing of the reader. Some situations must be so generalized or so variable that steps cannot be stated.
2) Supplementary discussion. Often, it is not enough simply to tell readers to do this or to do that. They need additional explanatory information such as how the thing should look before and after the step; why they should care about doing this step; what mechanical principle is behind what they are doing.
The problem with supplementary discussion, however, is that it can hide the actual step. You want the actual step, the specific actions the reader is to take, to stand out. You don’t want it all buried in a heap of words. There are at least techniques to avoid this problem: you can split the instruction from the supplement into separate paragraphs, or you can bold the instruction.
3) Writing style. A particular problem involves use of the passive voice in instructions. For some weird reason, some instructions sound like this: “The Pause button should be depressed in order to stop the display temporarily.” Who does the action?
Another of the typical problems with writing style in instructions is that people seem to want to leave out articles: “Press Pause button on front panel to stop display of information temporarily” or “Earthperson, please provide address of nearest pizza restaurant “.
6) Graphics in instructions:
Probably more so than in any other form of writing (except maybe for comic books), graphics are crucial to instructions. Sometimes, words simply cannot explain the step. Illustrations are often critical to readers’ ability to visualize what they are supposed to do.
7) Format in instructions:
- Headings. In instructions, make good use of headings. Normally, you’d want headings for any background section you might have, the equipment and supplies section, a general heading for the actual instructions section, and subheadings for the individual tasks or phases within that section.
2. Lists. Similarly, instructions typically make heavy use of lists, particularly numbered vertical lists for the actual step-by-step explanations. Simple vertical lists or two-column lists are usually good for the equipment and supplies section. In-sentence lists are good whenever you give an overview of things to come.
3. Special notices. In instructions, you must alert readers to possibilities in which they may damage their equipment, waste supplies, cause the entire procedure to fail, injure themselves or others–even seriously or fatally. Companies have been sued for lack of these special notices, for poorly written special notices, or for special notices that were out of place.
4. Number, abbreviations, and symbols. Instructions also use plenty of numbers, abbreviations, and symbols.