Creating Attractive, Effective, and Adaptable Worksheets

EDIT: Here is the handout I used for my presentation if you want a printable version of my key points.

Was that title catchy enough? I hope so. It’s also the title of my presentation at the MIDTESOL conference this weekend. And, lucky you, this blog post has all of the nuggets of wisdom I’ll be dispensing.

Even if it’s just a list of questions typed up in Word’s default Calibri 11 pt font, almost every teacher has created some type of document. I learned very early on in my teacher career that worksheets are important to have in classes. They help students stay focused on the task. They’re something to interact with, a place to write down answers and ideas. If they’re done right, they exercise the brain muscles much more than listening to a lecture.

But teachers are busy. Creating worksheets can take just as much brain power and time as filling them out. That’s why I use the same tried and true kinds of worksheets again and again. With a couple of modifications, these worksheets can be used for in almost any type of ESL class.

A Few Things to Consider

There are a few things to consider when you’re making a worksheet for your ESL class. Most of these points focus on simplicity, which is necessary in every successful worksheet.

  • Amount of text: Depending on the level of your class, a page filled to the brim with English words can be intimidating and overwhelming. Unless it’s a reading task, your students shouldn’t have to sift through tons of unfamiliar English words to understand what to do.
  • Directions: Include directions on every worksheet. You should read them aloud, repeat them, and rephrase them to the class before you start off on the activity. But even then, you’ll have some daydreamers that will need directions when they come back down to earth. Having the directions on the page will at least give them a chance to get on task. Again, keep directions short and simple.
  • Focus: Ideally, you’ll only have one task on your worksheet. Putting several different question and task types on your worksheet just means that your students will be asking what they need to do more often. However, if you do include different tasks on the same page, make clear distinctions – both visual and verbal – of when one task finishes and the next begins.

OK, let’s see some examples.


Here is the first worksheet I’ll be talking about. (Word file).

categories-picSimple, right?

Notice how I still included (brief) directions even though the task seems simple enough to guess just by looking at its format. Don’t leave any room for confusion.

This worksheet can be used as homework, but I also really like it as a group work activity. Get students to work in teams and discuss which words should go where. This allows students to both ask and teach each other about the different concepts, which really helps them to stick. If you think the activity is going to be on the easier side, you can have the groups race to complete the form correctly. If they think they’re done, they raise their hands and you come check. If they have a mistake, tell everyone to keep working until there’s a champion with a fully complete and correct worksheet.

I used the columns in so many different classes. Here are some examples:

  • Grammar: Classify words based on parts of speech.
  • Pronunciation/Listening: Classify words based on what vowel sounds they have.
  • Reading: Classify words associated with three different characters, places, or authors.

Any other situations where columns can be used? Comment!

Write Ten

Here’s the next one. Even simpler. (Word file)

write-ten-picThis specific worksheet was also made for a vocabulary class. Other categories might have been “Things you can buy at a store,” “Types of animals,” “Places in town,” etc.

This is an even better worksheet for team races. Putting that time pressure on the students will get their brains sweating.

You can also increase the difficulty by making spelling count. If your students make careless spelling mistakes frequently, a little competition is a good way to pressure them to learn.

Again, this worksheet can be modified for different classes just like the columns worksheet. Here are some more ideas:

  • Grammar: Write ten adjectives.
  • Speaking: Write ten three syllable words.
  • Writing: Write ten things every essay should have.

Do you use the “Write Ten” activity? Let me know in a comment!

Classmates List

This one might look a little familiar. (Word file)


(Yes, “Pumpkin” is the nickname of one of my former students!)

Almost identical to the “Write Ten” worksheet, just with student names added.

This worksheet can be used for a few different activities. If you read the directions on this one (you did read the directions, didn’t you?), you’ll see that this is a worksheet for a presentation day. I always like to have something to do for the students who aren’t presenting. It cuts out a lot of dozing off and dulls the urge to take a furtive look at the cell phone. Students need to listen to the presenters to complete the worksheet and get participation credit for the day.

With minor modifications, you can also use this worksheet for mingling activities. Merge the Destination, Notes, and Ranking cells into one and write a question at the top. If you’re working on sequencing, a good question might be:

What is your morning routine?

Students then mingle around the room asking each other the question and writing down what they hear.

Can you think of other ways to modify this worksheet? Let me know in the comments.

A Few Notes on Formatting

Font: It’s been said that serif fonts are better for reading on a piece of paper, and sans-serif fonts are better for the screen. The default font on Word is Calibri, which is a sans-serif font. The worksheets shared above are in Times New Roman, a serif font. It’s a small difference, but I think it is important to consider

Size: Think about size of fonts carefully too. This type of thing is self-evident, but make titles bigger and footnotes smaller. I’ve seen several worksheets that use the same size font throughout. It’s painful on the eyes.

Blank space: Don’t be afraid of it. The worksheets I shared above have tons of blank space by design so that students have space to write in answers. Don’t clutter the page.

Images: Use these carefully. In the categorizing worksheet above, I included a few images. Here are my stipulations for including images:

  • They don’t get in the way (take up valuable space on the page)
  • They aren’t distracting
  • They can potentially be useful (with a doc cam, you can point out the trunk of a tree or the petal on a flower)

Hotkeys: Formatting gets a lot easier and quicker when you learn a few hotkeys in Word. Here are some that I use again and again:

  • Ctrl+C = Copy
  • Ctrl+X = Cut
  • Ctrl+V = Paste
  • Ctrl+U = Underline
  • Ctrl+B = Bold
  • Ctrl+E = Center highlighted text (Ctrl+R = Right justify, Ctrl+L = Left justify)
  • Ctrl+Shift+.(period) = Increase font size
  • Ctrl+Shift+,(comma) = Decrease font size
  • Ctrl+Shift+Enter = Start a new page or split a table (especially helpful when a table is spilling onto the next page and causing problems)

Simplicity and Adaptability

Make things easy on yourself and your students.

If you keep your worksheets simple, they’ll require less explanation and from you and cause less confusion for your students, which means more time on task.

If your worksheets are adaptable, they save you time. You don’t have to start with a blank page. And your students will be familiar with the way the worksheet looks as well.

Look for ways that you can make worksheets work for you.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Chris Dlugosz

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