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Creating Your Own ESL Handouts

Most ESL classes rely on textbooks to guide the curriculum and provide the bulk of the material used in the classroom. Good ESL textbooks make teachers’ jobs much easier, but even the best textbooks are unable to anticipate and address the needs of every class. With or without a textbook, ESL teachers often need to supplement the textbook with authentic material

The major disadvantage of authentic material is that it doesn’t come with ready-made tasks. Turning the material into a lesson is entirely up to the teacher. The choice then becomes one of creating original ESL handouts or sourcing “pre-packaged” exercises from elsewhere.

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Problems with Using Off-the-Shelf ESL Handouts

Even though there is plenty of material available for ESL teachers, it seems that handouts never fit your classroom 100%. You often find yourself making changes, asking students to complete only one part of a handout, and wishing someone would write a book tailored to your class’ needs.

The truth is that each class is different and their needs dictate the kind of handouts and practice that is best for them. Even though one handout works for your current class, it might already be outdated or not good enough a month later or for your next group of students. Furthermore, just as it’s easy to download teaching material, it’s easy to post it, too. Grateful as teachers may be for the kind souls who make the effort to put (free) resources online, they should remember that these kind people are generally not accountable to anyone. If there are errors in the material, there is nothing to flag it or to stop the material from being posted.

Common errors in off-the-shelf ESL handouts:

  • categorization errors (listing an adjective like “lovely” on a list of adverbs, for example)
  • conceptual errors (confusion of gerunds and present participles, for example)
  • incorrect definitions
  • incoherent or incorrect explanations of concepts
  • inappropriate focus (wrong level, or examples that are inconsistent with the lesson’s language focus) 

In spite of the seeming ease of use of many online teaching resources, it’s never quite as easy as print-and-go. Every resource must be scrutinized for quality as well as applicability to the needs of an individual class. If in doubt, double check with a good dictionary, course book or grammar book before using the material in the classroom.

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7 Tips for Creating Your Own ESL Handouts

Type of handout

First of all, you need to choose the type of handout you would like to create. You can make your own handouts to teach or practice any type of material.

Also, you need to bear in mind the age of your students and the goal for the activity. These factors will determine whether you add decorations to your handouts, if you provide space for them to complete the handout, or if you would like them to just use the handout for an oral task in class; in which case you can just create it in card stock and collect it at the end of the lesson.

Nowadays, if you have the means in your classroom, very often you can create virtual handouts that can be posted on a wiki or your class’ website. This will save you time and resources, as well as reducing paper waste in your class. If the handout you are creating contains a theory you would like your students to study or review, later on, make sure to offset this clearly and highlight the important information there.


Different content requires different kinds of layouts for handouts.

  • Reading comprehension handouts should have the text and the questions on two separate sheets so that students do not need to keep flipping the sheets in order to refer to the text while they are working. For shorter texts, legal-size paper can be used and the questions can be typed before or after the text depending on the reading comprehension strategies you would like your students to practice. Another point to bear in mind when creating reading comprehension handouts is that it is easier on the eyes when the spacing between lines and paragraphs is clear. A visually organized text can be comprehended more easily. Using line numbers next to the lines or paragraphs in the text will help your students locate necessary information and will also help you when taking up answers in class to check the results of a practice exercise.
  • Writing handouts for beginner, lower intermediate and even intermediate level students could provide the students with a clearly scaffolded writing process in which students are guided to brainstorm first, organize their ideas after, then plan their writing, and finally produce their drafts and clean copies.
  • Speaking practice handouts should be precise and short and can also contain clear step-by-step scaffolded instructions. A good handout can save you a lot of time if students are working in groups. Also, sentence starters can be provided in a highlighted manner so students can use their handout as a prompt card as well.
  • Grammar practice handouts can include the structure and function theory of the grammar point students are working on so that they do not need to go back to their notes to look for this information.
  • Listening practice handouts that require the students to listen for details should be organized according to the order in which the information is presented in the audio so that students can focus on the comprehension of the auditory material rather than focusing on locating the questions.


Even when using materials or subject matter that students may be familiar with, it requires some element set-up. The most common set-up requirements are context and vocabulary in the handouts.

Exercises may include tasks that require students to deduce context or vocabulary. Choose which ideas or words are within students’ reach, and which must be fed to them in advance. For example, if the authentic material were to be listening to an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then it is important that students understand generally who he was and the time and circumstances in which he was living.

This is something which, if students did not already know it, would be difficult for them to deduce just from the excerpt. In that case, a pre-listening task might include the presentation of a picture of Dr. King and soliciting from students anything they might know about him. Pre-teaching of specific vocabulary may also be necessary. The choice of what to pre-teach is a judgment call, based on the capabilities of the students.

Avoid the fill-in-the-gaps rut

Listening for specific words or phrases is a simple, common, and useful exercise. Give students a copy of the text of a listening exercise with the target words blanked out is a common way to direct students toward this type of listening.

Be conscious of overusing it. It is quick and easy but tends toward overuse. Alternatives include asking for the target information in a more open-ended way (with inference questions), asking true-or-false questions, using a correct-the-mistakes approach, or using multiple-choice questions.

For example, if the target vocabulary from the “I Have a Dream” speech were “character”, the fill-in-the-gaps approach would present students with:

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their ________.

Other options would be to ask:

What is Dr. King’s dream for his children?


T/F: Dr. King thinks his children should be judged by the color of their hair.


Listen and correct any mistakes:

….the content there is terrible.

Be consistent with definitions in your ESL handouts

When using authentic material as a method for introducing or reinforcing vocabulary, it is often necessary to provide definitions. A common task is to ask students to listen or read and “find a word or phrase that means…” When creating these exercises, be sure to make your definitions morphologically consistent with the excerpt students are using.

Even if it is not the main definition of the word or phrase, it must be consistent with its usage in the material. If the target vocabulary is an adjective, for example, don’t slide into a definition that suggests an adverb. If the target vocabulary is a verb, provide the definition in the same sense as it is used in the material.

Space the worksheet appropriately

The look and feel of worksheets give a strong suggestion of what is expected from students. If students are expected to provide full-sentence responses to questions, ensure that the worksheet provides sufficient space for that. If students are expected to focus on single words, avoid leaving excess space.

Remember to vary interactive patterns

Authentic material most obviously suggests lessons focused on receptive skills (listening and reading). The majority of it is actually designed for intrapersonal use. Most reading, for example, is not done in a group setting.

It is easy to focus on this pattern of interaction when using authentic material. Making the material more memorable requires variation in the ways in which students interact with it. Discussion of the material is an easy way to move the interaction from intrapersonal to interpersonal. Another option is to use information gap exercises, in which students give partial information and must share it with each other in order to get all the information. In addition, authentic material is fun, exciting, and useful. Keeping the methods of using fresh and varied will ensure it stays that way.

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