There are many things to consider when making our own worksheets for TESOL classes. The physical appearance of our material is important, as are our instructions. What’s more, we should also think about the importance of context, as well as stimulating student interaction with our materials.
Nevertheless, we can often boil the process of making a great worksheet down to the following six-stage process.
Using these guiding questions, you will be able to create a worksheet that does more than simply fill time in class or merely consolidate whatever language point you’ve covered.
1. Start with a clearly stated objective
Ask yourself the question; ‘Do you know what the purpose of your material is?’ If you can accurately and concisely describe the objective that you would like your worksheet to help learners accomplish, you’ve already won half of the battle.
This is your logical endpoint, so knowing this will help your material reach that goal.
For instance, you may want to create a reading worksheet that will help your learners to do one or more of the following:
- Employ various strategies to establish background knowledge
- Distinguish between fact and opinion
- Employ strategies to deal with unfamiliar key vocabulary
- Voice an opinion orally or in written form about a text
Having one or more valid objectives in mind will immediately enable you to focus on how each task on your worksheet is helping to achieve this end goal.
If any task isn’t doing this, consider replacing it or removing it altogether.
A good final step is to include the objective on your worksheet, making it clear enough for the learner to be able to understand the purpose of the tasks they’ll complete.
2. Go through the process of learning yourself
One of the best things you can do to find out if the material is actually teaching the learner anything is to go through the experience for yourself.
Once you’ve planned out your worksheet, or have it ready in draft form, work through it stage by stage and actively explain to yourself what you are being required to do.
As you proceed, write down what it is you are expected to do at each stage, what prior knowledge is necessary to complete each task, and how one activity leads on to one another.
Describe how and why each aspect is important to the overall explanation of the language point.
For example, when preparing a worksheet on the present perfect tense, you may find yourself asking questions such as these:
- Do I need to have prior knowledge of the third form of the verb (eaten, gone, etc.) to do this?
- Am I focusing on the form or a specific function of the verb tense here?
- Do my learners have equivalents to ‘for’ and ‘since’ in their mother tongue?
It’s surprising how often we can make too many assumptions about prior knowledge, or make huge leaps between individual tasks in terms of cognitive demand.
Remember: your aim is to produce a sequence of questions and experiences that will aid learners to incrementally approach the main objective using the same chain of reasoning that you went through when designing the material.
Such issues can easily be avoided if you work through your material and question the learning processes of your worksheet.
3. Make Your Material Durable and Reproducible
One of the most important decisions we face in our TESOL careers is whether or not to supplement our courses with self-made TESOL materials.
The notable advantages, like being able to tailor our resources to specific contexts, don’t negate challenges, such as the need to organize and store your new materials carefully.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us weigh up the benefits and costs of designing teaching materials and make their own decision as to whether it is worth our time and effort. Hopefully, you’re going to use your materials more than once. Another hope is that they are to be used by many different learners.
These are two important factors in deciding whether it is worth investing a great deal of time into your worksheet; the more emphatically you can answer yes to these questions, the better the return on your efforts.
Assuming a ‘yes’, consideration needs to be given to how your resources can be made robust enough to last in the long-term, and to how you can safely store them electronically.
Wherever you work, there will inevitably be a budgetary limit on things such as photocopies. While it’s nice to create beautiful, artistic colorful materials, the reality is that they will only ever be reproduced in grayscale. When creating your TESOL material, bear in mind how it will look in black and white.
Key questions for your TESL materials
- Who is going to use your material, how often, and with whom?
- Do you have standard techniques for storing your materials in either hard (paper) or soft (word document) form?
- When you look at your worksheet, what first draws your eye?
- Do your colleagues ask to use your materials? If so, what part does physical appearance play in that?
4. Make Your Materials Appealing and User-Friendly
Given that the criteria for evaluating course books frequently include a reference to the ‘look’ and the ‘feel’ of the resource, it seems that such criteria are also pertinent to materials that we design ourselves.
As in almost every facet of life, first impressions count for a great deal in the language classroom. Basically, your self-made materials need to be fairly good to look at!
The main things that are going to influence this are as follows:
- The amount of text on the page
- Understandable instructions
- The size of fonts used
- The cohesiveness and consistency of the layout
- Adequate visual stimuli
Your learners will want to understand the point of the worksheet immediately, so don’t hide it among paragraphs of text, or in a ridiculously small font.
Make your layout clear to follow and use enough pictures to aid contextualization. Remember: a human being is going to use this TESOL material, so is it up to scratch? Consider these examples
- If you’ve created a gap-fill exercise, is there enough space for learners to actually write their answers?
- If an oral response is required during a voice recording exercise, have you given enough time to allow for both thinking and responding?
The easiest way to check for potential problems is to do the exercise yourself when you think the worksheet is ready. Better still; get a colleague to do it as if they were a learner.
5. Give Clear Instructions
One of the most frustrating things that you’ll quickly learn as a materials developer is that sometimes ESL students simply don’t ‘get the point’ of your worksheet.
More often than not, this has little to do with your tasks and activities, but rather it is down to poorly written instructions.
Intriguingly, this need for effective provision of instructions applies as much to other teachers who may use the materials as it does for your intended learners.
For instructions to be effective, they should be written in language that is appropriate for all of the target users.
One thing you can do to make your instructions more effective is to develop a set use of meta-language, i.e. the words which you use to describe activities and grammar in particular.
The use of the correct meta-language can greatly aid in making instructions more concise and efficient.
Key questions for your materials
- Are your instructions more difficult to understand than the activities?
- Can you explain the aims of your material to a colleague without having to refer to your written instructions?
6. BE FLEXIBLE
This is perhaps the most difficult factor to build into your materials, as it requires flexibility not just in the material itself, but also in the minds of those using the worksheet.
So, what does it mean to incorporate flexibility?
An example could be a written text that you’ve prepared.
The primary use of such a text could be to fulfill reading-based objectives such as ‘identifying important aspects of a text’ or ‘integrating your own experiences with information in a text to create meaning’.
However, such a text could also be used flexibly as a springboard for recognizing grammar structures if we were to use questions such as the following:
- How many examples of the passive voice can you find?
- How many verbs in the past tense can you find?
This notion of flexibility is perhaps more relevant if you’re hoping to put together a series of TESOL materials rather than a one-off worksheet, but is nonetheless applicable to both situations.
Learning how to look at your material in a different way and find other potential uses will help to extend the durability and usefulness of what you’ve produced.
Key questions for your materials
- Can you identify at least two possible uses for your material?
- How can you find out how other teachers have used your material and how well it worked for them?