Guide to ESL Worksheets
The world is full of worksheets, many of them made expressly for ESL or learning English. But not all ESL worksheets are made equal.
When we speak of "worksheets" we are referring to ESL worksheets for the teaching/learning of English, but much of this guide is relevant to worksheets for other subjects too.
Why Use Worksheets?
Worksheets are generally popular with learners because they are usually non-intimidating and user-friendly as well as providing a finite exercise (ideally one page) where learners get rapid feedback and can often judge for themselves their own abilities and progress. They are also a convenient, often free, resource for teachers that can easily be saved and printed as required.
- they can make good fillers and warm-ups
- useful for revision, practice and test preparation
- they can reinforce instruction
- they are handy for homework
- some worksheets can be done in pairs or small groups, helping develop communication and teamwork skills
- in large classes, when stronger learners have finished you can have some worksheets handy to keep them happy
- worksheets can help stimulate independent learning
- they can provide a good deal of repetition, often vital for internalizing concepts
- they are useful for assessment of learning and/or progress (especially targeted to specific areas)
- they are flexible and can supplement a text book very well
- they let students keep their work as reference material if they so wish
Features of Effective Worksheets
There are many different types of worksheet, but we can discern some common features that tend to make any worksheet work better for your students. When selecting or making a worksheet, bear in mind that an effective worksheet:
- is clear
- clearly labels questions/tasks with numbers or letters (so they can easily be referred to orally during feedback or answers)
- is straightforward and fit for purpose; unnecessary complication, colour etc detracts from its usefulness
- is appropriate to the age, level and ability of the students
- can be created (and stored) on a computer and is thus easy to edit and print repeatedly
- has excellent presentation
- has a font that is easy to read and of large enough size
- uses images for a specific purpose only, and without cluttering up the worksheet
- does not have irrelevant graphics and borders
- has margins that are wide enough to avoid edges getting cut off when photocopying
- makes good use of space without being cluttered
- has a descriptive title at the top and a space for the student to write their name
- gives students sufficient space to write their answers
- has clear, unambiguous instructions
- uses bold OR italics OR underline for emphasis, but not all three
- uses colour sparingly, and with regard to available photocopying resources/costs
- focusses on one learning point (except perhaps for more advanced students)
- is no longer than one or two pages (that is, front and back of a single sheet)
- should be accessible to the learner (at that level) and answerable in a relatively short period, say 5 to 15 minutes (worksheets are not exam papers)
- should have the easier tasks first - success is motivational
- only uses images that can be photocopied clearly (line drawings, for example, tend to photocopy better than photographs)
- if appropriate is divided into sections, each with a clear heading
- is not formal or stuffy; instead it uses words in a way that encourages students to explore and learn on their own
Types of Worksheet
Worksheets range in type from straight-text multiple-choice questions to illustrated puzzles and mind games. Here are a few examples of worksheet types that have proved particularly effective in teaching English. For each type we list language points it works well with.
This type of worksheet usually asks students to match up pairs of items (for example opposite words or start and end of a tag question). This is often done by having one column of items on the left and the matching items, not in the same order, in a column on the right. Students have to draw lines between the matching items. (This is sometimes known as a spaghetti exercise.)
Here are some ideas:
- match abbreviations or contractions to long form (Co. ↔ Company)
- match synonyms (right ↔ correct) or antonyms (right ↔ left)
- match word to definition (hot ↔ having a high temperature)
- match baby animal to adult animal (cub ↔ lion)
- match sound to animal (croak ↔ frog)
- match numeral to written number (5 ↔ five)
- match written time to spoken time (4:30 ↔ half-past-four)
- match phonemic symbol to word with corresponding sound (/i:/ ↔ sheep)
- complete the collocation (make ↔ your bed)
- complete the sentence (If you bite your nails ↔ you'll get sore fingers.)
- question/response (How are you? ↔ I'm fine, thank you.)
- listening task (Who stole the money? ↔ John)
- match picture to word (picture of dog ↔ dog)
Word Scrambles Worksheets
Word scrambles or jumbles help improve vocabulary and spelling. In this type of worksheet the letters of each word are mixed up and students have to put them into the proper order.
Here are some different types of words you can scramble:
- key vocabulary
- spelling list words
- names of students in the classroom
- teachers’ last names
- names of places
- number words (thousand, million etc)
- words that are commonly misspelled
- words with silent letters or other unique features
- words based on a sound you are working on
- holiday or special event vocabulary
- grammar terms
- almost anything
Jumbled Sentences Worksheets
Here, each sentence is presented with its words all mixed up and students have to put them into the correct order (for example: walked/dog/the/boy/his → The boy walked his dog | time/go/to/it's/almost/school/to → It's almost time to go to school).
Here are some examples:
- sentences in a particular tense
- sentences in mixed tenses
- interrogative sentences
- negative sentences
- adjective order (complete sentence, or just adjectives and noun)
With sorting worksheets, students are presented with a collection of items (words, phrases, phonemic characters etc) and asked to "sort" them into particular categories (for example: male and female; stress on first, second and third syllable; Africa, Asia, Europe, S. America). From the examples, you can see that there might be two, three, four or more categories. This usually depends on the particular language point and level. One of the most common ways of doing this is to have all the items entered randomly in a box at the bottom of the worksheet, with a column for each category above - into which students write the appropriate item.
Here are some ideas (the figures in brackets represent the number of possible columns):
- sort into positive and negative (2)
- sort into phrases and clauses (2)
- sort clauses into dependent and independent (2)
- sort into prefixes and suffixes (2)
- listening task - he said, she said (2)
- listening task - mentioned/not mentioned (2)
- listening task - true/false/not mentioned (3)
- sort nouns into person/place/thing (3)
- sort words into parts of speech (2, 3, 4)
- sort verbs into tenses (2, 3, 4)
- sort words by word stress (2, 3, 4)
There are several other types of worksheet, including:
- Multiple Choice Worksheets are basically quiz-type exercises
- Gap Fill Worksheets where students insert the right words in gaps in the text
- Word Puzzle Worksheets include crosswords, word search and word maze
- Labelling Worksheets where students annotate an illustration
Make Your Own Worksheets
You can find worksheets all over the internet, some free, some by paid subscription. There are also books of photocopiable worksheets from major ELT publishers. But after wading through the vast collection available you may sometimes feel that only a worksheet that you have made yourself will fully address the language point you have in mind. It was never easier to get creative and make your own worksheets, whether through a computer program like MS Word or an online worksheet generator. Whichever method you choose, the principles remain the same.
The formatting and presentation of a worksheet is important. Some worksheets are thrown together with little concern for their usability or the students who will have to do them. When designing your worksheet you can think first about the elements discussed above (Features of an Effective Worksheet) and then consider the following specific points:
- Target your worksheet carefully to your students (that is, age and level).
- Ideally, keep your worksheet to a single page (one side of a single sheet).
- Use a font that is easy to read. For example, use Arial or Verdana which are sans serif fonts particularly suited to computer use. Don't use some fancy cursive or handwriting font which is hard to read at the best of times, especially after photocopying to the nth degree. If you want something a little more fun, try Comic Sans MS but make sure it prints out well (given that English teachers operate all over the world not all fonts are available everywhere). Whichever font(s) you decide on, don't use more than two different fonts on one worksheet.
- Use a font size that is large enough and fit for the purpose. Anything under 12 point is probably too small. For young learners and beginners 14 point is better (remember when you learned your own language as a child?).
- To ensure legibility, NEVER USE ALL CAPITALS.
- Keep your worksheet clearly broken up into appropriate sections.
- Use headings for your worksheet and its sections if any. Your headings should be larger than the body font.
- Use bold OR italics OR underline sparingly (that is, only when necessary) and never all three.
- Determine and be aware of the purpose of your worksheet. That is, are you trying to practise a just presented language point, reinforce something already learned, revise for an exam, assess previous learning, or achieve some other educational goal?
- Be clear in your mind about the specific language point (or points for more advanced learners) that is the object of your worksheet.
- Choose worksheet tasks that are best suited to the language point in mind (for example word scrambles for spelling, and sorting for word stress).
- Use short and very clear wording (which will be limited mainly to the instructions).
- Test your worksheet! That means:
- do the worksheet yourself, as if you were a student. Are the instructions clear? Is there space to add your answers? Is the answersheet, if any, correct? Adjust your worksheet as necessary.
- see how well it photocopies. Do the edges get cut off? Are images faithfully reproduced? Adjust as necessary.
- Evaluate your worksheet! Your newly created worksheet is unlikely to be perfect the first time. Monitor student reaction and adjust as necessary.
- If you keep your master worksheets as hard copies (rather than as computer files), be sure to preserve them well in plastic wallets. Use only the original for photocopying and put it safely back in its wallet when done. Nothing is more demoralising to your students than a degenerate photocopy of a photocopy.
- When you create a worksheet, you may choose to create a corresponding answersheet. Even if you intend to cover the answers orally in class and not to print them out for each student, you may find a single printed answersheet useful for yourself. How you use an answersheet depends of course on practicalities like the complexity of the worksheet, the age and level of the students, and even your own experience as a teacher.
Where to Find ESL Worksheets
TEFLnet ESL Worksheets
Ready-made worksheets that you can download and print off, mostly with key or answersheet.
Ready-made worksheets that you can download and print off, mostly with key or answersheet.
Make your own worksheets and print them out instantly, complete with automatic answersheets.
ESL Worksheets Links
A directory of websites that host downloadable ESL worksheets.
Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes
Classroom activities for elementary to advanced learners of English