Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Writing a good worksheet: Shakespeare or Dolly Parton?

Dolly Parton

Cramming stuff in

When I started teaching in 1987 I used to make most of my own materials because I was teaching private classes in a wide range of contexts and couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books. Also, in those days there wasn’t such a variety of resources available as there are today. In order to save money on photocopying, I used to try and cram as much as possible on an A4 page without really thinking about overall page design, accessibility or user-experience. I’m embarrassed to say that at the time I thought some of those photocopies were brilliant. But now, looking back, I realize they were horrendous. My only regret is that I didn’t keep a few. They’d be a great example of how not to do things.

Learning from the mistakes of others

As I began to learn more about materials writing I started to consider things like page design and layout. Before working for publishers much of what I learnt was from evaluating course books and materials that other writers had created. Some were great. Others were awful – and they are probably the ones I learnt most from. Especially the ones that had me thinking things like, ‘But why did they choose to do X over Y?’

A critic’s eye

A useful practice is to find some materials you think are good, and look at some pages with a critic’s eye. Ask yourself:

  • What is it about the page that works?
  • How much text is on the page?
  • How is it organised?
  • How much white space is there?
  • What is the purpose of each block of white space?
  • What is the purpose of each element on the page?

Put yourself in your learners’ shoes

When you make materials for your classes, put yourself in your learners’ shoes and ask yourself how you’d feel if you were given this worksheet. Then do whatever is necessary to avoid any potential ‘Oh no!’ reactions.

Shakespeare said ‘less is more’ and I’m sure we’re all familiar with this way of thinking. It’s particularly useful when it comes to a worksheet. Frank Lloyd Wright tweaked Shakespeare and said, ‘Less is more only when more is too much’ but how much is too much?

How much is too much?

When it comes to text on a worksheet, more can often be too much. But ‘less’ doesn’t have to mean losing something. We just need to be thoughtful in our work: A provocative discussion question can be a springboard for a lengthy speaking stage in a lesson. A carefully chosen image can be all that is needed to get learners writing a detailed composition. What’s important is that you keep a few things in mind as you choose each element of what’s going to be on the worksheet. Ask yourself these questions as you prepare to write.

  • Is there anything I can leave out of the worksheet but keep in the Teacher’s notes?
  • Where shall I put the reading text: on the worksheet or as a separate document or slide?
  • Is this image necessary or is it merely decorative?
  • Will headings and subheadings help learners navigate the page?
  • Would it be useful to add an example before an exercise?
  • How many items do I need to include in an exercise if I want to practise all forms of a grammar structure? Or all the new vocabulary items?
  • Is a word box with some useful language helpful for a speaking task?
  • Is it a good idea to add a small glossary for key vocabulary that might be unfamiliar?
  • What size font should I use? And what about the spacing?
  • Do I need to include space for answers on the page?

The final word

Of course, as with all aspects of materials writing, context is everything. You know your learners better than anyone. In fact, you could do some simple classroom research. Prepare two versions of a worksheet, trying out different layouts and designs. Then, before the end of the lesson, ask your learners for some feedback on the two versions, saying which one they prefer, and why.  After all, your learners are your most important critics. And who knows? They might agree with Dolly Parton, who said,

‘Some people say that less is more. But I think more is more.’

Photo by Eva Rinaldi – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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