Making Worksheets from easy (and dubious) to hard (but ethical)

Making Worksheets from easy (and dubious) to hard (but ethical)

As an EFL teacher, you certainly use the best textbook in the world. Your students understand new material in an instant and never need to practice or review foundational vocabulary, grammar, phonics or other skills. Your smart board works 100% of the time, without any hitches. Your school supplies you with oodles of supplemental material and it’s easily accessible and appropriate for your specific needs.

Or maybe not.

Worksheets are a sort of necessary evil. Even the best class–with the best textbook, the best teacher, and the best resources–might benefit from an extra worksheet or two once in awhile. And, if those best circumstances aren’t available, you might find yourself becoming a worksheet making machine. But, there are shortcuts you can take, and programs to use that can make worksheet-making less of a chore. Here are some of my favorite tools and tricks when it comes to making worksheets. \

Short Cuts

Image searches-While your preferred search engines may not work in China, Bing offers a lot of the same features–including an image search. You can search the topic you need a worksheet on and see them at a glance, clicking only on those that interest you. It’s a bit faster than a traditional search, and more often that, once you find one (or more) that works, it’s as simple as copying and pasting. This is dubious ethically, but in a pinch, it’s your best option. I like to copy 4 or so and then put them on one double-sided piece of landscaped paper, so the students get a variety–and that much more practice.

Look at all these worksheets, ripe for copying and pasting.

ESL Worksheet sites-There are whole, entire sites dedicated to ESL worksheets. Most of them are even free, though sometimes there’s a catch. ESL Printables, for example, requires that you contribute worksheets for “credit” and then those credits are used to get worksheets made by others. ISL Collective is similarly crowdsourced, but allows downloads without contributions. Most sites even allow you to sort or search by levels as well as topics making it easy to find what you’re looking for.

With either shortcut, you still have to make sure the worksheet is appropriate for your students. If it’s a phonics activity that requires labeling, do they know enough of the words to complete it? They can’t label as a baseball bat as “bat” if they only know the animal, for example. If it is review of a grammar rule, like personal pronouns, will they be thrown off by other sentence structures in use?


Crossword and Word search makers–There’s a variety of websites and programs that will create classic worksheets from your input. I like The Teachers Corner because of the variety of tools they have and the ability to make a jpeg or a pdf (more on that in a moment). The free version is more limited, with not as many font options, but still gets the job done! I also really like the secret message maker from The Teacher’s Room. These are great for vocabulary, but puzzles like these are more “fun” than traditional exercises while still having academic benefits. Even a grammar-based fill-in-the-blank can be turned into crossword clues or secret messages!

Supplemental Workbooks–Be careful not to confuse this with a textbook! Textbooks are structured and a good one will “build” upon what’s previously covered, making it difficult to use a page out of a textbook without other context. A supplemental workbook has resources that are more generalized. Usually a series is focused around common topics, themed to specific areas, and leveled, but each section or even page can stand alone. A “reading” workbook, for example, may have different texts and associated questions and work, but using the last reading in the book would be fine without ever using any prior reading (assuming the level is appropriate for your students!). A “grammar” workbook may have sections about specific topics, but you can use say, a subject-verb agreement page to go along with that section of your textbook. Check out Teacher’s House workbooks here.

ESL Worksheet Sites or Web Searches–Feeling Deja vu? Well, some worksheets and search results can be edited or used as inspiration. Looking at some examples of contraction worksheets can help you formulate exactly what you want and think will be benefit your class the most. You can combine different questions from different worksheets as well as adding your own. If you like a style of worksheet but don’t need the topic, you can reverse-engineer the idea and build your worksheet from that foundation. This is especially useful if you don’t have a lot of experience but want to increase your skills. Teachers can, and should, learn from other teachers.

The Generic Worksheet–I’ve found and made some worksheets that don’t have a specific focus. For example, there’s templates to “make your own word search” that are basically just grids for kids to write words in and then fill with random letters. Once you “show” your class how to use them, you can use it again–with whatever the new topic is. By giving a structure and familiarizing the students with that structure, you have a backup-plan as well as a legitimate worksheet to use again in the future.

This worksheet works with any words! ANY!
But it’s different every time!

The Long (Right) Way

Microsoft Office–For fans of the classic, Word can be used for text-based worksheets, but do try to be creative as a visibly boring, ugly worksheet will be a boring, ugly worksheet to complete. Word is good for fill-in-the-blank-worksheets, but adding some (not too much!) clip-art and using a font other than Arial and Times New Roman can actually increase the appeal to students. In fact teaching worksheets are perhaps the only time it’s appropriate to use Comic Sans; the handwriting look can actually be easier for students to read than formal serif fonts. Experiment with other parts of the Office Suite though, too. For example, I have discovered that the PowerPoint print option of 3 blank slides with “notes” makes a good mini-book template when copied front and back.

This project assignment paper could have been made in word, since it’s mostly text, but I wanted to make it a little more snazzy.

Canva–Canva is my new favorite thing in the world. It may be challenging to register, as I think think there’s a captcha issue, but once you do it works fine. And also, it will change your life. Well, it changed mine at least. Canva is a “design” suite that is totally online. The free version offers a limited library of photos, clip-art and design elements (shapes and lines and things) as well as an exhaustive library of fonts. You can also upload or copy and paste things. A paid version offers a much more extensive library of clip art and design elements, but I’ve been able to make-do with the free version so far. I find the clip art and shapes to be easy to use Creations can be downloaded in a variety of formats, including images and pdfs. It might take some time to “learn” but I found it very user-friendly and intuitive. The menu of features is on the side, and the search boxes help you find exactly what you’re looking for pretty easily. This might sound like a paid endorsement, but it’s not! This article was almost entirely devoted to Canva, (and who knows, there might be a follow-up!) but Canva combined with some of the other resources outlined above can really bring your worksheet design to a whole new level. In fact–

Canva+–As design software, rather than word processing, Canva works better with a combination of images, text, and shapes than Word does. You might have to spread your text over a few text-boxes for an ideal layout, or crop an image in different parts but all of this can be done inside Canva. I really like using Canva to create a more interesting version of the vocabulary worksheets I make with The Teacher’s Corner. I also “combine” worksheets together.

It’s not much different, but still a little more polished than a blank crossword and hints.

A Final Note

Multiple Activities–Worksheets can be one kind of activity or many, but the more ways a person uses a word or grammar pattern, the more likely they are to remember it. Use both sides of the paper, at least, or have two sides. Using different activities also adds visual interest, but be sure to mark off the different activities as well as possible so students don’t get confused.

Can you find the back of this worksheet? It’s somewhere in the article!

Fonts–Having a variety of fonts available for use can add visual excitement, but do make sure they’re kid-friendly or at least student-friendly. I use Open Dyslexic a lot (you can find the download at the link and it’s available on Canva!), on the hope that it is useful to students and because I actually do find it visually appealing. I will sometimes mix it up with others, but I actually tend to avoid default fonts just because the 10 seconds it takes to change to an “interesting font” is worth if it makes even one student more excited to do the worksheet, even if it’s just Comic Sans over Arial.

Clip-Art–I prefer simple pictures so if I’m looking for something specific, I’ll often search for “subject clip-art” and even add “line” or “black and white”. If I just search for “subject” most of the pictures won’t be good for worksheets. On Canva, I also like that I can change the color of most of the clip art to grey scale. Still, don’t go crazy with clip art or any images! Too many can make a worksheet look busy which can be overwhelming to students.

Images can help students visualize and identify new words.

Photos–I don’t like using photos on my worksheets because I don’t like the print quality, but you are not me. If you are using black and white, make sure to check out the images in gray-scale and consider the loss of quality that you might get from your copier.

Shapes--Even on Word, you can use simple lines and shapes to add interest to your worksheets. Put an interesting outline for a “draw a picture” space, or nicely frame your text. Use an arrow to highlight something important! Add interesting blank lines to write on. I make boxing activities just by copying and pasting the same 2 box sizes (short and tall) and then arranging them accordingly. Once I got the system down, it became very efficient.

These shapes are more interesting and easier to use than blank sheet of paper!

SAVE YOUR WORKSHEETS!–When you finish and use a worksheet make sure to save it! And label it so that you can find it again! Another class might have the same issue, or it’s that much work you have to do the next time you teach it! I also like to keep a few “old” worksheets handy to give to naughty students or those that are struggling–even if they have “done” it already. Review is never a bad thing!

PROOFREAD!–This should be obvious, but if possible, get SOMEONE ELSE to. I frequently miss mistakes on things I’ve made and there’s few things worse than trying to explain to students that you weren’t as careful as you should have been!

All of the words with spaces only have the second word. Of course I noticed this after I made 48 copies of it for my students!

Now, you are ready to go out in the world and make your own worksheets–or more easily steal them from other teachers. Whatever the case, worksheets have the power to help your students and you by giving them extra practice and exposure to whatever you’re trying to teach them. They are much more than just extra homework–but they can be if you need it.

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