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Preparing ESL-friendly worksheets and tests

Elsewhere on this site there is advice on helping ESL students understand what they read. What I want to concentrate on here is how to write comprehensible worksheets and tests. A great deal of the learning (and most of the testing) that goes on in school is done by means of written sheets questions for them to answer.

Sometimes the wording of the task or question is deliberately made obscure in order to challenge the student to think about what is required. In most cases, however, it is intended that students should spend their time thinking about how to do something rather than puzzling over what the teacher wants of them. In such cases, it is essential that the wording of the task or question is as clear and unambiguous as possible.


Making language comprehensible

Following are a few tips on how to make the language of your questions and tasks more easily understood by ESL students:


Other factors in writing comprehensible tasks

It is not only the language of question tasks that can cause difficulty. Following are suggestions on how to ensure that other aspects of the task do not prevent ESL students from easily comprehending what is expected of them:

  • Avoid worksheet or test questions that assume a cultural knowledge that the ESL students are unlikely to have. A mathematics question about the batting average of a baseball player may cause unnecessary difficulties to a student who has never seen the game played and knows nothing about its rules.

  • Choose simple and familiar contexts for assessment tasks. For example, the context for a Computing Studies task about the collection and tabulation of data can be the school cafeteria, which students are familiar with, rather than a car factory, which they are not.

  • Do not include extraneous information in worksheets or tests. The bold words in the following questions are unnecessary. ESL students may not know this until they have wasted time looking them up in their dictionary:

    Mary bought a turquoise snowboard in a garage sale for $37.50 and promptly resold it for $41.30. What was her profit?

    A cactus has prickly spines on its stem. What particular function do you think these fulfil?

  • Be aware of the difficulties caused by including a plethora of multi-cultural names in worksheet questions. ESL students may not immediately recognise words such as Ranjeep, Beatrix, Seamus, Carmelita, and attempt to find them in their dictionary. Better is the simple: A girl buys 2 meters of rail track .., etc.

    A final suggestion

  • Use (labelled) pictures or diagrams where possible A picture will very often help students with limited English proficiency to understand the assessment task more quickly and completely. Furthemore, illustrations can help to reduce the amount of text that students have to read. A good example is a task asking students to predict the outcome of a science experiment, which is accompanied by a picture of the equipment set-up.

  • There is a useful chapter on preparing fair tests for ESL students in A Practical Guide To Assessing English Language Learners*. The authors cover some of the suggestions made above, focusing on the importance of ensuring that the vocabulary of test tasks does not disadvantage ESL students. They make the crucial point that assessment should be considered at the start of a new unit so that ESL students can receive adequate preparation in the vocabulary to be included in the assessed tasks. It is important that students have had practice in doing tasks of a similar nature to those in the assessment, and seen model answers.

    Preparing legible worksheets

    Preparing good worksheets and tests is not simply a matter of ensuring the language of the questions and tasks is readily understandable; it is important to give some consideration to the appearance of the sheet itself. Here are some tips you may wish to follow:

    Click here to see some unfriendly worksheets or worksheet questions!

    Final thoughts

    *Folse, Keith, Nancy Hubley, and Christine Coombe. A Practical Guide to Assessing English Language Learners. N.p.: University of Michigan Press, 2007. Print.

    † Extract: "Studies of negation comprehension using activation measures have shown that the presence of negation slows responses times to negated concepts ... " Retrieved from: http://www.psych.ufl.edu/~abrams/documents/margolin_abrams_09.pdf (2015)

    Missing the point : The effect of punctuation on reading performance. Benjamin J. W. Grindlay. Retrieved from: https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/handle/2440/21889 (2015)


    Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)