Yes, it’s that time again… bring on the guest posts! This time I am joined by Adam Simpson, the man behind the friendly and interesting blog One Year in the life of an English Teacher. He wanted to share some of the things he’s done WRONGLY in making worksheets. And I thought a bit of reflection is always a good thing. I’ve certainly made some of these mistakes in my early days too. So pay attention, and don’t do what he has done!
I like making my own worksheets to accompany course book materials, I always have done and always will. For whatever reason, I never fully trust the coursebook to do the job of getting the teaching objective across as much as I trust myself. Plus, I like making stuff. I’ve always been meticulous in my preparation of something I intend my students to not only use in class, but also to reflect back on at a later date. Nevertheless, I’ve made so many mistakes over the years that it’s almost funny. Here is a somewhat carefully, well thought out list of things for you to think about if you also like preparing your own teaching materials.
1) Purpose What’s the point? Why are you bothering? There just might be something stuck away at the back of the teacher’s book that does exactly what you’re trying to do; stranger things have occasionally happened. Alternatively, maybe someone at school has already cobbled together something that meets the objectives you’re trying to achieve. If neither of these apply… make sure you start with a clear purpose and work towards appearance, not the other way round. Here’s an example of how I went wrong at the start of my teaching career: I still remember the weekend after my first week of teaching. I decided to wow my students with a crossword for the start of our second week. After an hour of labour I’d produced something that looked great, but actually led to about five minutes of class activity. What I’d made was a triumph of style over substance that didn’t really do anything that the book already covered adequately. I learned pretty quickly form this experience.
2) Language I’m not talking about the language of the particular teaching point, I’m thinking of the language I use to make sure that the learners know what they are supposed to do. No matter how careful I am in writing prompts – and I am very careful – sometimes I just have to reflect on the fact that what I gave to the students wasn’t clear enough. So… Ask clear and understandable questions. Match your questions to the level of the learner. Use bullet points for clarity. There probably are worse things than having handed out an absolutely killer piece of material only to be met with blank expressions and total malaise, but it’s still really depressing. Trust me: make your instructions clear.
3) Design The design of your worksheet should enhance the content rather than obscuring it. To be honest, it took me years to truly get my head round this. Indeed, I’m still a stickler for making my worksheets look as professional and attractive as possible, but like I said, this shouldn’t be to the detriment of the content. What steps do I now take to avoid this? Limit the range of fonts you use I have literally thousands of additional fonts added to my Microsoft word, but I rarely use more than two or three in my worksheets. Funky fonts that look good but are difficult to read will only serve to frustrate your learners. Limit the visual aids I still look to put my objectives and instructions into a fancy speech bubble, but that’s it. Don’t overdo it with pictures and borders and other fancy stuff, or the learners won’t be able to see the wood of the learning objective(s) for the trees of the design feature(s).
4) Product What do you want to have created in the end? Is the message clear? How can you make sure that it will appeal to as many of your learners as possible? Keep a collection of all the handouts you produce and reflect on them periodically. Here are a couple of reasons why I think this is a good thing to do. You keep making the same kind of resource again and again Try to include a range of tasks that will appeal to different types of learner (perhaps consider different learner styles if you believe in such a thing). Even the best of us do this. I remember one of my DELTA tutors driving me to despair with constant jigsaw reading tasks. She had no idea of how often she was using this kind of task until I pointed out that that was all she ever gave us. Keep a record of what you make or you’ll find you repeat yourself more often than you might imagine. You make the same kind of resource, regardless of the purpose What is it for? This will affect what kind of questions you can ask the learner. Homework / individual / group tasks will all require tailored questions. Don’t do what I once did and ask the learner to discuss a set of homework questions in groups. I found out the following day that they had spent all night phoning one another to come to a consensus over their answers.
5) Trial It isn’t going to be perfect first time. Treat your worksheet as a draft to be improved. This means trialing it in class to see what queries / confusion it raises. Take a revisable version of it into class with you to make instant notes of necessary changes. Also, make sure you follow up your revisions on the computer, or whatever method you have of maintaining the original.
6) Storage This is still my biggest fault. I can’t stress enough the importance of storing paper copies methodically for easy retrieval. Consider how you want to do this carefully, be it a filing cabinet (I hear these still exist), in-tray system, or ring binder with plastic pockets. My advice is to mark a master copy using a particular system so that you don’t lose it (I have a teachers copy with ‘Adam’s’ emblazoned across the top with a blank copy of the original stapled to it in a plastic folder separate from all other materials). Try to do the same with computer files; be as specific as you can when naming them! Go on, admit it; how many files do you gave on your computer labeled ‘grammar exercise’? Do yourself a favour and give your file a very specific name. The last file I created was called ‘L3 U1 I3 exercise to follow up on writing definitions about education’. OK, it took me ten seconds to name the file, but I’ve a pretty good idea of where to find it from the name next time I need to do a follow up exercise on writing definitions about education for the third input of Unit 1 of the Level 3 course book. I’d love to hear what other ideas you have, problems you’ve encountered and how you resolved these issues.