Preparing ESL-friendly tests and worksheets

This page gives advice on preparing worksheets and tests that give ESL students the best chance to show what they know.


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 with questions or prompts for students to respond to.

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 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 prompts more easily understood by ESL students:

  • @ Use the shorter, more common word in favour of its less frequent equivalent. ~

    For example, buy is better than purchase, begin is better than commence, look at the diagram on page 3 is easier than focus your attention on the diagram on the adjacent page, etc.

    The exception to this rule is when the aim is to introduce or develop vocabulary that is an integral part of the knowledge of the subject.

  • Be aware of the difficulties of academic vocabulary .

    Academic vocabulary is the term for non-subject-specific vocabulary that occurs across all disciplines: e.g. duration, eventually, similarity, furthermore, rate, etc.

    ESL students often fail to comprehend tasks fully because they don't know the meanings of such words. If a worksheet contains academic words that are critical to an understanding of the main idea or task, it would be helpful to explain their meanings in advance.

    Read more on academic vocabulary.

  • Be aware of the difficulty of idioms and phrasal verbs

    Such expressions are often impenetrable to non-native speakers, who may know the meanings of the individual words but who are not familiar with the overall sense. For example, the following (apocryphal) extracts from history examinations would certainly not be immediately comprehensible to most ESL students.

    - Explain how Grant was able to wipe the floor with Lee at the battle of Antietam?

    - Why did Britain blow hot and cold for so long on the invitation to join the Common Market?

    Read more on idioms and phrasal verbs.

  • Avoid complex syntax in question prompts.

    @@ Use simple sentences and separate out the actual task from the illustrative detail. ~~ For example, the second of these prompts is probably more readily understood than the first:

    - Explain why metals expand when they get warmer and contract when they get cooler, whereas water does the opposite.

    - Metals expand when they get warmer and contract when they get cooler. Water does the opposite. Explain why.

  • Be aware of the potential difficulty of negatives.

    Research† has shown that negative sentences can be harder or slower to process than positive ones. So the first of the following questions may slow down the reader (or even impede understanding) more than the second one, its equivalent:

    - Why didn't America enter World War 1 until 1917?

    - Why did America wait until 1917 before entering World War 1?

  • Take care with punctuation.

    Generally, it is better to over- rather than under-punctuate, even though this goes against the current trend in (British) English style. Inner-sentence punctuation helps students parse the text into meaningful blocks, and speeds up comprehension‡.

    So, for example, the first of the following sentences is likely to be more immediately comprehensible than the second:

    - When you have finished part one, do part three.

    - When you have finished part one do part three.

  • Remember that ESL students are often helped by the direct repetition of a noun

    This is better than omitting it or replacing it with a pronoun - even if this doesn't necessarily make for good English style. For example, the second version of the mathematics problem below is probably more easily understood than the first:

    - Alex has 4 friends. He wants to buy each of them 6 cookies. How many does he need to buy in all?

    - Alex has 4 friends. He wants to buy each friend 6 cookies. How many cookies does he need to buy in all?

  • Avoid using different nouns (synonyms or hypernyms) to refer to the same thing.

    In the following science text, the ESL student may not immediately understand that prey is a hypernym of penguin and refers to it.

    It is preferable in tests, therefore, to choose one noun and repeat it, as in the second example below:

    - The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments its prey before eating it. Why does it do this?

    - The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments the penguin before eating it. Why does the whale do this?

  • Take care with vague or ambiguous instruction words.

    These can often be replaced by direct questions. For example, the first instruction below may have the ESL student reaching for the dictionary, whereas the second is immediately clear:

    - Determine the probability of throwing a 6.

    - What is the probability of throwing a 6?

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 as names, and attempt to find them in their dictionary.

    Better is the simple: A girl buys 2 meters of rail track... , etc.,

  • 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. Furthermore, 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.

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.

  • Type all worksheets and assessments. It is helpful to use different and consistent typefaces and font sizes throughout the year.

    So, for example, the introductory text is always in one typeface, the question itself in another and the example in yet another. You can also use indentation for this purpose.

  • Where possible separate ideas in bulleted lists (like this one), instead of using dense text.

  • Make sure that the full text can be seen at all sides of the paper, and that no words are obscured where the holes are punched.

  • If more than one diagram, chart etc. is to be included in the worksheet, label each one clearly and refer to the label in the question.

  • It's better to have two well-spaced-out pages than one page cluttered with text in a small typeface. Ensure that there is enough space for students to write answers.

  • Try to keep the whole question and its space for answers on just one side of the paper

  • Ensure that copies are legible.

    Worksheets that have been cut and pasted from textbooks and then handed down through generations of teachers are notorious for their illegibility.

Click the button below for some examples of what not to do.

English: Hand-out sheet to help students choose a suitable book

Rule: Make it legible!

bad worksheet

Science: Hand-out sheet about the hydrological cycle

Rule: Make it legible!

bad worksheet

Mathematics: Question to determine the speed of a moving car

Rule: Be aware of the difficulties of cultural references!

The following text is the first part of the introductory paragraph to a question about car speed:

The police used to measure the speed of cars on the road by having two PCs some distance apart using a stopwatch. One of them would stand and wave as a car reached him. When the wave was seen by the second PC a stopwatch was started. As the car passed the second PC, the stopwatch was stopped."

The question itself read:

Is the car exceeding the maximum speed limit in Britain?

The ESL student who asked for my help with this question was puzzled how a personal computer could stand and wave. He also had no idea what the maximum speed limit is in Britain.

Another problem with the introductory paragraph is used to, meaning a practice that existed in the past, but no longer does.

On a first parse of the sentence, however, the student may assume that use has its common meaning of employ.

Read more about the problems of polysemous words such as use.

More recommendations

Below are some more suggestions that you might wish to take into account when creating your written class and homework tasks.

  • However carefully you have prepared your homework sheet, it is very helpful that the students have the chance to read through it first in class and ask for clarification of anything they don't understand.

  • Remember that your ESL teacher will be happy to check through important worksheets and tests, and advise on their comprehensibility for ESL students.

Further reading

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 have seen model answers.

*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: (2015)

Missing the point : The effect of punctuation on reading performance. Benjamin J. W. Grindlay. Retrieved from: (2015)