Let’s start with some clarification about the term ‘rubric’. In the world of exams and assessment, the term ‘rubric’ can mean the set of instructions at the beginning of an exam paper, or it can refer to the written criteria which you use to assess the candidate’s exam performance. However, in this post for ‘The A to Z of Writing ELT Materials’, we’re defining the term ‘rubric’ as a set of instructions you write with every exercise. Sometimes, these are also referred to as the ‘instruction line’ or ‘direction line’ in the ELT publishing world.

Saying the same thing differently

For the purposes of this post, rubrics equal the instructions we write so teachers and students understand what they need to do. Here are three examples of rubrics from different materials. All three are basically doing the same thing: Telling students to fill the gaps in an exercise.

Example 1: Complete sentences 1-8 with the missing words below.
Example 2: Work in pairs and complete the sentences.
Example 3: Click on the word and put it in the box.


However, the three examples vary because they come from different contexts. Rubric 1 is from a self-study exercise in a workbook, so you are writing directly to the learner. Rubric 2 is from a course book used in class so students can do the exercise with a partner. Rubric 3 is from an online platform using a keyboard. (For more on varying the instructions according to the context, see V is for Voice.)

Short and simple

In each of the three example, the rubrics share common features. They use imperatives and there is normally one action per sentence. The exception to this is rubric 2 which was written for the classroom. The writer inserts the conjunction, ‘and’ which is probably ok. In fact, you could write this particular rubric in many other ways such as:

In pairs, complete the sentences.

Work in pairs. Complete the sentences.

Complete the sentences. Then, compare with your partner.

Complete the sentences with your partner.


It probably doesn’t matter too much which you choose as long as you are consistent from one rubric to the next. If you use ‘Work in pairs’ in one exercise, it’s probably better to always use that instruction every time you want pair work than to suddenly introduce ‘Work with a partner’. If you work with editors or a publisher, you may even receive a style sheet in which these basic rubrics are agreed from the outset in order to guarantee consistency.

Rubrics are easy to write badly in the same way that’s it’s easy to give poor classroom instruction when you are teaching or training.

When the rubric is harder than the task

In the same way that it’s easy to get classroom instructions badly wrong as a teacher, a rubric can be equally confusing. Here’s an example of a rubric breaking all sorts of rules. How would you rewrite it?

Get into pairs and write three questions which are for another pair and when you finish, join another pair of students and ask them.

The main problem is that it contains three different instructions in one long sentence. It includes a relative clause which is always a bad sign; especially if the students haven’t been introduced to relative clauses yet! So, it needs breaking down into its components, and probably needs to be written as two separate rubrics like this:

Work in pairs and write three questions. Work with another pair. Ask and answer your questions.

What do you think?

If you have more tips and advice on writing rubrics, why not add them below in the comments. You will also find a video version of this post on your You Tube channel at

Kath is going to write a separate blog post about writing rubrics for Young Learner materials as they involve other considerations too.


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