As I began my student teaching about ten years ago, I attended the first-day-back faculty meeting, during which the building principal chastised teachers, “Don’t use worksheets! They’re not best practice!”
Thinking about what she said, the same two questions come to mind now as they did back then: What should teachers be using instead? Can all worksheets really be that bad?…Let’s focus on answering the second question (which will then naturally help to partially answer the first).
So, here are three reasons to embrace (some) worksheets, reasons that are based on my work as a teacher.
1. Worksheets Can Promote Higher-Order Thinking
You would be hard-pressed to find an educator who doesn’t believe students should regularly engage in inquiry-based learning and thinking routines. However, running a classroom in which these approaches are frequently implemented is easier said than done.
For example, as a classroom teacher, a few of the “inquiry-based books” I heavily relied upon were Strategies That Work for close reading, Making Thinking Visible for higher-order thinking routines, and Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics for inquiry-based math. Now, while all of these books detail valuable activities, often times a single activity is described across several pages, and it wouldn’t have been realistic to read through a bunch of pages every time I wanted to use one of them. Therefore, I made it a habit of transforming activities into worksheets. These worksheets were then readily accessible, and they could always be modified based on the students I had in front of me.
2. Worksheets Can Be a Source of Reference
We want students to understand (not just memorize) what they learn and be able to apply content to unique contexts and situations (transfer). Thus, facts shouldn’t be taught in isolation, and students should be exposed to the why behind why they’re learning what they’re learning.
For example, while a traditional basal reading series generally calls for grammar to be taught in isolation, a great deal of research indicates this approach is the wrong way to teach grammar and that it should be taught through reading and writing. Nonetheless, even if context is the way in which students learn common and proper nouns, they can still benefit from having a “Common and Proper Nouns 101 worksheet” to refer back to when needed. This idea of worksheets as a reference can be applied to any concept. If we want our students to eventually become independent learners, there is nothing wrong with giving them helpful resources they can access independently at later points in time (and maybe, gradually move away from this practice as students get older).
3. Worksheets Offer Fact Drilling (When Appropriate)
If students are to understand a certain concept (such as number sense), it would be unreasonable to think they’ll develop this understanding through “drill and kill” worksheet practice (such as math facts) without first being exposed to some form of deeper learning. After all, just because a student has memorized “3 + 2 = 5” doesn’t necessarily mean she understands addition.
John Van de Walle details three instances in which drill and practice is appropriate: the desired concepts have been meaningfully developed; students have already developed (not mastered) flexible and useful procedures; and speed and accuracy are (eventually) needed. These first two points are noteworthy because they indicate when a worksheet is assigned (which can vary from student to student) can make or break a learning experience! As a teacher, I didn’t have a problem with my students engaging in fact drilling, as long as they were able to demonstrate their fluency in what they were practicing (as opposed to rote memorization, which doesn’t necessarily necessitate an understanding).
In the End
While I understand it’s easy to be anti-worksheets (and anti-textbooks, and anti-homework, etc.), the fact is they are not going away anytime soon, and countless teachers rely on them at least to some extent. However…If we treat worksheets as a tool or resource (much like technology), we can think critically about how they are used, as opposed to simply following a publisher’s script.
And, if we want to get rid of worksheets completely, let’s be prepared to discuss what practices and materials will take their place.
What are your thoughts on worksheets? Can they be used effectively?