Not One More Worksheet!

Blog post on the ineffectiveness of worksheets, the rationale for avoiding them, examples of alternative approaches.

      I saw this graphic and thought, I have to stop and write about this.  Again.  Yet, I have taxes to do.  I have laundry to wash and supper to heat.  But, this is more important, weighing heavily on my mind at the moment. 
     Worksheets.  Why?  Why are there still so many worksheets in our classrooms?  For more than twenty-five years, I've written about teaching reading and writing through authentic literacy contexts instead of using worksheets.  Why?  Because 'teaching' students to do a worksheet really teaches them nothing.  Never mind the poor design of some worksheet tasks.  Never mind that worksheets, piles and piles of them, numb students' brains and contribute to negative perceptions of school.  Never mind the money wasted on workbooks, ink, toner, paper...  The most important issue here is that teaching via worksheets has very limited effectiveness.  The time students spend filling out worksheets is basically a total waste.  Why?  Because what we 'teach' via a worksheet, if it is actually worthwhile to teach, must transfer to the complex acts of real reading and real writing.  Otherwise, what was the point of the exercise?  This transfer is not easy. 
     Let's take an example.  I'm a second grade student, and I have just completed a worksheet on properly capitalizing sentences and putting in the appropriate end mark punctuation. I score 100%.  All I had to think about while I was doing this task was:  "Remember to put the capital at the beginning.  Read the sentence.  What type of sentence is this?  Is it telling me something, questioning, or exclaiming something?"  Bam, done.  It was pretty simple to concentrate just on those few concepts while filling out this one worksheet.  Now, as that same second grader, when I sit down to write a story, very different processes go on in my mind:  "What am I going to write? Should I write a real story or make one up?  Where will my story happen?  Who will be in my story? What will they do?  How do I say that so others can read it?  How do I spell this word?  Wait, let me reread to see if what I have so far makes sense.  Will my readers like this?  Do I like this?  What word should I use for that?  This doesn't make sense, how can I say it a different way?  I'm stuck.  What should I write next?  What am I going to do with this character now?  How will I solve this problem?"  ETC... One of the last things that enters my mind is, "Where does that capital go?  Do I need a period or question mark?"  Why?  Because the second grader is focused on meaning making.  And, if she hasn't learned how to use capitals and end mark punctuation in her quest to make that meaning, it's likely she'll leave out these conventions entirely.  Writing is a complex mental process with many questions and issues entering a writer's mind simultaneously.  Filling out worksheets is a simple mental process and often can be done without much true engagement at all.
     So, what do we do instead?  We teach our students to read and write through modeled, shared, interactive, guided and independent experiences.  We teach in real contexts so that students understand how the 'part' they are learning fits into the 'whole.'  For example, when working on conventions, write a Morning Message to the class, have them read it, talk about it, then go back through and identify some of the conventions you included as a writer and why you included them.  This not only puts the learning into a context, it helps students understand the purpose of these conventions.  Plus, the context is engaging and the skills are situated within meaning making, not isolated as they are on worksheets.
    Another example comes to mind: the spelling test.  You know the drill: give the list on Monday, practice via skill worksheets or other isolated means through Thursday, test on Friday.  Why do students generally do so well on these tests?  Simple. The only focus when taking the test is spelling one word at a time.  We all know what tends to happen the very next week (or even that same day).  The student is writing along, composing a piece about what he can do to help the Earth for Earth Day coming up, and a few of those same spelling words are included.  Unless the student has real automaticity with the spellings, he proceeds to misspell the words.   It's so frustrating!  But, is it a surprise?  Nope. Totally different context--lots going on in the brain.  We have to teach students spelling strategies they can employ and teach them how to use them simultaneously while dealing with other issues as they are writing.  And, yes, we have to work on automaticity, just as we do with other basic, foundational skills.  But, these skills can be worked on in much more interactive ways than on worksheets.  
    So, how much time is spent in your classroom/school on worksheet tasks?  How purposeful are those tasks?  Do the skills/strategies represented on the worksheets transfer to the real acts of reading and writing?  Is there a better approach, one that is more engaging and ultimately more effective? 
    I have to take a moment to plug a new-ish book from Stenhouse, since this post has mentioned conventions so many times.  If you haven't read or heard of the approach advocated by writing expert, Jeff Anderson (author of Patterns of Power, among others), you should check it out.  Through the intentional, purpose-driven use of mentor sentences, Jeff advocates instruction that makes sense and is actually very effective for teaching conventions.  That's right!  You can get your students using conventions in their everyday writing without worksheets!  Thank you, Jeff!
    I'm off to eat dinner.  Please feel free to leave comments or questions.  Keep in mind, the more we teach the skills and strategies of reading and writing through actual reading and writing, the more our readers and writers grow, thrive, and learn. 


  1. Hi Janiel!! I love your post! Thank you! I'm joining Davis County at South Weber next year from Texas. I write a blog called Sprinkles to Kindergarten and present for SDE as well! Anyways, just wanted to send you a happy hello!

    1. Hello Erica!
      You'll love Davis District. It is a wonderful place to work. And, you're going to be working with some of my favorite people there at South Weber. Congratulations! I'm sure our paths will cross soon!
      Glad you said hello! -Janiel


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