The Problem with Worksheets

You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly from worksheets. ~ Todd Whitaker

I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme…as much as teachers have heard that worksheets are not appropriate they just seem to have a hard time letting go of them. I think the problem is that perhaps deep down they still believe that worksheets have some value to children, or that if they aren’t using worksheets then they aren’t really teaching. That could just not be further from the truth.

So what’s wrong with worksheets?

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Which means that they also have a wrong answer. However, the wrong answer doesn’t allow children to use trial and error to learn from it. Instead, the wrong answers on a worksheet lead children to believe that there is no value in risk-taking because only the right answers are valued. Seeing a lot of wrong answers can also reduce a child’s belief in her/his ability.
  • Similarly, worksheets can only be used in one way. This means that children aren’t using higher order thinking skills like they would if they were playing with concrete materials.
  • Children are concrete learners, which means they need concrete objects in order to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract, and are therefore incapable of teaching this type of learner. This is what makes them developmentally inappropriate.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children of such a young age, that means the only thing they can do is present, or test, a concept that children already know. And if children already know it, then why are we wasting our time on it?
  • Worksheets are task-oriented activities rather then learning activities. When completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet rather than learn the task at hand.
  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are of the utmost importance and are still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning in different ways.
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. This goes against common logic, because we know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Worksheets waste valuable time, focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • Overly academic approaches may offer short term success, such as children being able to recite alphabet letters or rote count, but this comes at a cost. Children from overly academic schools may not have engaged in the higher-order thinking activities that help them understand why things are the way they are. They don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher levels of test anxiety compared with their peers from play based schools.
  • Any concept portrayed in a worksheet can be taught better in a hands-on, meaningful way.

As Marilyn Adams said, “If they can do the worksheet they don’t need it. If they can’t, it won’t help them.”

Letting go of worksheets creates more time in your classroom to allow children to explore their interests in a meaningful way. And when you allow children to make choices, they become more motivated. Motivate children and you cause a release of dopamine in the brain, which unlike other neurotransmitters is spritzed on the brain causing it to reach larger areas. Motivate children and you increase learning.

There are numerous ways to engage children in meaningful literacy, math, and science concepts without the use of worksheets. What are your favorite play-based activities?

Creating Meaningful Literacy Experiences for Preschoolers

Creating literacy-rich environments is certainly a buzz-phrase in preschool classrooms. It seems that everyone is always looking for new ideas to make their classrooms literacy rich. What seems to be missing from a lot of these conversations is meaning. It’s not enough to just have a lot of print in your environment. Research has shown us that just putting a lot of print in the environment doesn’t really help children attend to it. In fact, they may even start to ignore it. Rather, current research suggests that we should make sure that we create print-rich environments that are meaningful. Gone are the days when we label everything in the classroom, such as the door, the chair, and the window. These labels have little to no meaning to children. Instead, we have to look at the children in our classroom and determine what type of print would be meaningful to them. There are some universal activities that are meaningful to preschoolers, such as anything having to do with their name. However, what might be meaningful to one classroom might not be so meaningful to another classroom.

I encourage you to question everything you put in your environment to determine if it is actually meaningful to the children. Are the signs that label each area (Dramatic Play, Blocks, etc.) meaningful to children? Or are they just something that someone, somewhere along the way, told you that you had to have? (I’ve yet to see these signs as actually being required in any quality improvement program or accreditation standards even though many teachers insist that they are required). Are the labels you have on your shelves helpful to the children? Or are they a nuisance? Is the alphabet poster something that children use, or does it add to the visual clutter of the room? The answers to all of these questions may be different for every classroom. My point is that you have to be the one to critically evaluate whether something is meaningful or not.

So….what are some examples of activities that other teachers have found meaningful? Let’s take a look…..but even with these suggested activities….don’t forget to ask yourself if these will be meaningful for YOUR group of children!

Meaningful Labels

Some labels are meaningful. These labels help children know where to put the art materials when they are returning them to the shelves.

Meaningful Print in the Science Area

This science center has an example of meaningful print. While the children are not able to read this print yet in this preschool classroom, they will notice that the print has changed and will likely as the teacher what it says.

Reading Area

This cozy reading area is a big hit with children. It includes many cozy features, including pillows, rugs, and plants.

Listening Center

This listening center was made from PVC pipe and a cheap curtain. You can imagine how much children loved getting away to this area!

Books in the Block Area

Don’t forget to include books in other areas though!

When children walk into this classroom, they locate their name on the woodchip and then place it into a basket. Teachers can then use the basket to talk about who is here (or not) at group time or other times during the day.

Writing Table

This writing table is inviting to children. The table is set up for 2 children, because writing during the preschool years tends to be a social experience. The table has blank paper, blank books, fill-in strips with the words to a popular song the children were singing, children’s name cards (and teachers), pencils, alphabet samples, and word cards to put in the fill-in strip blanks.

Job Chart

Job charts are another way to include meaningful print into your classroom!

These small alphabet blocks are fun to put on top of these laminated name cards. Note: The name cards had all capital letters because the alphabet blocks were not available with lower case letters and this class was not yet able to match case on the letters. Typically, all name cards should use Sentence Case – with a capital first letter and lower case letters for the rest of the name.

Compound Words

This compound word activity can be fun for older preschoolers. Children try to find the two words that make up the compound word.

Sorting by Syllables

In this activity, children sort word cards by the number of syllables they hear.

This is just a sampling of activities to start your literacy program. What ideas do you have, and what makes them meaningful to children?

To Teach a Second Language or Not?

One of the questions I get asked alot by teachers is whether they should be teaching a second language in their classroom or not. There is so much pressure from parents and administrators that it becomes hard to know what to do.

There is no doubt. Children who learn a second language before puberty have an advantage. They learn the language as a native speaker and have increased cognitive abilities. Second language learning during early childhood boosts problem solving skills, critical thinking, listening skills, memory, concentration, and overall academic achievement. With benefits like these, it may seem like a no brainer…..why wouldn’t you introduce another language into your classroom? To answer this question, you need to answer a different question:

Are you a native or fluent speaker of the language?

If you answered yes, then you should absolutely include the language in your classroom. You can do this by reading books in the language, conducting circle time in the language, or just having conversations in the language. You can label objects in both languages in the midst of conversation….but it should all be done with the give and take of conversation that happens naturally with human communication.

If you answered no, then the answer is simple. You should not try to teach the language in your classroom. If you do, you will teach incorrect grammar, incorrect pronunciation, and will be more likely to present isolated words without the meaning that generally surrounds those words. Remember…conversation is a give and take…not a quiz about specific words! When you learned your first language, you learned it through natural conversation…not from someone quizzing you about specific words. Research tells us that children learn best through the natural give and take of conversation.

Children learn language from human interaction. Not from videos or audio tapes that try to teach a language. Engage children in conversation in the language(s) that you speak fluently. That’s what will help their language outcomes advance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I teach some sign language to children without being fluent?

  • Yes. Again, the key here is to incorporate it into your everyday speech. It can be helpful to teach young children some basic signs to help communicate their needs, but the signs should be taught in the context of conversation, not in an isolated situation. For example, when you ask the child if he wants more milk, you might sign the words for more and milk.

What about TV programs that teach a second language? Aren’t those good for children?

  • The research is clear. Children need human interaction to learn a language. While they may learn isolated words from a television program, they will not learn the structure of language that is necessary for becoming fluent. It’s also important to limit the amount of screen time that children are exposed to.

What if I have a child that speaks another language? What is appropriate then?

  • If the child speaks another language, it would be appropriate for you to learn some words in that child’s language in an attempt to communicate with the child. You might try to read a book to the child in his home language, or count in his home language. The difference here is that you aren’t trying to “teach” the home language…rather you are just trying to communicate with the child.

Should I have signs in my classroom in more than one language?

  • Only if you have children in your classroom that speak that language. There is no need to label everything in every language, but it is ok to label some things in the child’s home language. However, if no one in your class speaks Spanish, then there is no need for Spanish labels in your classroom.

Should I try to convince the child’s family to speak English at home rather than their home language?

  • No. Encourage the family to keep their home language intact. This facilitates communication between the child and the parents and keeps a cultural connection open. It also ensures that the child doesn’t surpass the parent’s communication skills in the only common language that they have together.

Obviously the decision about whether to teach a second language or not is a complex decision with many considerations. It’s a hot topic, and there are bound to be strong opinions on each side of the decision. It’s important to consider each classroom and each family on an individual basis to decide what is best for that situation rather than making across the board decisions. Only then can we be culturally considerate.