Do Worksheets Work?
Way back in 1985, a study estimated that elementary school children completed about 1,000 worksheets per year. And guess what? Although mainstream educational research has repeatedly demonstrated that worksheets are an extremely limited and often ineffectual tool, things haven’t really changed much. In a recent study, one observer counted 500 worksheets in a single week – five per day for a twenty-student classroom. That’s 900 worksheets per student for a 180-day school year!
Here’s why so many people continue to use worksheets in the classroom:
• Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, worksheets are attractive to school systems that need to demonstrate adherence to and progress in specific educational standards.
• Many parents love to see worksheets come home in their kids’ backpacks. In their minds, they provide evidence that the child is working and learning. A convenient check mark also reassures them that their kids are OK.
• With ever larger class sizes, worksheets serve as a means to control student behavior. This tends to be even more true in classes with students with special needs. Some teachers also look at the ability to do “seat work” – sitting still and completing tasks quietly — as an objective in and of itself.
• K-12 academic publishers have a vested interest in promoting packaged curricula and workbooks to systems in crisis: in the past thirty years, textbook prices have risen about 800% — more than costs in the medical industry! The profits of textbook companies have risen proportionally.
Now a new study by researchers at Penn State has concluded that for kids who struggle in mathematics, those who are taught with traditional methods like lectures and worksheets post significantly more gains on standardized tests than those taught non-traditionally. This study has people in education circles buzzing, especially because the use of worksheets in school is such a hotly contested issue.
But before you run out and buy your own new set of workbooks, you may wish to reconsider.
In the case of the Penn State study, looks can be deceiving. In their reactions to this study, many overlook the complicating factors, some of which are mentioned by Paul Morgan, the study’s leading author. The study only looked at math achievement. Further, non-traditional methods of instruction are more challenging to employ properly, and valuable instructional time can be lost by less confident teachers who have a difficult time with classroom management or organizing multisensory activities. In the hands of more skilled teachers, students may experience different outcomes. Plus, worksheets are just plain boring. Says Morgan, “I don’t want kids going to school and doing worksheets all day. We all want kids to view mathematics as something that’s interesting and engaging and useful.”
And besides, we should not allow one study to change our minds about decades of other research without thinking carefully. We know some things for sure. We know that developmentally, children in the early grades need: a) to move, and b) to develop social skills. Movement and socialization have been demonstrated to improve learning outcomes by developing focus and problem-solving skills. Worksheets discourage both movement and collaborative activity, which in turn discourage appropriate development.
Further, worksheets often to do not teach what teachers and parents think they teach. They are generally abstract, but in the elementary grades, kids need concrete contexts for learning. What worksheets do teach: daily ritual, skills in isolation, and, according to Mellinee Lesley, the “rules, expectations, and outcomes” required to complete the worksheet.
The research regarding early childhood use of worksheets is clear: they are developmentally inappropriate, and, rather than fostering learning, can hinder the learning process. One can argue that this research should be extended to special needs kids, who often exhibit developmental delays. The research is also pretty clear that worksheets are not helpful in developing literacy skills. There appears to be no correlation between literacy acquisition and worksheet completion. And as for math, another recent study demonstrated that students who were taught using manipulatives scored a whole two grades higher on the California Achievement Test than those who were taught using worksheets! Remember, many of our kids have memory processing problems – they can try all day to memorize math facts, but they may not be able to do so.
As they usually require a “right” answer, worksheets do not foster creative or critical thinking skills, nor do they foster strategic problem-solving. Because they are mass-produced and are meant to be completed alone, they do not enable differentiation of tasks or instructions. Yet many students do not understand instructions (which are written for the teachers rather than the students) on mass-produced worksheets. They are forced to rely on teacher intervention to complete them, so instead of fostering independence, worksheets encourage what Lesley calls a “learned helplessness” in students who cannot successfully complete them without assistance. Also, students usually need to have mastered a skill to demonstrate it on the worksheet, so new learning is unlikely to come from a worksheet.
So do we ever use worksheets at Cloverleaf? Well, we try to avoid it, but sometimes find them useful. The key is to use worksheets sparingly, and to be careful that they focus on clear, achievable goals. Teachers should not use worksheets to keep kids busy; instructors need to be actively engaged with their students at all times. Worksheets should be as open-ended and interactive as they can possibly be. Graphic organizers or questionnaires might be used as a means of documenting a multisensory activity rather than serving as the activity itself. In an upcoming entry, we will give some ideas about alternatives to worksheets.
For further reading, check out my sources:
Amendum, S., Li, Y., Hall, L., Fitzgerald, J., Creamer, K., Head-Reeves, D., et al. (2009). Which reading lesson instruction characteristics matter for early reading achievement?. Reading Psychology, 30(2), 119-147.
Cain-Caston, M. (1996). Manipulative queen. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 23(4), 270-74.
Church, E. (2006, May). A word about worksheets. Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 20, 6.
Grossman, S. (2013, April). The worksheet dilemma: benefits of play-based curricula. KB Education Solutions, n.v., n.p.. Retrieved August 15, 2014, from www.kbsolutions.com
Lesley, M. (2003). A pedagogy of control: worksheets and the special needs child. Language Arts, 80(6), 444-452.
Pincus, A. R. (2005). What’s a teacher to do? Navigating the worksheet curriculum. The Reading Teacher, 59(1), 75-79.
Ransom, M., & Manning, M. (2013). Teaching strategies: worksheets, worksheets, worksheets. Childhood Education, 89(3), 188-190.