Worksheets are not just wasting your child’s class time, they may also be actively hurting their English development. For some parents, this may come as a shock. It may be shocking to some teachers out there too. Worksheets are a staple of the ESL world, so if they hurt children, why do we use them?
The honest answer is because they are an easy solution to a hard problem. Teachers may not have the training or time to prepare lessons that engage students in a meaningful way. Worksheets require little to no work and can fill time when you run out of material. Parents may not speak English, so 100% marks on worksheets may be the only way they can tell if their child is improving. Students are busy and are happy to do mindless busywork if everyone else is going to let them get away with it. Notice that learning doesn’t play into any of these reasons.
So let’s take a look at what worksheets are, why we use them, what they do to a child’s English, and what solutions there are to help children learn English in a better way.
If you need any more phonics help, check out our Vowels and Consonants page for lessons, flashcards, and articles.
What are Worksheets?
Worksheets, broadly speaking, are really anything on paper designed to help teach or reinforce something. There are some positive uses of a worksheet; for example, math worksheets can help examine a students understanding of a math concept, or a science worksheet could help children organize and record observations in an experiment.
Unfortunately, in the English classroom, worksheets are often make-work and not real learning. As one former teacher put it, worksheets are “busysheets” designed by lazy teachers to keep children busy until class is over. Next time you want to use a worksheet or see your child coming home with packets of worksheets, ask yourself if what they have are worksheets or “busysheets.” If they are “busysheets” maybe a change needs to be made.
What do Worksheets Teach Your Child in English Class?
To answer this, let’s take a look at this post on the uses of worksheets from a website that bills itself as a guide to teaching English:
Why Use Worksheets
- They make good fillers and warm-ups
- Useful for revision, practice and test preparation
- They can reinforce instruction
- They are handy for homework
- Some worksheets can be done in pairs or small groups, helping develop communication and teamwork skills
- In large classes, when stronger learners have finished you can have some worksheets handy to keep them happy
- Worksheets can help stimulate independent learning
- They can provide a good deal of repetition, often vital for internalizing concepts
- They are useful for assessment of learning and/or progress (especially targeted to specific areas)
- They are flexible and can supplement a textbook very well
- They let students keep their work as reference material if they so wish
This list shows all the problems with worksheets in an English classroom. The very first point is that they can be used for “filler” in a classroom. Point 4, 6, 10, and 11 are all essentially the same, focusing on making life easier for teachers (“handy for homework”), but no mention of it being effective for learning. That they encourage either teamwork skills or independent learning is a stretch. No one learns a new English concept from a worksheet, and there are far more engaging activities to encourage teamwork or independent learning. The most valid points on here are perhaps 2, 3, and 8, and I think these points get to the heart of the purpose of worksheets in English. Worksheets teach children how to answer questions on tests.
Worksheets are Test Prep in Disguise
In many countries, the gateway to university is a standardized test that oftentimes includes English. For many parents, this is the impetus for getting their child’s English education started early. When I was teaching in a Taiwanese Buxiban (cram school), most of my students told me they wanted to study English so they could get into a good university. This focus on passing a test translated into how we taught, as we had students of all ages spending more than ¾ of the class doing grammar worksheets. Kids would be given a question, and they would need to use a certain grammar point to write the answer. Typical questions would look like this.
Question: Where did she go? (Library)
Answer: She went to the library.
These questions are designed to look like a test question. But what do children learn from these exercises? They learn very quickly how to find the “right answer”, ignoring that there is rarely one “right answer” when it comes to language.
This is sadly how English grammar is taught in a lot of ESL situations. Teach a grammar point, then do endless worksheets to reinforce. Review all of these worksheets before a test and hope they do well on that test.
Will this Help my Child Learn English?
Not really. There has been a lot of research done on the efficacy of worksheets for learning grammar and language. Here is what they had to say:
From a meta-analysis of different teaching strategies on writing skills:
“grammar instruction had no appreciable effect on writing [skill].”
A quote published in an article from Early Childhood News:
“There are two fundamental problems with worksheets. First, young children do not learn from them what teachers and parents believe they do (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1993). Second, children’s time should be spent in more beneficial endeavors (Willis, 1995).”
A declaration from the National Council of Teachers of English on the use of isolated grammar exercises:
“[T]he National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”
I myself found the same problem happening in my own classroom. Those students who had been doing workbook exercises for the last ten years of their English education, couldn’t explain to me what they did over the weekend. When given a free-write exercise to explain their winter vacation, it came back riddled with grammatical errors. So what had they learned? What had ten years of English instruction and lots of money gotten for these students? Decent test results and no noticeable spoken or written English skills.
It’s not only my own experience that backs this up. This news article from a teacher in China finds the same thing. Students are not taught to have effective writing and communicating strategies, they are taught rote grammar aimed at passing tests.
If not Worksheets, then What?
Well, it depends on what you are teaching. The important thing when teaching children is that they have to understand how learning this vocabulary or grammar can be meaningful in their life. If you are teaching your kids different vegetables, then maybe you can cook with them or start a little garden where they can see these vegetables growing. You could also find a song that they love and want to learn which will help them learn different kinds of vegetables.
Are you teaching them sentence patterns like: “Do you have a …?” Yes, I do.” No, I don’t”? Instead of having them practice it with a worksheet, play a game of “Go Fish.” Another game idea could be having them close their eyes, putting something in a mystery box, and then having them guess what you have. The possibilities are endless. You just need to find ways to incorporate your grammar or vocab into a meaningful activity that they care about.
English worksheets are a useful tool for preparing your child for a grammar test. If you want your child to be able to actually communicate with oral and written English, then you need to look to other strategies. Design lessons with meaningful activities that will help children grow and see how English skills can make their life better. No five-year old understands the importance of getting into a good university, but if they have the chance to sing their favorite English song or play a fun game with mom and dad, then they will be engaged students that want to learn English.