Worksheets…people love them…Let’s face it..They’re cute…They’re simple…They require almost nothing from YOU. But, are they effective? Worthwhile? Best practice? Worksheets have become over-used and so often take the place of actual TEACHing. Curriculum packets and workbooks are great to a point, but simply sticking a child in front of a never-ending stack of papers is NOT teaching. When I was in the classroom, I often got asked by the parents, “Why is my child not coming home with papers?” or “Where is all of their work?” I think parents were sometimes surprised by my answer, and sometimes were initially upset…However, they couldn’t argue with my RESULTS.

When parents wanted to know where their child’s work was, I would often reply with, “in their mind!” To me, teaching is a calling…and an incredibly important life’s work…As a teacher, we must train our children to be life-long learners, and show them HOW to learn…teaching them that things like reading and writing are a process….not just a series of rote and isolated tasks. The problem with most worksheets is that they either isolate a skill, taking it out of context for a child, or they simply keep a child busy. Busywork is NOT learning. Sure, it makes you feel good, because you can point to something tangible and say, “Wow, look at all the “school” we got done today!” But, what did your child really learn by doing all of those worksheets? More often than not, they are generally practicing either direction following, coloring, or handwriting…and very little else.  I wanted to give you a list of things to consider before simply handing your child a paper and having them complete it.

1. Worksheets should ALWAYS reinforce a NEW skill, or a skill that has not yet been mastered. If your child already knows how to do everything on the worksheet, they probably shouldn’t be doing it.  Kids need to be continually challenged, and work should always be kept in their Zone of Proximal Development. The ZPD is the area between what a child has mastered, and what is yet out of reach without support.

Keeping a child in their area of current achievement can cause learning to become stale and boring. They won’t be inspired to learn or grow. You have to constantly push your child forward. Bottom line…do what works for you and your children. Some children respond well to worksheets, while others need to be more full engaged in their learning. My daughter loves worksheets, and I am trying to break her out of her comfort zone and get her to take on some of the more difficult tasks…not allowing her to use worksheets as a crutch, or an easy-out. She excels at them, so she likes to do them…They are in her area of current achievement. So for me, I will keep pushing her towards her ZPD, growing her mind and her abilities each day.

2. If the bulk of the “work” on the worksheet is coloring, throw it out. In very young children, these types of worksheets can be acceptable if used on occasion. A two year old still needs to learn fine motor control, so an occasional coloring paper is appropriate. However, a six year old does not need to spend their time doing coloring papers. Let them have a coloring book if coloring is an important skill to you, but don’t use up school time on coloring cute worksheets of 2 pigs, 3 llamas, 4 dogs, etc.

3. Evaluate the worksheet, and ask yourself, What is it’s purpose? Figure out what skills the worksheet is supporting. Will doing the worksheet provide necessary practice or educational support for something they are currently learning or have not yet mastered? If yes, go ahead and use it! If not, re-consider…

4.Time your worksheets wisely. In young children, time is of the essence. Smaller children do not always have the attention span or the ability to sit still and do school for several hours, so each moment and each activity you choose to do with them needs to count. A well-placed, and well-timed worksheet is worth its weight in gold. For younger children, I recommend doing any quality worksheets right after a fun/engaging activity. If you’ve just done a game, a craft, outdoor activity, etc, transitioning to a seat-work activity is a good choice. If you’ve just spent time doing calendar and a story, and they have been made to sit still for the last 20 minutes, requiring them to sit and do a paper/pencil activity might not go the way you’re hoping! Just time it well, and do what works for YOUR child and their attention span.

5. Don’t let “papers” be the meat of your schooling. I know there are many a teacher who “teach” using 75% paper, and who love busywork. Most preschools and kindergartens do a lot of it. The public school my daughter will attend does a lot of worksheets (for which I have spent many hours agonizing over..) However, I suggest striving for 25-30% paper in your teaching. Yes, I do use worksheets and workbooks (on occasion, and when they support our learning.) I never use them to keep my kids busy, and I resist the urge to use them simply to make “cute” things. We engage with literature, we do lots of journaling, writing, story-telling, re-tells, manipulative play, experiments, projects, art, etc. However, I will say that my children did a handful of worksheets this week throughout our homeschooling preschool (I believe Hannah (5) did 3 and Henry (almost 3) did 2 (Sometimes we do more, sometimes less). Each worksheet chosen had a clear purpose and reinforced what we were learning. I just try to not let the paper/pencil part of school drive our learning.

To sum-up: Choose your worksheet wisely. Look for a clear purpose. Place them strategically in your school day. Never seek to keep a child “busy!”

Happy homeschooling everyone!