How Worksheets Can Limit Students' Thinking and Learning (and What to Do Instead)

teaching Jan 03, 2018

Are you limiting your students thinking and learning?

Sometimes we put our students in a box and close the lid on their potential without realizing it. Let me explain.

Imagine, if you will, two classrooms with the same book and similar lessons.

In the first classroom Teacher 1 reads The Relatives Came to the class. She has a few cute worksheets she has created for her students to complete around the book.

  1. Students will fill in the meaning of some of the phrases printed on the worksheet from the text. There are boxes with lines for each one. Everyone shares their thoughts once the class finishes.

  2. On the second worksheet there are 3 sections with lines, one each for beginning, middle and end of the story. The transition words first, next and last are filled in to get the students started. There is a picture at the top of the page that students can color, if they have time.

  3. The third worksheet has a venn diagram. Students are to fill in what one of their visits with their relatives was like on one side and what this family's visit was like on the other. Similarities go in the middle. The class has a discussion about these once everyone is done.

Now, let's look at what Teacher 2 did in her classroom for the same book.

Teacher 2 reads The Relatives Came to her class. She has no worksheets for her class to go with the book. Here's what she did instead.

  1. Teacher 2 asked students to recall their favorite phrase from the book. The teacher recorded students thoughts on the board as students shared. Then, students were asked to choose their favorite one and write it on lined paper. Next, students were asked to write what they thought it meant and draw a picture to go with it. After they were done, students were asked to change the phrase to more precise words (no one is told what this means), write it on a page post-it note and paste it in the book over the original phrase. Once everyone is done, Teacher 2 reads the book with the new additions, trying out various version students have put into the book as the class makes their thoughts known about each version.

  2. Students are asked to quickly summarize the beginning, middle and end of the story in their journal while using transition words of their choosing. An anchor chart the class created previously is placed on the board for students to refer to for transition word ideas.

  3. Teacher 2 asks students to recall a time they visited with relatives. Was any of it like The Relatives Came? What was different? Students make a list of words that describe their visit. Next, they are asked to write a description of their visit with relatives keeping in mind how changing the words changed the story in lesson 1.

Let's talk about what we saw.

Teacher 1

Teacher 1's students learned about inferring, summarizing (beginning, middle and end), and compare and contrast.

Teacher 1 created 3 different worksheets. These could become 3 days worth of lessons from one book with a lot of supplemental work. She had to take time to create the worksheets and copy them for the class. Students filled in the spaces allowed on each sheet.

Teacher 2

Teacher 2's students learned about inferring, word choice and voice in books. They practiced writing a summary and worked on using appropriate transition words. Then, students learned about comparing and contrasting and word choice and voice in their own writing.  

Teacher 2 created 3 solid days of lessons out of one book. She had little prep (no worksheets to create) and no copier time to do this. Students created their own work and had no limit on how much to write. 

Sometimes we need a worksheet to help students practice a skill or make a point clearer. However, our students have a lot more to say and contribute than we can allow room for on a worksheet. Teaching (almost) without worksheets can be a hard transition, but it's worth it when we see how much more students can do without their constraints.

Give it a try.

Teach joyfully,




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