When worksheets don’t work

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Written by Shawna Wingert of Not The Former Things

I have a confession to make.

This may sound a little crazy, but when I was in school, I actually enjoyed completing worksheets. It didn’t matter the subject, whether it was fill-in-the-blank or circle-the-correct -answer, I loved them.

There was something about the promise, as I would write my name in the upper left hand corner (because, of course), that this worksheet would be complete — all the lines filled in, the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed – this worksheet would show how much I “knew.”

Fast-forward about 25 years to when I started homeschooling my own two sons, and not much had changed. I still loved the worksheets. I wanted my sons to love the worksheets.

I wanted them to see the ease and brilliance of just following the directions, and then moving on with your day.

But they didn’t see the brilliance. And the ease? For both of my children, worksheets are suffocating and tedious at best, and a reminder of how difficult some of their special needs are at worst.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson quickly. I wish I could say that I was easily able to walk away from all those check-for-understandings and fill-in-the-blanks, but I didn’t. In fact, to this day, I find myself inexplicably drawn to the section in Barnes and Noble that has all the workbooks by subject and by grade — Every. Single. Time.

The reality that I have come to accept, and have even learned to enjoy sometimes, is that the way I learn, is dramatically different than the way my children learn.

And, the way my oldest son learns (who was reading at 3 ½ without me doing a thing – don’t be jealous or roll your eyes yet …), is dramatically different than the way my youngest son (who is approaching 9, has been diagnosed with profound dyslexia and a processing disorder, and still sometimes forgets how to form the letters in his own name) learns.

So, what does our educational life beyond worksheets look like these days?

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Hands-on activities

Maybe I am just a slow learner, but it took me more than a year to actually start intentionally incorporating a more active, hands-on approach to our learning.

It all seemed so overwhelming at first. Let’s be real here – completing a worksheet about fractions is a lot less time consuming (and messy!) than baking a pie with two children under 10.

At first, I had to force myself to schedule one activity a week. Then, I saw the impact. They were engaged. They weren’t arguing with me about “doing school.”

They actually learned the fractions!

At this point, especially with my youngest, we do very little learning that does not involve something tactile. Even his ability to read has improved with the introduction of 3-D wooden letters that we use to complete most phonics and spelling lessons.

Although I was intimidated at first, I wish I would’ve listened to all those homeschool moms and blogs and tried this sooner!

Regular field trips

We have always liked getting out of the house. Even when my oldest was still in public school, we would often use the weekends to visit museums and take hikes together.

But for the first couple of years learning at home, I didn’t “count” these trips as “school” unless we went with a larger homeschool group.

Even worse, I often printed up worksheets (I know you are not surprised!) from the websites of the places we visited. I required my children to fill them out as part of “getting credit” for the trip.

After a while, I realized the more I pushed to make the field trips formal, the less anyone learned.

Now, we visit museums, botanical gardens, the aquarium, and science center at least once a month. We typically go alone, or with only one other family, so that my boys can take their time and learn as much as they want at any given exhibit.

I do not print up study materials but instead, have discussions in the car on the way there about what they want to see, and on the way home about what they learned. I also take tons of pictures so I feel like I have some level of documented learning.

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Movement

My youngest loves to move his body. He is a natural athlete and very rarely sits still.

After seeing the success of incorporating hands-on activities, I was motivated to be more intentional about also using movement as part of his learning.

For example, when he was learning the different continents, I purchased an inexpensive rug that had a world map printed on it. I put it down in his room, and when it was time for Geography, he would jump from continent to continent as I called out their names.

We also do this to practice math facts. Instead of doing memory worksheets for basic addition and subtraction facts, I line the inside of our trampoline with the numbers 10-20. I then call out various addition or subtraction problems and he has to jump to the answer.

In both instances, I found he learned and has retained the information faster and with much more engagement.

The results have encouraged me to try and come up with an activity with movement involved for every subject, at least once a week.

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Letting go

This is by far the most impactful, and the most difficult step I have taken to move our education into true learning.

The truth is, I still like worksheets. I still like the idea of having a neat pile of paperwork that shows how much we have accomplished in our learning. It’s a nice idea, but I have had to let it go, because that never was our family’s reality.

For my children, worksheets actually slowed our learning and disengaged my learners.

Once I let go of my own learning style and need for written “proof” of our productivity, my children actually became productive, active learners.

Although it took me a little while to figure it out, it finally dawned on me that if this is how they learn, this is how I need to teach!

Let me be perfectly clear, this is not an indictment of workbooks and worksheets. In fact, if you are homeschooling a child who is anything like I was as a child, I would suggest you print many of those free worksheets off the internet and get out of the way.

Worksheets have a place in learning, and can work brilliantly for some children.

For mine however, this just simply is not the case.

The beauty of homeschooling is that we can tailor our approaches to the unique children we have been given.

It may be difficult at first, especially if your learning style is the opposite of your child’s, but my experience has been that it is always worth it.

What alternatives to worksheets do you use in your home?

About Shawna Wingert

Shawna Wingert is the creator of Not The Former Things, a blog dedicated to homeschooling children with learning differences and special needs. She loves finding out-of-the-box ways for out-of-the-box learners to thrive. She is the author of two books, Special Education at Home and Everyday Autism. You can follow Shawna and Not The Former Things on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram.

Comments

  1. My boys think science is only in the form of an experiment. If we just read about it they will ask if we are going to do science that day. Makes me laugh every time. We like their math because it is very hands on. Worksheets seem to discourage them pretty quickly so we have never really jumped on those. I would love to do more field trips! I feel like we have so much to get done. I miss going once or twice a week. Thanks for sharing!
    danielle’s latest post: Our Lesson Plan Schedule

  2. I needed to hear this post so bad! I have known this about my kids for too long but can’t get around the head knowledge to practical using it! I so want a nice box and the work done and all I have to do is impliment. Thank you for the few ideas. Do you have sources to recumbent on where to get more?

    • I am super partial to other momma’s ideas, so most of what we use has honestly come from Simple Homeschool and other online resources like it. A book that got me started thinking this way is The Ultimate Book of Homeschooling Ideas, by Linda Dobson. She just gives practical ideas by subject that I have found to be very helpful and encouraging. Another book is The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism, by: Kristine Barnett. Even if your child has no developmental delays, this book will be helpful. The way she approaches her son’s education is amazing.

  3. I too suffer from Barnes & Nobel worksheet syndrome. I have to remind myself that a new and improved worksheet will NEVER be effective. My son is great at following directions in many areas of life, but worksheets are not one of them. He answers the questions the way he thinks they ‘should’ be written. He is excellent at retaining information we read or watch (he loves documentaries), or talk about.

    For me it’s about insecurity. I am constantly defending my decision to homeschool. Worksheet are ‘proof’ not the tool to learning. Once I can gain confidence, I’m sure I’ll let go of the ‘need’ for worksheets. Until then, I’m gathering a huge pile of material to gift to a new family.

    • I love that we now have a name for it! “Barnes and Noble Worksheet Syndrome.” Ha.
      I think it is wonderful to just accept where you are in all of this and hang on to those worksheets for now…when it’s time, you will bless another family I’m sure. 🙂

  4. I too am a lover of worksheets! I am considering completing the workbooks I have for my son Isaac by myself, because otherwise they will never get done.
    Isaac also has dyslexia and hands on learning, field trips, and multi age group projects are his chosen ways of learning. We have made a point of averaging one field trip a week this school year. Graphic novels, Isaac informed me the pictures help him figure out the words. Minecraft is his current passion, so pretty much everything we do at home has some element of Minecraft to it. He started voluntarily picking spelling words and practicing them diligently, because you have to type commands into Minecraft, and for them to work, they have to be spelled correctly. Never underestimate the power iof motivation.

  5. Oh, such good advice here! We have been mostly anti-worksheet since about year 2 of our homeschool journey when we switched to a Charlotte Mason style. Now in year 7, I love how creativity and strong imaginations fuel the school day instead of fill-in-the-blanks. Alternatives we use are: lots and lots of games like RightStart math games, Professor Noggins card games, Apples to Apples, etc., as well as original skits, oral narration, original poems, newsletters, lively nature walks, field trips, beautiful nature journals, original musical compositions, cartooning, original crossword puzzles, handiwork like crocheting, knitting and sewing, cooking and baking, wood projects with dad, etc. Sometimes the best thing a homeschool mom can do is ditch the worksheets, offer up an abundance of excellent living books and blank paper, and then get out of the way!
    Diana’s latest post: Books We Love: 30 Great Books for Family Devotions

  6. So I was reading this while doing a dictation exercise with my 2nd grade son. And watching him write a letter backwards… again. I have seen the things written by girls a couple of grades behind him and want to put my head in my hands sometimes. He doesn’t complain about the daily writing I have him do because he’s a really conscientious kid who wants to do his best. Is it wrong for me to ask this of him? I feel like if he doesn’t write regularly that his poor fine motor skills won’t improve. I found the most entertaining spelling workbook that I could. We do a lot of reading aloud and narrating. And he and his little brothers are currently behind me taking a break with play dough, but he has a 3-year-old brother and a 5-year-old brother, and I just. can’t. plan. any. more. hands on stuff.
    Ellen’s latest post: Oven roasted sausage and potatoes…

    • Oh my goodness, Ellen. I hope you are not feeling discouraged. You have little ones. You have a completely different set of circumstances and it sounds like you are doing everything you can to keep it all together. I completely trust your judgement and your ability to determine what is best for your family – your entire family.

  7. I did many of these with my youngest when he was little. I struggle with how this should look now that he is older. He is in 7th grade.

    • My oldest is in 6th and this does look different for him. I have found the field trips are actually much richer for him now that he is older. He doesn’t do the basic hands-on things that his younger brother loves, but he does make and edit how-to videos when he completes a learning topic.

  8. I also would like to know: does anyone have any resource that gives ideas for what to do and how to do it for hands-on learning? Articles? books? anything? How do people come up with the ideas for how to teach things more hands-on? I’m not very creative at coming up with ideas (maybe its also being tired…) so any input on ideas on how to do this, where to look or think of etc would be great.

    • I am partial to other momma’s ideas, so most of what we use has honestly come from Simple Homeschool and other online resources like it. A book that got me started thinking this way is The Ultimate Book of Homeschooling Ideas, by Linda Dobson. She just gives practical ideas by subject that I have found to be very helpful and practical. Another book is The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism, by: Kristine Barnett. Even if your child has no developmental delays, this book will be helpful. The way she approaches her son’s education is amazing.

      • Thanks! I actually recently read that book (Spark). You’re right, it is amazing (and a very positive, uplifting read despite all the trials they have been through). I appreciate the reply and will check out the other idea.

  9. HA! This is totally me! I was that worksheet kid and I have a boy who can’t stand them. Like others, I found or made curricula with either no or few worksheets but that propensity is deeply ingrained. Even after 5+ years of this, I *still* feel like I’m cheating if he watches videos for school, but I know he learns a lot from them.

  10. I have to ask – what is the item in the 2nd pic above Hands on Activities? The circuit board-looking thing? Thanks!

  11. This is wonderful! That’s us. I enjoy worksheets, my daughter not so much, she also needs to be constantly moving and loves drawing, building, making things, etc. We have no curriculum and unschool and we always find fun ways to learn that actually make things stick with her. She also learns a ton from videos, more so than me teaching, she hates when I teach her! She has taught herself so much more than I ever could . Her little brother is 3 now, curious to see and learn how he learns too 🙂
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz’s latest post: Not Babies {photos}

  12. Lynz Bearsley says:

    For my three daughters home discipleship was the only educational life they’ve known. Jo, the eldest was also reading at three and a half, filled in worksheets and lived in books but Julz, number two (although never assessed) couldn’t grasp letters and words was always on the move, athletic, artistic, musical and absolutely NOT interested in worksheets except to colour (NZ spelling) them in. We tried every thing ‘hands on’: I made games for everything, we constructed models (photographing them for records as we ran out of storage room, making videos (which involved planning, art, language), writing songs and performing them, taking walks looking for different things each time which we would talk about, draw and write about, library visits, making posters in every way imaginable way, crafts, and making things with dad which involved detailed research and drawings through to construction . When Julz was 9 she had piano lessons where she learned that the squiggles on the paper corresponded to sounds which she produced on the piano, and from there a connection was made to reading printed words. J.Zoe, No.3, is a talented mixture of both ways of learning, workbooks AND hands-on learning worked for her. I so enjoyed reading your article!

  13. My 9-yr old autistic, sensory processing and dyslexic challenged child has been greatly helped with the use of Clicker. Regardless of the curriculum (or worksheet content) you are using as a base, relatively easy to convert to a customized multimedia activity with optional levels of speech and predictive text support. Also, supplementing language arts curriculum with activities from “Cooking to Learn”; it’s awesome because he doesn’t think of it as reading and writing so he doesn’t resist it the same way (all recipes come with and without step by step pictures to make it easier to individualuze to various skill levels).

  14. Hi Shawna! I thought I only have this problem. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your solutions towards their learning style. I’m going to try this on my little boy since every time I presented him the worksheets he’s really crying and had negative behavior outburst. I ‘m tempted many times to push the worksheets but the more I used it the more he show undesired behavior. Thanks again for sharing this wonderful insight.
    Darlene’s latest post: Furry Yarn Dogs Project

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