photocopy paper

Image courtesy of Enokson

In a recent staff meeting at my school, the director made a remark about the photocopy usage going sky high in recent months. It isn’t entirely clear why that is, but it does demonstrate the dependance many teachers still have with printed material. What is copied can vary from teacher to teacher, but the mainstay for many instructors is the worksheet.

Before I go any further, I should define what a worksheet means to me. The name tells me that it is more than simple text, it requires some sort of work on the part of the recipient. Whether it is in a textbook or a photocopied sheet, for me a worksheet is usually something the student reads and answers questions on. Most of those are fill-in-the-blank, matching, or short answer questions based on a single point of practice. It could be a grammar point that was covered in class and is now given as controlled practice, or it could be a short reading with follow-up comprehension questions. No matter the content, worksheets are very static and are primarily done individually. The answers are usually set and focussed.

So why do teachers use worksheets? The answers vary, but for the most part it is something that can be done easily with minimal setup. Students can even self-check and answers are often undebatable. The process often follow the order of teacher instruction on a language point (often grammar focused) followed by a few class examples and then the worksheet. Students work on their own and then the answers are either self-checked or done as a class. Students will debate some of the answers, but the questions are so tightly controlled that it leaves very little room for discussion.

Another use of worksheets is as homework. It is simple to give a worksheet to a student to take and work on at home. Since the student is not in contact with the teacher, the worksheet provides the instructions in a step-by-step process. Once returned to the teacher, the marking can be done expediently and returned to the student with a clear mark.

So why do I have so many problems with worksheets? The simple answer is that it leaves no room for knowledge creation. Let me back up a bit. Language learning differs from most other subjects in that the topic of instruction is also the medium of learning. In many traditional classes, the instructor imparts the knowledge to the learner through either direct instructions or through guided learning. The content becomes the primary goal. In a language classroom, the content is simply there to facilitate communication, a secondary role. In any classroom, knowledge creation is the ultimate goal. By working together, students can share their experience and knowledge causing new routes of learning to open up, expanding the scope of discovery. In the language classroom, the interaction of the students takes the use of language outside of the barriers of rules and structure. Language usage is always in flux, changing from situation to situation. Yes, there are some absolutes, but those are overshadowed by the complexity of social interaction.

Worksheets contain the use of language, often giving the wrong impression of what language really is. We are communicating more than the grammar rules, we are saying that language can be controlled and kept in check. It fits within these nice little fill-in-the-boxes. The truth is that language is messy, flexible, and something that can be debated. Students should be allowed to take the scope of language discovery in new directions. I should clarify something here. When I say that language is debatable, I’m not saying that language doesn’t have a purpose or reason. It is that the there are many layers, weaving together the beauty that is human communication.

So what do we do with this? Does it mean that worksheets are evil and need to be vanquished? No, but you may want to put some more thought into why you are using them then simply grabbing the grammar book off the shelf and photocopying a pile of worksheets for your students.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself before hitting the copy button:

  • What do I want my students to learn by completing this?
  • How does this help my students better understand how to use the language?
  • Are there things I am indirectly communicating through the use of this?
  • Is there something else I could do that would give the students more opportunity to explore the nuances of the language?
  • Is it helping my students or is it just there to make my life easier?

Okay, now it is your turn. What do you think? Did I take things a bit too far? Feel completely free to disagree with me. The only thing I ask is the same thing I say to my students, be ready to give me a reason why.

9 thoughts on “Photocopying

    1. Totally. Worksheets are for homework practice largely, if anything, especially if they can be posted online for students to download themselves at their leisure. There are much more efficient and engaging ways to use class time than this.

      1. I do use some worksheet style of homework, but I also think that is often more of a waste of time than anything else. After saying that, some students feel they need to be doing something like this to be making progress. I guess if they feel like it helps…

  1. Hi Nathan, I’ll try and disagree with some of your characterization of worksheets (even though I agree with most of your points). I think when used in the way that you’re describing, worksheets are very limited – but they need not be. For example, instead of students handing them back to the teacher for correction, talking about answers in pairs is a great way to start conversation between students, creating that negotiation of meaning that I think you’re talking about. There are countless ways that worksheets can be used in this manner and in a manner, I think is worth noting, that promotes higher things (ie: visually categorizing vocabulary and concepts on page in order for it to become internalized).

    As well, you’re completely right that language is messy and students need a robust exposure to how language is used. However, up until a few decades ago, western cultures dominantly used the static printed word as the main way of communicating with language apart from speaking. It wouldn’t be fair to ignore this aspect of language. It’s much more about the balance of using them, and as I think you imply, how they are used.

    Anyway, that’s my attempt at disagreeing 🙂

    1. I agree with you on everything. Really. I think it comes down to the definition of what a worksheet is. To me, it isn’t about the printed word, it is about what you have them do with it. To me, a worksheet is about the simple, short type of definitive answer questions. I use paper in my class for things like reading texts and discussion questions. I like that since I can find current, relative texts and have students work through the language in context. That is where my photocopy count gets used up.

      I think you would agree with that, so I believe it is simply understanding what a worksheet is.

    1. I think every teacher should stop and ask themselves if they really need to print something out. Ask yourself, could I do this another way? Would save a lot of paper and ‘busy work’.

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