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No need to diss worksheets!

I sometimes pick up from articles and blogs that the word worksheet has a negative connotation. I think I understand why. If a worksheet is a grammar or vocabulary exercise handed out with little context; if it does not involve communicating in the target language; if it is used to keep a class quiet; if it is based on dubious methodology - well, these are all good reasons to be wary of the worksheet.

Good worksheets, on the other hand, are an excellent starting point for multi-skill work involving speaking in pairs or groups, information gap tasks, reading, listening, writing, grammar analysis and vocabulary building - in short, communicating. A worksheet is one resource among many which, if used skilfully, is a vital part of a language teacher's armoury.

I have blogged previously about how to exploit grammar worksheets to maximum effect.

Worksheets with texts and exercises are a super starting point for developing comprehension, practising reading aloud, question-answer, pair work, grammar practice, building vocabulary and general conversation. True, a text displayed on the interactive board is useful in that the teacher can work with it interactively (e.g. using iris and curtain tools, blurring, hiding, highlighting and so on). It is also good for making sure students are all focused to the front and so can be an aid to classroom control. However, a written worksheet allows the students to make their own notes, highlight, underline etc. It may also be clearer to students whose eyesight is not perfect.

A combination of both displayed text/exercise and personal worksheet is a useful combination and is easy to produce in the modern classroom.

My typical approach to a text + exercises sheet was as follows:

1.  Where possible arouse the interest of students for the task with simple questioning, a brief oral presentation in English or French, or showing a short Youtube video.

2.  Read aloud the text (good for listening comprehension input, sound-spelling relation ships, controls the pace of student reading - they shouldn't skim through too fast). With some, less focussed, classes get them to follow the text with their finger. (With weaker classes I would sometimes an instant translation of the entire text into English for their benefit, the aim being to maximise their understanding and maintain their interest for later.)

3.  Get individual students to read aloud (it is noteworthy that the ones who read aloud are often the best at answering questions about the text later). Weaker groups can read short chunks of text, faster classes can read at greater length. Even better get pairs of students to read aloud to each other, possibly assessing each other's performance - a great AfL task.

4.  Exploit the whole panoply of whole class questioning techniques (true/false, QA, giving false answers, aural gap fill, defining words in TL, "Comment dit-on en fran├žais" and so on). Use hands up and some no hands up. Differentiate questioning. Use quick students as models.

5.  Get the class to turn over the text and, as a whole class activity, fill gaps orally from memory. The teacher can adapt this to the speed and memory of the class. Students like this sort of instant memory test.

6.  Do written exercises of various types - matching, true/false/not mentioned, questions, gap fill, jigsaw tasks, giving definitions, simple composition, translation. These may be better left for homework so as to maximise time in class devoted to oral and aural practice.

You will note from the list above that the focus is largely, though not exclusively, on comprehension and target language. I rather like the notion that we should aim for about 90% target language.

A further reason worksheets are popular with teachers is that, although they are are costly in terms of photocopying, they can be adapted closely to the needs of the class and can match the teacher's preferred pedagogy. A text book source often fails in this regard. A former colleague of mine used to hand write all his worksheets to follow on closely from his oral lessons; they were personalised, amusing and pedagogically very sound.

Collections of handouts, in booklet form, "workbooks", are popular with students. They can be personalised, written on and students get a sense of achievement when they work through them.

So let's not vilify worksheets. When well written and used effectively they are an excellent source for target language teaching.


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