As I write this, I take a breath and wonder… how did I learn to love writing? I’m certainly not that great of a writer, so how did words become for me significant impactful drivers of language, communication, and passion?
Was it a worksheet? Ummm… no. Simply no.
Worksheets do not grow writers. Authentic, meaningful, purpose driven writing grows writers.
So, how do worksheets fit into this space? Well, they don’t really… not really. At least, not the “drill-and-practice” kind. There are some worksheets that do well to support the process of a writer, and then, there are those that absolutely, unequivocally… do not fit.
Is there really a difference? Yes. One benefits the writer, and the other does not.
They do exist. Student-centered worksheets, designed to fit the needs of novice writers in the classroom, really do exist.
When teaching writers, these… types of worksheets can be used to help a writer be accountable for their work, notice pieces of themselves and their writing in ways that help to move them forward. These worksheets are open-ended tools used to support authentic student writing. Growing writers with differentiated open-ended tools like these, helps create independent writers who experience enough authentic writing to help them thrive and grow. Katy Wood Ray offers some great examples in her book: The Writer’s Workshop, Working through the Hard Parts (And They're All Hard Parts). You will also find free copies of a Writing Workshop Daily Log in both English and Spanish below.
In a writer’s workshop, we want all learning to be student-centered. Unfortunately, the worksheets that typically reign in many classroom environments are not student-centered. They are instead, skill-based.
On the opposite end of the teaching spectrum, there are those “other” worksheets. They are what we typically call “drill-and-practice” worksheets.
These are the fill-in the blanks, bubble-in, check the box, cut and paste, underline the word that best fits, circle the correct answer (because there is only one correct answer) type of worksheet, offered in single sheet form, packet form, workbook form, and manufactured by many, many different packaged writing programs. They are, more often than not, a “one size fits all” type of worksheet.
They are easy to grade, often designed for the drill and practice of isolated grammatical skills or formulaic structure, and centered around… not the student, but around the practice of isolated skills. Using worksheets to teach isolated grammatical skills can stifle a writer. It may increase an ability to select the correct answer on a worksheet, but it will NOT grow fearless fluent creative writers.
One Test Says A Lot
Besides the well-established research on the topic of worksheets, I had the opportunity to witness the disheartening results of one student’s writing test.
Buried within the many scores and results of the 2018 State of Texas Academic Assessment and Readiness (STAAR) Writing test, I noticed the results of one particular student. This one stood out. With my own eyes, I looked upon the results of a student who passed the 4th grade STAAR Writing test. This student answered the multiple choice section, completely neglected the composition portion of the test, and passed. This student passed the State of Texas 4th grade writing test without actually having to write a single word.
Not one word.
Let’s stop for just one moment and think about that… How does one pass a writing test, without any actual writing? Is it just me, or does anyone else notice that ginormous red flag billowing across our clear Texas sky?
Could this be the result of a "test prep" classroom, one centered around worksheets? Isn't this what happens when worksheets come before opportunities for real writing? How are we allowing young learners to experience real writing? This is not a question up for debate. Right is right and wrong is wrong. Worksheets do not make writers. Writing creates writers.
This is a problem, but problems are forever pieces of the fabric of our lives. Should it change the way we teach writing? Yes, if your classroom is led by worksheets. No, if your writing workshop is led by authentic student writing.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, what matters is that we teach kids to write. Again, because right is right, and wrong is wrong. Anything less than that is unjust.
How do we change things?
One important change that can make an impact in a classroom where we work to grow writers is to ensure the absence of skill-based worksheets. It will be hard, but it will be okay. There are many other ways to check if kids are “getting it.”
Pushing drill-and-practice worksheets can be detrimental to the development of a writer. This is especially true for bilingual and multilingual students. I implore teachers of writing to experiment without a worksheet, reach out for help, and then try again. This is after all, how we expect our students to try something new, learn, and grow.
Life-long learning happens when learners get to play with what they’re learning, manipulate it, and create something new with it. This kind of learning happens outside the limits of a worksheet.
The best way for a student to become a better writer is to… write. Write every day. Write for authentic and meaningful purpose, in language rich environments that center around the writing process.
Writing matters. Worksheets don’t.
Marina Rodriguez is a California native, National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant, living and teaching in Texas.