Essays on English in Japan

The Worksheet Mentality

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The Worksheet Mentality

In faculty lounges, hallways and teachers’ offices, I have heard just about everything, but there is one phrase that always make me really cringe: “I have a worksheet on that!”

Many teachers all over the country fill up their class time and students’ schoolbags with worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. Open up any students’ schoolbag and worksheets will come pouring out. “When in doubt, worksheet ‘em,” seems to be the credo for many teachers. The worksheet mentality is the default mode for teaching at most schools and has become an addiction with widespread and unintended consequences. Students are drowning in worksheets, and not all of them can swim.

The worksheet mentality relies activities, fill-in-the-blank blanks, cloze exercises, simplistic questions, vocabulary lists, T/F questions and other trivial types of language use. Many of the best selling English textbooks in Japan are basically extended worksheets, evolving out of teachers’ collected worksheets. Many teachers nowadays even copyright their worksheets for possible future publishing.
Worksheets have some helpful uses, but they divide teachers into two distinct groups: those who love them and those who hate them. I haven’t used a worksheet in 15 years and probably never will again. That isn’t to say everyone should discard them, but only that it is possible to teach without them, and, in my opinion, teach better.

For me, worksheets fall into the category of “busy work,” work that is given to someone at a job or at school just to keep them busy doing something without good reason or certain result. Some worksheets, when used correctly, do help students with certain language points. Many worksheets clarify issues, simplify difficult points and facilitate learning.

The harm comes when worksheets do not build into a more complex and advanced set of skills. Worksheets keep English trapped on the page in pre-designated boxes and never allow it to enter the real world of communication. Worksheets break language down into small parts that can be practiced and correct answers that can be checked. But without moving behind those half-structured patterns, they become stuck with discrete, limited units, rather than moving towards holistic skills of creating and using language in unstructured situations. Worksheets become mental handcuffs that keep language from being used.
Worksheets stem from certain attitudes of teachers. Worksheets cover up when teachers do too little preparation (“I can just re-use last year’s worksheet!”) or result from too much preparation (“I have to give them more and better practice on this!”) Worksheets are the result of not giving teachers enough time, and enough pay, to create more challenging, real-life activities. Worksheets are the fast food of classrooms, what you head for when you are starving, desperate, short of cash or just worn out.

When worksheets are overused, as they typically are at most schools, students start to misunderstand about the nature of language and the nature of studying. Students become dependent on the teacher to give them the missing parts of the worksheet, rather than learning how to take initiative and ask questions on their own. Teacher-generated materials kill the natural impulse towards communication by containing all language to a single page of single-answer blanks.
Worksheets become insulation from real language instead of becoming a stepping-stone towards fuller understanding and practical skills. When that happens, students succumb to the low expectations that worksheets present to them, and simply never move to a higher level. Japanese students are good about filling in these worksheets and turning them in, but they are not so good about transforming the red pen marks of their teacher into real linguistic exchanges.

Students should not believe that worksheets are real communication. Instead, they need to learn how to build up larger structures of English in their head and not get stuck at the worksheet level. Worksheets keep English outside of their heads, but the point is to internalize English, and that has to be done in other ways, by practicing and using the language in real communication. Worksheets are not communication. They are structural analysis. Experience in real, or near-real, situations where communication takes place more openly and freely is the essential next step.

Students need to keep their own expectations higher than the worksheet. When handed one worksheet after the next, it is easy to lose hope of ever escaping from the onslaught of empty blanks and a,b,c,d choices. Yet, when students have their own high expectations for themselves, when they believe they will actually learn English, then the low expectations that worksheets hand them are possible to transcend. Call that the ‘post-worksheet’ mentality.

February 24, 2013


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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.