Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

Why Write When You Can Talk? – The Oral “Worksheet”


file791271781089Worksheets. I’ve been thinking, and rethinking, about them a lot lately. I believe that teachers use them with good intentions. We want them to practice something. We want them to “learn” and show understanding of a new language point or vocabulary group. We want them to reinforce what is going on in class. These are great intentions for using them. Unfortunately they also serve as ‘filler’, a required bit of homework and, for me, are not very ‘communicative’. Perhaps, more importantly, students increasingly see them not for the good intentions we may have employed them, but as something that must be ‘completed’ – rather than learned. Don’t get me wrong – I am someone who still uses a strategic paper worksheet here and there  (there I said THAT) so let’s get over the sheepish ‘I still use worksheets’ feeling. These days though, instead of handing out the worksheet, I’ve been trying to employ activities that hit the best of what we intend a worksheet to be – with the best of what I want my classes to be. Enter what I call the “Oral Worksheet”. This is really focused practice and involves anything that gets students interacting with (a) new language elements and (b) their peers in class.

Prior to Oral “Worksheets” what has to be in place? In my class you need two things – the confidence to ask/tell when you don’t understand and how to handle that (we work on that a lot) and the understanding that we are not ‘lazy listeners’ but, rather, active ones who will assist/correct/help in a gentle and supportive way when they hear an ‘error’ in use or have someone who can’t remember a word/phrase. I agree this can be a delicate thing – no one wants someone correcting them all the time – but we work on it from day 1 and they are effective in how they do it. Students also have to be used to activities where they frequently change partners and understand that they work with everyone in class – not just their friends.

Example 1 – Picture/Story Tell “Worksheet” : My goal was to introduce various ‘health’ terms/issues as part of a greater unit. I used clip art pictures and told a story told via QAR about a class where only 1 student showed up because everyone else was sick. We went over and over via questioning and then the students read a similar story. The “Worksheet” – pictures from the board story were in an envelope on their tables. In pairs they retold the story (not reading it/re-telling it) matching the pictures and the symptoms. On the board was a reminder of some key phrases we had used with ‘new language elements’. Then they had 10 – 15 minutes to re-use the pictures to make up a story about a character’s terrible horrible day  (the story was oral only – no notes!). Students then had 30 minutes to visit with other pairs telling their story and hearing others. As students listened to a story they were also allowed to ask questions “He cut his finger? How” which required the pair. How was it a ‘worksheet’? Well for 40 minutes they heard the vocabulary and language elements over and over. They helped each other out when they weren’t sure. They corrected appropriately and gently when they needed to.

Example 2 – Sketch/Share “Worksheet”: My goal in the lesson was to practice a particular element related to the use of giving & receiving action words (simple/complex). We had built up knowledge via practice/story the day before. Their ‘homework’ was to come up with 6 pictures with captions that demonstrated their understanding of how to use the concept (something I call the ‘sketch & share’). The next day in class they initially showed their partner the pictures and told them what the caption was (note – they ‘told’ they didn’t have their partner read it). This ‘check in’ also provided a chance to alter/edit as necessary. The “Worksheet” – After their partner check,  on  to the “oral worksheet” which involved 20 minutes of challenging others to see if they could provide a caption for the pictures that the student had drawn. The result? for 25 minutes they heard, reviewed and interacted with the material. Yes some ‘errors’ may have slipped through but I catch those when they hand in their pictures after the activity.

After the Oral Worksheet – Did they ‘get it’?: Do these kind of  oral ‘worksheets’ do the same job as a paper worksheet? I think so. My pop check-ins tell me that they ‘get it’ as much after these as they do with paper ones. And I think they get so much more – in the negotiating of meaning, the listening for understanding and the oral interaction with classmates. What are your written worksheet alternatives?



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