Teacher Mama: Workbooks- Evil or Not?

As a student training to be a teacher in the 90s, it was absolutely the most horrible thing for teachers to talk about using workbooks let alone use them in the classroom. Everything was to be authentic or real world.  Activities were to be teacher-made and/or child-made. But, after teaching for 14 years I have come to believe that workbooks really aren’t as evil as I was taught. In fact, workbooks have their place in teaching, but should not be the only means by which a teacher teaches her students.  As a parent, I actually welcome a workbook or two. I should preface that comment with the fact that I am pretty lucky that my son loves to work in a workbook and finds joy in completing each page and moving on to the next.  Some parents do not have it that easy.  

Why do I like workbooks? Well, there are several reasons. First and foremost, it offers a structure that I do not have to come up with on my own. Let’s face it, we are all busy people and those with children are even busier. Who really has time to sit down and map out your child’s mathematics instruction for the year?  Workbooks do this for you. They know what a typical kindergartener learns in a school year and they provide practice with those skills.  Next, it is a great way to see how your child is doing.  Basic skills are practiced in workbooks and it is fairly easy- even for the “untrained” person, to look at what the expectation of each page is and see if your child can do it or cannot.  You can see if they are “getting it” or are completely off base. You can see if your child is mostly grasping the concept, but has some holes that you can easily help fill. For instance, I was working in a math book with my 5 year old tonight.  I knew that he he could count to ten and his work in the book showed me that.  I knew he could write the numbers 1-5, but learned that 6-10 are a little iffy. Easy fix- we are now working on writing the numbers 6-10.  This is pretty basic, but there is a whole lot more you can learn about your child by simply doing a few pages in workbook. Yes, you skeptics, you can accomplish the same thing with some other methods, but why reinvent the wheel when you have 5 loads of laundry to fold, a screaming toddler and dinner to make?  Here are just a few basic things you can learn by using a workbook.

  • 1. Can your child read and follow directions?
  • 2. Does your child work from left to write and top to bottom?
  • 3. Does your child speed through his work or take his time?
  • 4. Is your child “getting” it or not? If so, great! If not, what is the next step?
  • 5. Is your child enjoying learning?

You knew this was coming, right? Warning! How NOT to use a workbook with your child. First, do not hand your child a pencil and a workbook and leave the room. Big mistake!  First off, you are placing a child in a pretty stressful situation especially if he or she is not yet a reader. Secondly, chances are she is going to do it wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I am not denying that your child is a genius, but even the “smartest” kids do workbook pages wrong when left unattended. Then what? Either you have to have your child redo it- can you say frustration? or you let it go and you have reinforced some bad habits.  But, if you sit down with your child, you can help her avoid those mistakes while teaching some valuable lessons.  Second, DO NOT make your child color in the lines. This is so wrong on so many levels.  Think- what is the goal of this page? Making it look pretty or teaching or reinforcing a skill. I choose the latter.  So, if the directions say, “Color in 10 apples” and your child doesn’t want to color all 10, let them put an “x” in each apple or a checkmark.  Then ask yourself- did we accomplish the goal of the page? And, yes! will be your answer.

Finally, do not expect your child to sit down and complete 10 pages in one evening (let alone the whole book). Depending on your child’s age, developmental level and interest level, the number of pages completed in one sitting varies. With my son, I aim for one page a night, but he  is motivated and wants to do more so we do, but when he is done, we are done!  I want him to enjoy learning not dread it. Third, do not try to force your child into the next level workbook.  Take your time. If it is too easy, well great! Your child is practising some skills. If it is too hard, well then you know you have some teaching to do.  Do not let the words on the front cover rule you.  If it says ages 4-6 that is a suggestion not a hard and fast rule. Next, don’t worry about spelling in a math book and don’t worry about handwriting in a reading workbook UNLESS that is the goal of the page. You will find some pages in a math book that are intended for practicing the formation of the numerals, but be very clear on the goal of the page and do not add another layer of possible frustration  where it does not need to be. Finally, don’t “grade” the book.  Give your child a star or happy face no matter how “well” or “not well” he did.  It is about effort, learning and time spent together.