Getting beyond worksheets and spelling tests

Beyond Worksheets and Spelling Tests

Within the adult English Language Teaching classroom one thing is sure – there’ll always be a call for traditional ‘stand at the board’ teaching, worksheets & spelling tests. So how do you resist and make teaching more real-world and authentic?

Teacher, when are we going to do like this? (student holds up a thick wad of worksheets)

I like other teacher better, he does this (points to worksheets).

Teacher, when are we going to do spelling test? I like spelling test.

Teacher, when are we going to do grammar?

As an English Language Teacher I pride myself on creating and sourcing authentic teaching materials to use in my classroom:

  • I want to connect to my students’ worlds and their issues;
  • I want my students to feel confident in their voice, in how they present themselves;
  • I want them to be actively using English with each other and the world around them;
  • I want them to be independent learners who help and support each other.

Each year though as I begin teaching a new English Language class, I often find myself somewhat despondent and more than a little frustrated at the level of dependence students exhibit. It’s like they’ve been trained for dependence.

Although I’ve been there before I still find myself hurtling around the room, attending to the calls of ‘teacher, teacher, teacher…’

It’s like GroundHog Day. I get home, collapse on the couch and say ‘no more’ but then I’m back scooting around the room the next day.

Then just when I think I’ve been teaching in a way that has really drawn the students in, connected to their worlds, and got them actively speaking, listening, reading and writing – I get questions like those I highlighted above.

They’re questions that highlight the popularity (among some of my students) of worksheets, traditional grammar teaching, and spelling tests. And it’s like GroundHog Day as I find myself  repeatedly getting worked up, endeavouring to justify my teaching practices or arguing against the traditional practices they love.

Clearly there’s got to be more effective and less stressful ways forward, right?

So let’s unpack two aspects here – student dependence on the teacher and students’ love for traditional teaching practices and tools. Here’s what I’m learning -on those fronts – though I certainly don’t claim to have it all sorted.

Your students want tradition. what do you do?
Resist the Drive to be Perfect, Always There Teacher

Scooting around the room attending to each and every student demand of the students isn’t doing them any favours (in the long run) or yourself.

As I log them on the computer for the upteenth time, it’s absolutely guaranteed that I’ll still need to be doing this by the end of the term.

Insist on students seeking help and support from their peers (the ‘Ask three before me’ mantra can be useful here). Create tasks that require students to work together, tasks that involve meaningful roles for each person in this group.

Recognise that the desire to solve students’ queries won’t change overnight. Just recently (after 6 months) I noticed more of my students jumping up to assist others who are having difficulties.

So hold firm even if students get annoyed and frustrated with you. Reiterate the importance of learning from each other, as well as their responsibility to practise and learn tasks that we perform everyday.

Now even if you do begin to see the beginnings of a class community that helps each other – take note of how they’re helping.

  • You might find that students are making the same mistakes you did, like completing the task for the student. That’s what I’ve found, with the end result being that students still haven’t learnt the skills they require for everyday tasks in our classroom.
  • This is an ongoing challenge I’m still to work through – teaching students how to help their peers in ways that encourage independence.

Resist the Urge to Bite

This tip has proved especially challenging to implement in my classes. No matter how tempting it is to justify your practices or to highlight the flaws in traditional practices – resist.

It may work in some classes but it’s rarely worked in mine and it hasn’t eased the tension or the stress.

More recently, I’ve started to catch myself and stopped. Instead I’ve acknowledged what students have said. I’ve indicated what I will and won’t do in the classroom – including using lots of worksheets or giving spelling tests.

Then I’ve pointed them to avenues where they can access such materials. For examples, websites where they can buy work-books that relate to our curriculum, or where they can complete grammar exercises (in their own time). 

Also I’ve also highlighted strategies that can help them with their spelling or grammar. 

Teach Skills in Context

Teach grammar and spelling within the context of material you’ve created with students. I often do this within our writing texts.

Here it’s crucial to point out that you’re teaching ‘grammar’ or ‘spelling’ since the students may not recognize it as such since it doesn’t resemble a fill-in-the-gap worksheet or a spelling test.

There are various ways that you might teach the skills in context – not limited to:

  • a quick demo;
  • a focused task (for example, what do you notice about the verbs in these sentences?How do verb structures vary in the texts we’re working with – factoring in whether they’re written about the past, present or future);
  • a quickfire brainstorm (encourage students to brainstorm examples of words or sentences that have a similar structure or pattern);
  • a game or a quiz (try out Kahoot);
  • follow-up reading or tasks (point them to website materials or books where they can follow up on the grammar or spelling points you’ve just focused on).

Create Purposeful Tasks with Outside Audiences

Nothing has impacted more on my English Language Learners in terms of skill development than digital storytelling.

Over the years I’ve seen my students driven to improve their presentation skills, their intonation, their pronunciation and grammar skills because:

a) they knew that other people would be viewing their stories;
b) they knew that they’d receive feedback from those viewers.

Just recently, my teaching class (who are studying to become teachers) wrote questions to my adult English learners. They asked about the process of learning English, about moving to Australia, and about food and cooking. It has been the most delightful experience in both classes. My adult English learners were so determined to make ‘good’ videos answering student teachers’ questions.

After each take they’d review it, and say ‘again’ spotting an error or presentation aspect they weren’t keen on.  Here I limited them to 3 takes (otherwise they’d keep going), and the improvement (from take 1 to 3) in so many areas, especially self confidence, was stark.

I also stress to students that they don’t have to get all their pronunciation and grammar perfect – they just need people to understand them.

Then I proudly showed the videos to my student teacher class. It was a wonderful moment that drew everyone in as we discussed our reactions to the videos. We then wrote feedback that I excitedly shared with my English language learners.

  • WOW it was like a smile explosion in my class. So much joy just from receiving an envelope containing short pieces of feedback.
  • What made this even more special – is that we made it like a classroom celebration of each student’s achievements.
    • And it was like the students had not only been seen as English speakers but as people with personalities.
    • So whatever you do – encourage your students to just be themselves – with all their quirks and mannerisms. That’s a key component in winning over an audience – as they connect with a real, living person who isn’t perfect.

Let me close here with a big learning for me.

Don’t be dissuaded if your students initially seem uninterested. This has been common in all my adult English Language classrooms probably because digital storytelling is far removed from the traditional classrooms they’ve been part of.

As students get involved in digital storytelling, as they receive feedback and work to improve their speaking and presentation skills, they will start to make the connection.  It helps here if you encourage self-reflection, getting students to compare their earlier attempts with their latter efforts.

Interestingly, I’ve had a number of high level students tell me that they  initially didn’t get the connection between making videos and learning English.

However, after making a number of videos, then reviewing and improving them, it started to dawn on them. They could see the connection between creating digital materials for a real audience and  improving their English skills. Not surprisingly then, they were keen to make more videos.

Watch my students’ as they share their thoughts – about the value of making films:


If you’re interested in connecting with teachers who are passionate about creating authentic real-world learning – in the field of literacy, check out:

Pushing The Edge for Innovation and Social Justice

I host an education podcast where I chat to educators who are passionate about creating innovative and socially just spaces in their classrooms and schools.

There’s quite a catalog of inspiring educators to connect with. Just search for Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran in Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

Here is the Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran Artwork