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Digital Worksheets Apps Have Some Value

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Lakeshore Beginning Sounds App

Another great post on the Kinderchat blog led to this post. Kathy really does a great job of summing up my thoughts on technology in the elementary classroom and I agree with all of it, especially the ways she discusses how we should be using technology. Kathy also lists several ways we should NOT be using technology and this is where I think there should be some clarification. I think we should be careful not to automatically disregard anything, even digital worksheets apps. For example, I dislike homework but I can provide two great instances where I would support it here and here. So despite my constant push to avoid digital worksheets I won’t tell anyone they should never use them, instead I think we should be saying they are not the goal or most powerful way to use the tools. I think apps that are digital worksheets can have value and here are a few reasons why…

*Digital Worksheets are often the easiest apps to use and manage. As we look for ways to support an encourage teachers to use these new tools in their class digital worksheets can be the “gateway drug” to get them started. I first used digital worksheets when I introduced the iPad to my class over two years ago and I can’t imagine starting with a more involved app. Training and support would hopefully move teachers towards the better use of this technology that Kathy outlines. I think most teachers would automatically make this transition as they explore the devices.

* Digital Worksheets often target specific skills. This is the area I actually use them in my class. Kids that struggle in certain areas often dislike working on those skills. We all dislike doing things we are not good at and digital worksheets can provide novelty that encourages kids to work on those skills (example.) Balance is key here, apps should not be the only way to practice skills.

*Digital Worksheets can provide instant feedback. These apps almost add an assistant to the class as kids work on these skills.

*Digital Worksheets can be modified to make them more creative or be the basis for producing something. Like this example or using the flash card app for kids to search for words that end or begin with a certain sound or writing the words in ABC order.

We can all agree that teachers need to be intentional and thoughtful about the apps they use in the classroom. Creating, collaborating, connecting and producing need to be constant goal but the bottom line is the focus of technology in a class should be on the learning (as I have written about here.)  We all should be promoting and encouraging teachers and colleagues to use technology as Kathy outlined in her post, but we also need to be careful about denouncing all apps that don’t achieve these lofty goals. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on this!

15 Responses to Digital Worksheets Apps Have Some Value

  1. Matt, in my post I said, “There are many apps and Internet sites available that are simply a technological version of a paper task, forcing students to practice over and over a skill that they may already have mastered. Don’t get me wrong. Skills do need to be practiced. I just happen to think that students should spend most of their time using technology for more creative purposes.”
    I tried to make it clear that I didn’t think students should be practicing skills they could already do well, not that they should never ever use apps that focus on skill practice.
    You have made good points and I appreciate your providing another perspective.

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Kathy, I think you did a wonderful job and I should have included that quote in my post. I often get pushback when I share apps that are not exactly the best for producing or creating. I was mainly speaking out against blanket statements, regardless if they are about tech or not. I feel we all need to be more open to how teachers use technology, especially those just starting. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Angie says:

    Hi Matt,
    I would like to respond on your ideas about using apps that are digital worksheets, even occasionally.

    The Ontario Curriculum for Kindergarten from our Ministry of Education states “Generic worksheets, however, should be used with caution; they are rarely effective because their focus is narrow and they provide only limited assessment information on the child’s level of understanding.” Page 23 Full Day Kindergarten Program.

    We are not to use generic worksheets in class whether on paper or through technology use. There is such a wealth of good apps that can be differentiated to meet the needs of our learners, there is no need for students to be using digital worksheet apps. I understand your statement of the transition for teachers but I have always seen technology as a vehicle to show teachers the instructional methods that are high yield while using the guise of technology. “I’ll support you in your technology skills.” While teaching them how to use a new tech tool, I also embed the instructional strategy. For example, a colleague wants to learn about using a SMARTboard, I show them how shared reading can be done and while I’m teaching about highlighting tools I’m also reinforcing the instructional strategy of shared reading. We can’t have all of this technology used to support out dated teaching practices.

    I also feel we need to model for parents how technology can be used effectively for learning. Providing flash card or digital worksheet apps as ‘homework’ or ideas for home doesn’t send the right message to families. We need to honor families and show them how they can work with their child in an effective manner.

    Those of us online who are making our learning transparent, need to be aware that many eyes are watching and following our points in our posts. I feel we need to ensure our points reflect current pedagogy and support our messages in our curriculum.

    I was going to respond to your post on play but instead I’ll post a link to our curriculum so you can read about play in the Ontario context. Page 13 and 35 have some great info on the role of play within our day. It’s is not a ten minute fit in, it’s carefully layered throughout the day.
    http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/kindergarten_english_june3.pdf
    Thanks for posting your thinking and being open to discussion.

    My thoughts on a snowy Sunday morning,
    Angie

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Angie, I appreciate the comment and feel we are mainly on the same page except I do see value in special circumstances and with limited use. The key is thoughtful consideration. With respect to teachers using technology I see many instances where teachers are not getting the support they need to even get started. I agree that the goal is for teachers to use technology with the best instructional strategies but unfortunately I am hearing that often there is little or limited support. I hope that more people like you will be given the opportunity to lead teachers in the best uses of these devices! I just am afraid teachers without support will avoid using technology at all if there is a blanket statement against all digital worksheet apps.

      • K. Lirenman says:

        When we encourage the less than ideal use of technology as a way to get our teachers more comfortable with technology whose expense is that at? Our students. Wouldn’t it be better to put the technology into the hands of the teachers who are uncomfortable with it first, and give them time to play and explore with it to get comfortable? Wouldn’t that make more sense then encouraging less than ideal teaching as a means to get it into their hands? I’m still struggling with the logic that it’s okay to use less than ideal teaching methods as a way to get technology into classroom. In my mind there is a flaw in that logic.

        As for digital worksheets, a great teacher can turn any app into a meaningful learning experience. I don’t think it really matters if we agree or disagree on what we are calling a digital worksheet because ultimately what we are doing with the worksheet or app is what is most important. When an app (or worksheet) is used to repeatedly practice a skill, when there is a better more ideal way to practice that skill, then shouldn’t that be what we do with our students?

        • Matt Gomez says:

          Yes Karen, that would be ideal. Unfortunately I am not seeing many teachers given that opportunity. I guess I am looking for ways to encourage teachers that are given little to no support. In addition, many teachers can only add free apps thus limiting to mainly basic apps.

  3. K. Lirenman says:

    First off I agree that we can justify a reason for each and every app we have on our iPad as a way to better help our students learn. As a teacher I can justify everything I do in my classroom. And I agree that blanket statements such as “you shall not use iPads as a worksheet” is a bit unreasonable too. But is that reason enough to push poor quality apps on our students? The examples you give are valid and you have taken the time to think about why you are encouraging your students to use them. However you are extremely experienced in integrating technology into your practice. But for many worksheet apps are the only way they see how to use an iPad and that truly frightens me.

    What doesn’t sit right is that you’re suggesting that providing my students with poor quality drill and practice apps is how I should be supporting my struggling learners. What my struggling learners need is quality instruction and quality practice not repetitive drill and practice. In your example you are having your student practice letter formations. Might it be better to have them play with lego to help build their fine motor skills and then give them meaningful writing tasks to practice their letter writing where legibility is important to have their message heard/read instead of a drill and practice? Yes, they can use an iPad app to practice a skill that they struggle with, but is that app how they *should” be practicing the skill.

    The area that it is most obvious to me is with math drill and practice apps. Does having a developing mathematician play drill and practice type math games teach them the concepts of addition and subtraction or does it just help them memorize math facts. For my struggling mathematicians I want them to fully understand the concepts before I even begin to be concerned with speed of recall of math facts or memorization. It concerns me that young learners are using these types of apps before they have a solid grasp of real concepts. It links closely to those students that can “read” word exceptionally well but comprehend little of what they have read. We need to be really careful here Matt.

    They key is to use apps with an intention in mind but to really think about whether or not a specific app or website truly is the best way for our students to learn.

    *As a side I love the Sound Sorting App you have at the top of this blog post and I don’t consider it a digital worksheet at all. Yes, the students must sort pictures by their beginning sound, but the app is also a great way to develop vocabulary particularly for my English Language learners. I keep both of those things in mind when I suggest to a student that they might want to give it a try.

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Karen, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I also am worried about teachers that only use digital worksheets in the class. My experience is presenting and talking with teachers is that once they start using iPads most begin looking for better ways to use the devices. Yes, we need to support and encourage that! My fear is that teachers will avoid using and incorporating technology if they are not allowed to ease into the devices. In the perfect world there would be training and support but I am learning that is often not the case.

      As far as drill and practice apps I don’t suggest anyone use or not use them. What I suggest is that teachers be knowledgeable about the apps they have and be intentional in their use. As you point out in the handwriting example the app is not the best way to practice nor should it be the only way. However, I do see value in the occasional times I have used those apps, especially because they give constant feedback to the child.

      The last point you make is really the most important one. What is a digital worksheet? I intentionally picked the Beginning Sounds App as the picture for this post because I think it is one of the apps that some would consider a digital worksheet and some would not. Maybe the real discussion here is what is that definition and how we evaluate apps as a teacher.

  4. Angie says:

    Matt I’d rather teachers not use the technology if they are going to use it to continue ineffective practices. Kathy’s post stared not using the tech if it can otherwise be done in another way. Why spend the money on tech if it’s not providing opportunities for furthering their learning and enabling the students to do things they couldn’t otherwise do without the tech. I don’t see any current research on the use of generic worksheets and as educators we must seek out current practices and follow the curriculum as expected by our area. Our posts are valuable for lots of educators and I worry that as educational leaders if we post simple worksheet style apps as good to use, then others may solely rely on those apps because it was mentioned on our blogs. Opinion must also be supported by current research and high yield instructional strategies. We owe students that much.

    An entry point to tech shouldn’t be the reason we support pedagogy that isn’t current or helpful for students.

    My thoughts,

    Angie

    • Matt Gomez says:

      Angie, I respect and understand your stance. As thoughtful educators I was mainly trying to make a point that we shouldn’t make blanket statements about their use. My hope is that teachers will see that they need to think about everything they do using technology. If teachers were to only use tech as digital worksheets then I would agree with you that it is best not to use it. However, I believe and trust that as they explore the tools most will move towards best practices, especially given support and direction. Thank you for being a passionate advocate for using technology in the most powerful ways.

  5. Matt, I agree with you in that digital worksheet apps have some value. The extent of that value depends on how the app is utilized. Similar to you, I’ve found digital worksheet apps to be helpful in strengthening specific math skills and providing immediate feedback. I don’t believe that these apps should be the stopping point for app selection by any means (an appropriate balance is needed), but they may be beneficial in certain circumstances.

  6. Angie and Karen: I think that, as Canadian educators, we need to be careful and inform ourselves about the situations in which many of our American colleagues find themselves. While I am not saying we have it easy up here in “The Canada.” we definitely have better support, more resources, and more developmentally appropriate expectations for our students at all grade levels. Some of our US colleagues are being required by misinformed administrators to use largely worksheet and workbook-based programs. They are not ALLOWED to offer the quantity and quality of play opportunities that we are REQUIRED to provide. With THAT as a context, here are my thoughts about Matt’s post:

    -In many cases a digital worksheet is more engaging to students than its paper counterpart. We KNOW that engagement is a key to learning.
    -Many digital worksheet apps allow for greater differentiation, as students move quickly through concepts they have mastered, and on to more challenging things, or spend more time on the basics. If a child MUST do a worksheet, isn’t it better for that worksheet to be at an appropriate level?
    -I have a small group of students this year who are struggling mightily with letter identification. I am working with them intensively, on a daily basis. We play card games, sing songs, write letters in shaving cream, build them out of playdough, make letter shapes with our bodies, AND: my next plan is to introduce them to some letter-naming apps. It seems to me that my best option is to come at this from all angles. If a worksheet-type app helps them remember the names for P, Y, F, I will gratefully accept that. The reality is that certain skills ARE a matter of memorization. Whether a child learns to remember letter or number names through charades or a bingo game or a song or an app, the fact remains: it is memorization.
    -In classrooms where play has been effectively “banned,” a worksheet-type app that is “played” like a game can help create some positive school experiences for kids who may not love school.

    I want to be clear: worksheets of any kind make only the rarest of appearances in my classroom. I am not advocating for drill-and-kill. But I don’t think this conversation is or should be black-and-white. The larger conversation about technology and young children is one that I struggle with, exactly because of this polarity. I’m working on a blog post of my own about why I sometimes find it both dull and frustrating. It will be ready later today, and I will post it here.

  7. Patty says:

    While I understand the whole worksheet debate, I’m going to go out on a limb and say worksheets are not the devil. I agree with Matt in that it’s about how we use them. And Amy is spot on in that in the US, we are largely required to use them. Does this mean no play? Absolutely not. I have tons of play time and Recess in my schedule. But, I use worksheets. They are done as a recording sheet after I work with groups using hands-on lessons. I don’t use them all the time & I pick and choose. Some, my kids play school with which also gives me insight into what they know. My class also has centers like Blocks, Dramatic Play, Science, Writing, Math, Art, etc. Digital worksheets can have merit as well, but again we need to look at how they are used and why. Some children do way better in hands-on situation while others prefer to be alone or (gasp!) doing a worksheet. I’m thinking of one little guy who was on then autism spectrum when I use this example. So, I think where it counts, we need to think about which way to teach our kids and use any means necessary to do so.

  8. K. Lirenman says:

    Amy, I think we all agree that solid teaching practices look at the student’s needs first and finds the best ways to meet those needs. And no where have I suggested that an app of any type should be banned. What I said was “[w]hen an app (or worksheet) is used to repeatedly practice a skill, when there is a better more ideal way to practice that skill, then shouldn’t that be what we do with our students”. Your example re letter learning clearly demonstrates that as that is exactly what you are doing. And I feel confident in saying that would is what Matt or Angie or Kathy would do too. Good teachers, in more cases than not, make good decisions about their students learning. I think we all agree here.

    But this line “As we look for ways to support an encourage teachers to use these new tools in their class digital worksheets can be the “gateway drug” to get them started” doesn’t sit right with me. If money is being spent on having iPads in a classroom (and yes, there is a whole other discussion there which both you and Matt and written quite eloquently on), then the lead learner, should be given some time (if they want it) to explore best practices with that technology. Putting technology into classroom for the take of having “technology” in a classroom doesn’t sit well with me.

  9. @kf70 says:

    Thank you Matt this has been an interesting read and I agree with the sentiments expressed by @happycampergirl.

    I don’t want to wade into a to-and-fro discussion. (There’s rarely any benefit in that.) But, here’s another thought…students will often show teachers their preferred method for practising declarative knowledge skills. This is the type of knowledge worksheets of any kind generate.

    It’s perfectly obvious when an iPad app doesn’t cut-the-mustard with my tech savvy 4-5 year olds! And I’ve had some students who avoid all forms of technology. They’re the ones who love paper and pencils and paints.

    As professionals we know and value our individual students and offer the best path for their knowledge acquisition – declarative, procedural or creative!

    Thanks again!

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