An alternative to workbooks

Thinking back to my first years as an ESL teacher, memories of textbooks and workbooks come bubbling to the surface.  While I wrestled with error-ridden textbooks, it turned out that workbooks would be a particular disappointment.

I thought about this for some time in the years that followed.  How was it that such a widely-used “method”, as we call textbook materials here in The Netherlands, could be so troublesome?  Was it just me, or was there really something wrong with the material I was using?  I inventoried my complaints and came up with a number of expectations I decided to use in order to judge the usefulness of learning material in any form.

Expectation #1:  the material had to be in English

Expectation #2:  the learning activities must contribute to achieving the learning objectives

Expectation #3:  there must be space for differentiation

Was I just kicking in open doors with this list of expectations?  It would seem so, and yet,at the time, virtually every single workbook published in The Netherlands gave directions for the exercises in Dutch.  This required the children to switch linguistic gears multiple times during the ESL lessons, where “English Only” was Rule Number One.

I failed to see the need for directions in Dutch, since it was, and still is, my opinion that simple directions such as “tick the correct answer” or “fill in the blank” can easily be learned during class time.  Giving directions for learning activities in English is an efficient means to that end, while not giving workbook instructions in English is simply wasteful.

A critical look at the activities offered in the workbooks proved that many of them could not be directly linked to the learning objectives -if indeed the learning objectives were listed anywhere at all- in the teachers manual.  In fact, many of the activities seemed to be simple busywork.  In my limited time, busywork was not something I had the luxury of assigning children.  I decided that if I couldn’t explain what the children should be learning from the exercise, it didn’t get assigned.

It was a rare thing that a workbook assignment withstood the first two expectations.  However, it was expectation #3 that put the final nail into the workbook’s coffin.  Never, in all my years of teaching, have I found a workbook that actually allowed for differentiation, and this has proven to be the most frustrating of all.  

In any given class, the children’s abilities in English range from basic (child can copy words from the board) to proficient (child can write short stories using correct verb tense and spelling).  In order to meet all of these different needs, I found myself creating worksheets with varied gradients of difficulty, adapting the workbook exercises or other things I found on the internet.  This time-consuming process wasn’t really the way I’d hoped to spend my free days, building something no-one else would ever profit from.  There had to be a better way.

The answer lay in a simple magazine in the teacher’s lounge: The Praxis Bulletin.  I paged through it, and this time I struck gold: the project notebook.  The project notebook, simply put, is a notebook with lined pages on one side, faced with blank pages on the other.  I found myself excited by the idea that this simple notebook just might be the answer to my problem.  Would the directions be in English?  Of course!  Would the activities be related to the learning objectives?  Yes!  Was there space for differentiation?  Yes!  My list of expectations was met.  Now for the next part: figuring out this new way of working, as I didn’t know of anyone else who used project notebooks in their lessons.

A word web helps activate the child's existing vocabulary, and offers space for new words to be introduced.

A personalised word web helps activate the child’s existing vocabulary, and offers space for new words to be introduced.

We started simple: word webs, labeling pictures, and illustrating short sentences.  I took pictures of the children, and printed them, so that the children could stick these into their notebooks and label all of their clothing or body parts.  Children in the older groups wrote short stories about their summer holidays and illustrated these.  Other times, I asked children to draw 4 pictures on the blank page, and then write sentences to match on the lined page opposite.

Here, the pupil connects images to writing.

Here, the pupil connects images to writing.

Of course, it took some thinking out and experimentation, but in the end I can say I’m quite pleased with the work that children have been producing in their notebooks.  What I enjoy most, however, is the ownership that children take of their notebook.  Everything that is in it, they made themselves.  Every drawing, every photo, every collage, every word.  None of it is pre-printed or fill-in-the-blank.  It is their own work.

A nine-year-old wrote sentences to match the pictures he drew in each box.

This child wrote sentences to match the pictures he drew in each box.

The blank pages allow space to combine artistic and linguistic expression

The blank pages allow space to combine artistic and linguistic expression.

Besides the standard project notebook setup, I’ve been experimenting with my own formats.  The reason for this was that some children – especially the younger ones – enjoy having a certain framework for their language activities.  The structure facilitates easy participation in the learning activity.

These are four basic pages I designed for use in the project notebooks.

Project notebooks require a different mode of thinking.  Instead of letting the publisher decide for me what the children do and don’t need, I have to decide that  myself.  That said, the basic formats allow me to vary the exercises, while giving children the structure they need.  The notebooks easily allow for differentiation.  I can model work for the weaker children, while allowing space for the stronger children to experiment.  Besides that, it allowed the school to save enormous amounts of money, since project notebooks can be bought or made for a fraction of the cost of workbooks.

What more can I say?  I love project notebooks!

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