The new school year is beginning here on the east coast, and kids will be getting new workbooks and worksheets for homework. Over the years, I have seen a staggering variety of mass-produced assignments that could only be designed by adults who spend very little time with young children, and none with kids that have learning challenges of any type. There are a number of potential writing minefields for these kids: tiny spaces to write their name, multiple formats for writing (triple lines, single lines or no lines), all jumbled on a single page, empty spaces that don’t leave enough room for the use of grade-level letter sizing, and more. It’s not just the writers who struggle with controlling their pencils that lose out. Kids who have oculo-motor issues have to work harder to scan for the correct line to write a response, and move their eyes back and forth between the question/paragraph and the answer space. Kids who cannot write smaller than their grade level but understand the material try to shorten their responses instead of explaining their thinking. Kids with executive function issues see a complex worksheet as a big hot mess, not knowing where to start.
It makes me a bit angry that no one seems to have thought about creating worksheets that make homework easy for every child. Then there are teachers and parents that worry about any accommodations preventing gifted children from learning in a class with mainstreamed kids. Creating worksheets that support all kids doesn’t make it less stimulating for gifted children. They can learn 5 letters while some of their classmates are working on one. They can do two worksheets or write a haiku poem about the subject matter. Everyone can win when formats are thoughtful and well-designed. There are children with visual limitations, learning differences, and motor control issues that have been successfully placed in mainstreamed classrooms. We demand ramps and integrated classrooms, but we put up pointless roadblocks to true success in other ways. Asking these kids to do their homework when they know very well they will struggle to fill in the answer seems so unfair. Until the companies that create these workbooks and worksheets change their ways, it falls on parents and therapists to adapt them and teach kids strategies for success.
What can you do to help your child navigate a poorly-designed worksheet?
- Small spaces for their names or answers? Check out the sample above. Extend the line if you can, and explain that older kids and adults have a solution: they start writing on the far left edge of the line in order to have more room for them to write. This makes your strategy sound like sharing a “secret” instead of giving another order.
- Single line for kindergarteners to write their name? Create a midline (the line that small letters like “a”, “o”, and “c” start on) for them. I don’t use a top line, and you may not need it if the space for the name is at the top of the page. Create a starting dot for the uppercase first letter of their name, then start the midline for them. The result? Much neater writing. Writing their name is the first automatic writing they will develop. Let’s try to make it good by improving support for early writers. If not, it will be one more thing to work on with an OT or a writing tutor.
- Confusing layout? Take a super-fine Sharpie marker and underline the sections, or even trace the titles of the sections so that they stand out when your child is scanning the page. For younger children, this could involve highlighting the single-line baseline for them in the space where they are to enter their name or their responses.
- Too many lines for writing? Some worksheets bounce back and forth between a single line provided for a child’s name, and three lines (top line, midline, baseline) for writing. These lines can help some kids, but they can also lead to using the midline as a top line. If you bold the baseline of every section as described above, that could help some children. Some kids benefit more from having the first letter of a response, including their name, written for them. This tells them about the sizing expected, and where letters should fall within these lines. Some kids just need a starting dot. I think the designer of the sample page must have low vision, because that dot is so large as to make writing a letter with a pencil much harder….
- Use a blank paper under each section to limit viewing the entire page. Some kids find a complex page overwhelming and struggle to take things one step at a time. Covering up the bottom of the page, then the top can help.
- If they are copying from a list, such as a spelling list, writing the list on a separate page in large letters so that they are scanning to the next page instead of the full page can help.
- Sympathize. If you explain that this assignment page really is a bit confusing, children are less likely to hold in their frustration or let it out by crumpling up their paper. The sample has each item numbered, and then asks the child to look at the number of shapes. Not confusing for an adult, but it can be very confusing for the child. They could have used alphabetizing for the list, a., b., c., and so on, and let the numbers refer only to the answer. What children really need to know is that you can help them make sense of it.