Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

A worthless worksheet and a voluntary VoiceThread

My daughter’s 3rd grade homework assignment this evening was completing the following “Listening for Syllables” worksheet.

A worthless worksheet

Sarah has a fantastic teacher, and my perception of the value of this homework assignment is not reflective of my perception of the overall quality of the educational experiences I think she’s having regularly in her public school classroom.

I do think, however, that this particular homework assignment is worthless and a waste of everyone’s time. When do people of any age, outside of a classroom, ever need to “count syllables” of words? They don’t. We don’t. This is not an activity of literate people. This is not an assignment which encourages the activities of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, thinking, and communicating. This is a fake, silly, and time-wasting activity representative of some of the kinds of activities we ask students to do at home because we have misplaced faith in the value of busywork.

Will homework assignments like this improve my daughter’s levels of achievement on standardized tests? Will it help her learn more about Charlotte’s Web, the book from which these vocabulary words are taken? Will dutifully completing assignments like this night after night at home after school help her develop self-disipline (which Kohn defines as “learning to manage freedom”) both at home and at school?

I think not.

Alfie Kohn, in his outstanding book “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing,” addresses this question on pages 51-53:

The most common nonacademic rationale for homework is that it, like competition, has character-building properties. Specifically, it’s said to help students “take responsibility for school work… to build ‘study skills’ through homework assignments to develop students’ perseverance, ability to follow directions, neatness and completeness, and overall level of responsibility.’ Others have asserted that homework promotes “self-discipline” as well as “initiative” and “independence.”

…So does homework have such an effect? No one has a clue. As far as I can tell, no experiment of either type has ever been conducted to investigate common claims about responsibility, self-discipline, and so on. To that extent, no evidence exists to support those claims.

Kohn’s book was copyrighted in 2006.

What is the effect of worthless worksheets like this which are sent home as homework? They WASTE our time. Time is one of the most precious resources each one of us has, whether we are 38 or 8. Time is limited. We never get our heartbeats back once we choose how to spend them. Did my daughter take a long time to complete this worksheet? No, she did not. But there WAS a real temporal opportunity cost to this homework assignment. Sarah could have been playing outside with one of her friends. She was prohibited, I will note, by my wife (and I don’t hold this against her since finishing your homework before you go out to play is a rule in our house) from playing with a friend who came over after her theater practice this evening, prior to dinner. Sarah had homework which was assigned, and regardless of what it was, she had to finish it before playing outside. Had she NOT had the homework assignment (or had we looked at this assignment and made a decision analogous to that of a conscientious objector and said “Forget that assignment, don’t worry about it. It’s silly…”) she would have been able to play outside before dinner for awhile with her friend.

So, what is a father and educator to do in such a homework quandary? Merely write a complaining blog post after the kids have gone to bed? Of course not! We spent about an hour together planning and sharing a short VoiceThread reflection about Charlotte’s Web tonight that she posted to our family learning blog.

Here’s a little background about what we did to create this. I estimate we spent about 30 minutes planning this together (mainly at dinner while we were eating) and 15 minutes actually recording and creating the VoiceThread.

I first asked Sarah about writing a post on our family learning blog about Charlotte’s Web. She has never seen the movie, and so far they’ve just read the first three chapters of the book in school. I love many of E.B. White’s books (especially “Trumpet of the Swan” which was a big favorite of mine growing up) and am glad Sarah is having a chance to experience Charlotte’s Web. She was NOT eager, however, to write a blog post about the book and her perceptions of it. Sarah is not yet an adept keyboarder, so this response is not entirely surprising. Like many young learners, Sarah has more ideas and is able to communicate them more capably when she is able to verbally communicate rather than when her expressive options are limited to text-only formats.

Rather than force her to go ahead and write a blog post (something I admittedly DO at times) I gave her some choices. “Would you like to record your ideas with a microphone?” Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Giving students and our own children CHOICES about the ways they express their ideas and demonstrate their mastery of knowledge and skills is not just fun, it’s an educational best practice. Part of differentiating learning should mean providing students with different options about how they express themselves and communicate. Will Sarah need to learn how to proficiently keyboard an essay before she graduates from high school? Of course. Would forcing her to type her ideas about Charlotte’s Web tonight at age 8 have effectively accomplished the learning goal of encouraging her to think summatively as well as reflectively about what she’s learned so far by reading the book? I don’t think so.

Alfie Kohn cites research from the 1970s which supports this idea that the best teachers provide the learners in their care with CHOICES about how they express themselves and show what they know. On page 44 of “The Homework Myth” Kohn writes:

…back in the 1970s, New Jersey educator Ruth Tschudin identified about three hundred “A+ teachers” on the basis of recommendations, awards, or media coverage. She then set out to compare their classroom practices to those of a matched group of other teachers. Among her findings: The exceptional teachers not only tended to give less homework but also were likely to give students more choices about their assignments.

As a parent as well as an educator, I think differentiated learning is something we should do together at home as well as at school in formal learning settings. Thankfully, we’re on the digital side of the digital divide with access to multiple computers, microphones and cameras at home. Just HAVING digital tools is not enough, however. It’s critical we invite others to USE them imaginatively to create, collaborate, and communicate. These were some of the learning goals I had in mind for Sarah as a homework activity I thought could be much more meaningful and valuable (both instrumentally as well as intrinsically) than her worthless worksheet which was sent home today in her class folder.

I started to think about different web 2.0 services which allow direct audio recording with a computer microphone to an immediately web-published, Flash-player embeddable media file, and didn’t have any luck locating some initially. I tried to remember the website “Springdoo,” which like Bob Sprankle I miss and lament in its passing, but at the time couldn’t find it, think of it, or locate similar websites. I knew we could use VoiceThread, but I really wanted to just record AUDIO and not use any images.

Eyeing my Sony flash-based video camcorder, Sarah asked why I couldn’t just shoot a video of her sharing her reflections, transfer that to the computer, and then she could put that on her blog. This led to a good discussion about “the Internet safety worst-case scenario nightmare,” which would be someone seeing her video and then deciding to kidnap her. I don’t know that anyone has ever been kidnapped because of a video reflection about Charlotte’s Web that they posted to the Internet, but at this point I do still think it might be wise to use some discretion publicly posting videos of my kids online. So, the search for a web 2.0 site that allows direct microphone audio recording and publishing continued.

Over dinner, we brainstormed a “planning sheet” for her recorded reflections which broke into two parts. First, she would summarize what she remembers happening in the book in the first three chapters they’ve read. Second, we’d brainstorm together (as a family) several “thinking questions” which would not have easy, factual answers. Sarah started out writing a rough draft, but I volunteered to write for her as we brainstormed at the dinner table. This is what we came up with. Some of the “thinking questions” were contributed by my wife and 10 year old son:

Sarah's VoiceThread planning sheet

After a short walk in our GLORIOUS Oklahoma fall weather after dinner, Sarah and I got my MacBook Pro and my M-Audio Producer USB microphone and found a quiet room to do some recording. I posted a question to Twitter seeking help with a website to record directly to the web with a microphone. Liz Kolb suggested EarFl, which I had never heard of and looks interesting. Its tagline is:

Record, preserve and share your audio stories today.

The audio stories which are shared DO appear to all be linked to an image, however. That is not a bad thing, of course, given the power of visual literacy, but in this case I wanted to use an audio-only web-based tool.

Lauren O’Grady shared a tweet from Melbourne (at least I assume that’s where she was tonight/tomorrow morning) and suggested using Utterli, another tool I hadn’t encountered previously. Its tagline is:

Talk amongst yourselves: Sign up to start a discussion from your computer or phone.

Others also suggested Gabcast and Gcast, which I do like but neither supports direct microphone-based audio recording to the web– just phone-based recording.

In the end, Sarah and I settled on VoiceThread. You have to admit, the two Creative Commons Attribution-Only licensed photos we chose to use (using the Flickr CC search interface) are SUPER cute and make for a more interesting media experience while listening to Sarah’s chapter summary and “thinking question” responses. 🙂

a very cute pig


Will Sarah be assigned more worthless worksheets as homework this year and in the years to come in public school? Sadly, I’m sure she will. Will her parents force her to do them all before going outside to play before dinner? I’m not sure. Next time I may ask first, “Can you please show me your homework assignment?”

I’m going to email Sarah’s VoiceThread on the first 3 chapters of Charlotte’s Web to her teacher tonight, along with the link to her post on our family learning blog. I’m not expecting this will earn her any extra credit, but hopefully it will help her teacher see a worthwhile and practical use for collaborative, publish-at-will, web 2.0 sites and tools like VoiceThread and WordPress to support authentic learning.

Now if we could just convince the Edmond school board of the same thing, we’d really be moving forward. I still have heard ZERO responses from our board members as a result of the video I mailed each one of them as a DVD this summer. I’m not too surprised by that, nor am I losing sleep over it. Instead, I’m continuing to conspire with many peers and friends to creatively, constructively and powerfully disrupt traditional patterns of teaching and learning in our state and across our planet! Think I’m kidding? Think again. The learning revolution is underway. 🙂

Learners: Bring forth thy stories!

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16 responses to “A worthless worksheet and a voluntary VoiceThread”

  1. Penny Coutas Avatar

    Another idea would be to use the words in a poem or song that focuses on the use of syllables to create rhythm patterns.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Yes, I agree an assignment which involved the creation of something new using syllables (like rhythm patterns) would potentially be much more valuable that this worksheet.

  3. Chris Bell Avatar
    Chris Bell

    As an educator and soon-to-be parent, your post really resonates with me. Much of what we do in education appears to be a waste of time and it’s really no wonder that eager learners are eventually turned off. A good example is forcing students to learn cursive writing. I cannot remember the last time I used cursive writing. Yet, there I was last year having the 4th graders practice their cursive writing because it’s a district standard. They hated it and I hated it. I also found it was a waste of time when I would have to check in their weekly reading logs and check off their cursive writing practice. Bear in mind that I was a “student” teacher at the time and had limited influence in my master teacher’s classroom. The classroom wiki I instituted that showcased student work has withered away from neglect, but that’s another story…

    I’m glad you were able to provide an excellent learning opportunity that interested your daughter. What becomes of the students whose parents don’t take the time and effort to do the same? Doesn’t the responsibility then fall to the teachers, administrators and districts to provide relevant learning for the students? Things really have to change and fast, but unfortunately education hasn’t operated that way in the past 60 years…

  4. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Responsibility for teaching a LOT does often fall to educators rather than parents, but most of us will acknowledge (I think) that it shouldn’t be that way. It does take a village.

  5. Louise Maine Avatar

    I like how you are working with your daughter. My son is suffering in 9th grade academic English where they memorize large lists of pronouns, etc. that they must write down for a test. What he is asked to do is unfortunate and maddening. As a teacher in the same school, she knows how I feel about what schools should be doing. Unfortunately, she is holding many upset parents “hostage” as she grades some students more critically when there is questioning of practice. My son is creative and deserves more than this. Time to regroup. Thank you for documenting what you do.

  6. Pat Avatar

    Wow! Your children are so lucky to be growing up in your household! All I can think of in defense of syllables is that maybe it will help with spelling skills? How many times have we told kids to sound it out, break it into syllables, and then spell each syllable. Other than that, I like your voicethread activity much better! I have used Utterli and it is very easy and simple to use. I would rather use my mic/computer than a phone so if you have a chance, that may be something your children would enjoy. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!

  7. Chan Bliss Avatar
    Chan Bliss

    Tell Sarah that she was the reason that I read this blog. Usually I just skim my RSS feed and move on to the next. But then I saw the pictures of those two pigs. “Ok” I have to stop and see what this is all about. Sarah the voice thread about Charlotte’s Web was very good. Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books but then I have a soft spot in my heart for pigs. Thank you for sharing the report.

    Oh, Wesley the rest of the blog was good too, I’m going to share it with some of the faculty at my school.

  8. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Chan: I will definitely relay your comments to Sarah when I see her again this evening. If you want to leave her a comment on her blog post I know she’d love the direct feedback too.

  9. Robert Rowe Avatar

    Great project! I like how the VoiceThread project demonstrates comprehension, high-level thinking, and planning/organization. The worksheeet is only a prep for writing haikus or songwriting (the only things I could think of where syllables were important).
    It goes without saying that your parenting (making her complete the assignment regardless of “value”) is good. I just hope you, as parents, can make some progress with the teachers and board.

  10. Kathryn Avatar

    That was definitely a much better us of her time. Thanks for the links to some of the great web tools. I plan on using them with my reluctant writer to help him organize his thoughts. He thinks deeply about what he reads but doesn’t write well so I’m hoping that this might help him make the leap to better expression.

    On an unrelated note, there is an audiorecording of Trumpet of the Swan read by E.B. White with beautiful jazz trumpet interludes. I highly recommend it for your next car trip or just listening at home.

  11. Jane Carroll Avatar
    Jane Carroll

    mmm I read your comments re syllables with interest – you are very fortunate to have a child who is such a great oral communicator and how lucky your daughter is that you take an interest in her homework. I agree re your homework thoughts, we too ‘suffer through some of the home work our children bring home! However, while a ‘worksheet’ on syllables may seem a worthless activity for your daughter it may not be for another child who is struggling with literacy. I work as a speech pathologist and a specialist reading teacher and often work with children who struggle with hearing these ‘big chunks of sounds’ – and then struggle to record sounds accurately in spelling. It’s also important to be able to visually recognize groups of letters because decoding letter by letter which requires the child to use all their working memory,
    slows reading, reduces comprehension and makes reading a laborious painful experience for all involved. The words that are on the list are a great start for discussion on what the words actually mean too i.e. vocabulary building 🙂

  12. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Jane: Certainly I agree instruction should be differentiated to meet learners’ individual needs. A student who is developmentally delayed with respect to language skills or has a speech disability may not find the same learning task I provided for Sarah with VoiceThread to be as satisfying and worthwhile a learning activity.

    I do not think, however, that oral fluency is a skill with which we are entirely born. Certainly genetics plays into our capabilities and characteristics, but I will argue that practicing the activities of literacy is vital for developing fluency. Actually speaking, reading, and writing. Not writing numbers down beside a word.

    In the case of a student with special needs who is challenged with oral language communication, I’m not at all convinced a worksheet sent home which requires him/her to write down the number of syllables in a list of vocabulary words is a beneficial way to spend precious after-school minutes at home, or to develop literacy skills. Please note my critique and indictment here was not against any awareness of or practicing of the breakdown of words into differently syllables. Certainly the identification of pattern and meter is important in poetry writing, for spelling, and other contexts. I found this to be a “worthless worksheet” because:

    1- This activity is not authentic (ie it is not demonstrated or used by real readers, writers, and speakers outside of school)
    2- Discretionary time after school is precious and should be used in valuable ways
    3- Assuming that this homework assignment IS appropriate and good for every student suggests assumptions referenced in my post about the “character building” benefits of homework in general at the elementary level which are entirely unsupported by the body of academic research we have presently.

    Discussing the vocabulary words and repeating some sentences with those words would have been a better activity than this worksheet. Thinking of some sentences and then recording them using VoiceThread is another possibility. There are lots of possibilities, and many of those could certainly involve discussing syllables and using that knowledge to properly pronounce as well as contextually use different words. Simply writing the number of syllables next to a long list of words is not a fruitful way to spend after-school heartbeats, however, whether the child (like my daughter) is able to independently exhibit a high level of oral communication proficiency or is significantly challenged with respect to oral language skills.

  13. […] must give my blog title credit to Wes’s entry “A Worthless Worksheet and Voluntary VoiceThread“. I am now a part of the revolution, and I couldn’t be more excited. I sent his blog […]

  14. LKF Avatar

    Clearly, your misunderstanding of the use of counting syllables of words, as a prerequisite reading skill called phonemic awareness at at the root of your problem here. A work sheet advocate I am not! My preschool students count the syllables of their names and other words that are new to us by clapping the number of syllables heard in the chanting of the word. The fact that the words on your child’s work sheet come directly from the story, CHARLOTTE’S WEB are to her teachers credit. Read up on Phonemic Awarness, it’s relationship to dicerning words in print, and the teacher’s use of the skill base in a manipulative, conceptual, hands-on way in the classroom. It is my hope that those exercises are being done in that way, in the classroom, fore if they are not, the worksheet is indeed for naught. However, if the worksheet is used as a reinforcement tool, that takes your child little time to complete, and enables independence and responsibility in your child that clearly you have may lack, the homework sheet is about a good thing.

  15. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    LKF: Again I am not discounting the value of discussing syllables and learning about them. I fail to see how this worksheet could possibly “enable independence and responsibility” in my child. Claims like that, which according to the meta-analysis done by Alfie Kohn, are entirely unsupported by academic research, are a big reason kids like mine continue to get worksheets like this sent home.

    I’m not arguing here no one should discuss or work with syllables. (I’ve addressed that again in previous comments.) I am saying primarily that this worksheet is and was a waste of time for my daughter.

    Did you listen to her discuss the novel and her ideas about it in the VoiceThread? Do you really think she needs to be counting syllables at this point to develop her literacy skills? I’m not saying she’s “arrived” and has all the skills she needs at this point– far from it, but I think there are much better ways to spend limited heartbeats after school.

  16. Jane Carroll Avatar
    Jane Carroll

    Quite a few of the “precious heartbeats” were spent making the voice thread, planning etc and few if any of the children in your daughters class would have been able to complete this sort of task without significant adult support.
    There is ample research that shows any sort of homework task beyond reading and basic facts are simply going to make the able child more able and reinforce for the less able that they are not as successful.
    However, to give your child’s teacher some credit, don’t you think they would have given the task simply for what it may be – a short, simple reinforcement for work covered in class or a presupposed skill that (s)he needs to check is solidly in place for the children in their class? I would assume the sheet would have taken only a few minutes to complete. And maybe thats the point?

    Phonological awareness IS a critical pre-reading/writing/spelling skill. Without the ability to syllabify children struggle to ‘chunk’ when decoding text in reading, or encoding in spelling/writing.
    Check out the workshop notes for the ULearn workshop Greg and I gave last week at They will give further background on PA as a skill. My own research shows many adults (including some teachers!) would not be able to complete the sheet you have posted above.
    It is a skill we presume children have – often incorrectly for 5/6/7yr olds.

    While I too am not a big fan of sheets, in this case it may very well have been a sound (ha – pun intended) choice for your child’s teacher to make. The fact you have had such a valuable discussion around the story book with your child as a result of the homework task may in fact point to the value of it? And again make the point about the primary value of homework for the able and the supported?
    Cheers Jane