Can You Use Worksheets in Montessori?

This is a touchy subject. We all recognize the educational value and beauty of Montessori materials. We shun the idea of teaching from textbooks. And yet, there might be a place in Montessori for worksheets and workbook exercises.

Please realize that I am speaking exclusively about elementary when I talk about using worksheets. I do not think there is a place for them in primary (3-6).

I also see a danger in relying on them too much. I remember a Montessori school (well-known in the Chicago area) that I visited during my training. The children sat around tables and did workbook pages all morning. The Montessori materials sat, dusty and unused, on the shelves.

The harried teacher told me that she was trained “in-house” by the school director but had never taken the Montessori training. It was painful to watch “Montessori” practiced so poorly. I still shudder when I think about it.

Is there some middle ground, a way to use them to complement rather than replace the Montessori curriculum? I’m going out on a limb and saying “yes, sometimes”, and I’ll explain why and how.

Reasons to Use Worksheets in Montessori

1. To teach test-taking skills

There are some things a child needs to know unless they are blessed enough to stay in a Montessori program through the end of high school. How to take a test is one of them. There are a variety of test-taking skills that are important for a child to learn.

Here are a few:

  • multiple choice
  • fill-in-the-blank
  • figuring out what the question is asking
  • process of elimination
  • answering questions that have both a written and oral component (the test-giver reads something aloud that is related to the question)
  • filling in bubbles on a test answer sheet

One of my trainers simply called it “exposure”. Children don’t need to do 50 pages of multiple choice questions in order to understand the concept; they just need to be exposed to it. Then, when they take a test, the “how” of taking the test will not stand in their way.

2. To practice math facts

In Montessori, we have a wide variety of math materials and among them are specific exercises (like the Math Bingo Games) that are meant for the memorization of math facts.

I have found that in some cases, a child needs more practice than even the Bingo Games can provide. They need to write down answers to problems rather than say them out loud. They need a variety of work to memorize math facts, including math materials, flash cards, and worksheets.

Rather than having a child do a worksheet of 20 math problems, the worksheet could be laminated and cut into smaller cards so that a few can be practiced at a time. Also, laminating means that all the children can use one copy rather than making copies for everyone. To use, they could write on the laminated page with a dry erase marker or give answers orally.

3. To fill in gaps not covered by the Montessori curriculum

One of the reasons I first created my Pink, Blue, and Green Series Spelling Cards was because there is no formal Montessori spelling curriculum and using word lists does not always cover all the bases.

Once the child has moved beyond the Pink, Blue, and Green Series work, a spelling workbook with age-appropriate spelling words could be quite useful.

There are some other areas that can use additional materials, especially in math. They include: time, money, fractions, and graphing. Workbook exercises can be quite useful to learn those kinds of concepts.

4. Use worksheets to create “Montessori-type” material

For instance, you might laminate a workbook page of word problems and cut them apart, placing them in a small basket or holder. Children can use them as needed, and they can be used again and again. Many types of materials can be made this way.

Give it Some Thought

Some of the common objections to workbooks and worksheets include the idea that they are busywork, repetitive, and require little or no thought on the part of the teacher.

In order to redeem them for use in the Montessori classroom, they must be used differently than in a traditional classroom. They should not be used thoughtlessly, as time-filling busywork, or for mindless repetition once the child has mastered the skill in question.

One thing I urge when using worksheets (or other non-Montessori materials) is to use them as seldom as possible, and only when needed to address a problem or “gap”. If one child needs extra help in math or spelling, that doesn’t mean the whole group needs to do a worksheet. Tailor your use of worksheets to fill a specific need.

What do you think? Can/should workbooks and worksheets be used in a Montessori elementary setting? Why or why not?

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13 Responses to “Can You Use Worksheets in Montessori?”

  • Amber said at September 8th, 2009 at 7:38 am :

    Great article. I taught in a public school Kindergarten and tried not to use worksheets except for the above mentioned reasons. One other reason to use worksheets is that some learners retain knowledge best through writing and not through using manipulatives, myself included! And then there are the children that just love them. But I agree–they are so overused in many types of schools and we have to continually find other ways to practice and learn.

  • Lori Bourne said at September 8th, 2009 at 7:59 am :

    Hi, Amber! It’s definitely a tricky issue and I want people to think it through before using worksheets – it should always be a last resort rather than the default go-to policy. But as you said there are times when they are appropriate.

    One of the biggest negatives for the overuse of worksheets in traditional education is the waste of paper! That really takes my breath away. That’s one reason I recommend turning worksheets into re-usable materials instead of just making a copy for each child.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Susana said at September 8th, 2009 at 2:48 pm :

    I agree with you, Lori. Too often people just want to push workbooks onto their kids because it is “easier” for the teacher. My 6 and 7 year old enjoy doing some worksheets AFTER they’ve worked with the actual Montessori material. I have noticed that working with the materials gives them a real joy for learning and don’t believe they’d have that if it wasn’t for the materials. I remember what a drag worksheets were for me growing up! 😉

  • Psmontessori said at September 8th, 2009 at 4:45 pm :

    I swear you read my mind sometimes… I was just talking about this with another teacher today. My trainer suggested that we don’t use outlines (this is primary, btw) if the child can draw or make it himself. However, I’ve seen lots of classrooms use outlines or sheets for coloring the bead stair. What are your thoughts on this? I’m often asked to “show” student work in primary, which canbe difficult. I’m trying to find a compromise!

  • Lori Bourne said at September 9th, 2009 at 6:45 am :

    You know, I consider outlines/blackline masters to be a different topic than this one, and I’ve already written about it here.

    I feel similarly about them – if used, it should be done with thoughtfulness and care, and not just as busywork.

    In elementary, there’s a temptation to give a child a page of math problems instead of using the wooden math materials, and that’s what I was trying to address in this post.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Lori Bourne said at September 17th, 2009 at 7:14 am :

    Susana, you are correct in that people often use workbooks because they’re “easier” for the teacher but of course they are not as enriching for the students. I too remember how boring worksheets were when I was in school!

  • Nicole said at September 23rd, 2009 at 12:24 pm :

    I am a Montessori Elementary Directress, and was a Montessori child through middle school, as well as the daughter of a Montessori Primary Directress. There is no place for worksheets, workbooks or quiz papers in my classroom. I have seen children develop anxiety over these methods rather than a love of learning. I have seen children constantly get in trouble at home because they didn’t do well on their quiz.

    Which is purely extrinsic threats, and we know what studies show about that: when you remove the motivation they perform more poorly. It is our task as directors to spark their interest and foster their love of learning. Quality, not quantity.

    I am surprised you do not make mention of the Montessori Mathematical Memorization Materials. There are so many of them! Specific step-by-step, easy to make didactic materials which bring the children to the point of memorization in such a simple way, through learning which appeals to multiple intelligences. They have been proven for 100 years!

    I also wonder where you received your ideas for pink, blue and green materials. There in fact IS a formal Montessori spelling curriculum, as taught to me with the St. Nicholas method, involving a series of 4 pink and then 4 blue boxes, then a series of green boxes. In the elementary, the bulk of spelling addressed with the green boxes, and spelling is addressed with every single lesson in every area of the curriculum when new words are presented by dissecting them into their roots, prefixes and suffixes, and the parts translated to their original language and definition.

    I am very concerned at the way of American Montessori when I see that directors are more and more using tests, workbooks, worksheets and quizzes in the classrooms. What a waste of time and energy when there are so many wonderful and awe inspiring works to be created, manipulated and actually UNDERSTOOD! Don’t fall into the trap of pressure. Do the research on the imperical data if you must, but trust the Montessori Method!

  • Lori Bourne said at September 23rd, 2009 at 12:53 pm :

    Hi, Nicole! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Let me clarify a little bit.

    First of all, if workbooks or worksheets are used, I do not think they should be “graded”; I totally agree about the extrinsic nature of this kind of evaluation, and have written about it extensively. However, just as a child may need help to correct answers on the Multiplication Bead Board, they may need someone to help them correct answers on a worksheet. I love it when children can do this themselves, rather than have someone do it for them. But never, ever, should it be graded or given a grade.

    Secondly, I do mention all of the math games and they are definitely a wonderful way for children to master their math facts. Do they work perfectly for every child? Does any child ever need another way to “view” math equations? I leave it to individual parents and teachers to answer that question because I think that children and circumstances vary.

    While I studied the Pink, Blue, and Green Series quite thoroughly in my training, my observation was that when using things like Word Lists for spelling tests, it becomes a little bit of a “hit or miss” process (I haven’t heard of the “box” method). My Pink, Blue, and Green Spelling Cards use all the same words that are in the Pink, Blue, and Green Series but in a way that insures that no words are skipped and that words are approached in order of difficulty. If you have another way of doing that, that’s great. I’m sure there are several approaches that still stick to the Pink, Blue, and Green Series pattern.

    Still, might you have to agree that children do need to learn testing skills, and that there are not Montessori materials to teach things like that? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

    My aim in this post was definitely not to encourage parents and teachers to rely on worksheets (as I mentioned early on, I have seen Montessori schools that do that and it’s disastrous). The Montessori materials are fantastic and teach in a hands-on way that no worksheet can duplicate.

    My thoughts were more directed to skills that Montessori materials may not address – or learning styles which may benefit from more than one approach. Unfortunately, sometimes students leave a Montessori school with “gaps” because only Montessori materials are used and certain skills (like testing skills) are not learned. When a student enters public school and tests poorly despite a rich Montessori education, it reflects badly on Montessori. I would love a world where students could stay in Montessori until college and never be tested, but that does not seem to be a possibility for most children.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • ummi said at October 2nd, 2009 at 1:18 pm :

    I really commend you for writing this post!I’m a homeschooling Mother and use the Montessori method most of the time,but at the back of my mind I always worry will my children be able to cope in the ‘real’ world using ONLY the Montessori method?Circumstances change and I personally know a friend whose son had to leave a Montessori School due to financial reasons,unfortunately he was unable to cope in a state school due to the lack of hands on activities he was accustomed to and it really destroyed his confidence.
    I think it would be wonderful if we lived in a Montessori type world,but sadly it is not like that.I think the point you were trying to make is very clear,worksheets are NOT a substitute,but there could be a place for them….thank you for your open mindedness!!

  • Salena Tucker said at June 2nd, 2011 at 1:11 pm :

    Hi, I am a homeschool mother, and I am not trained in Montessori. I have an 8 year old and a 5 year old. I would love to teach the Montessori method of math to my 8 year old, who will be in 4th grade in the fall. I am wondering how the kids who are trained in Montessori math learn to transfer their skills to paper, if needed? Obviously there will be times when they need to multiply (for college entrance exams, maybe) and will not have access to a checkerboard or the golden beads. Maybe I am too accustomed to the worksheet atmosphere of ‘regular’ school. (They have only been out of school for a few months).

  • Lori Bourne said at June 2nd, 2011 at 5:02 pm :

    Hi, Salena! Montessori math is great, but there is a lot to learn because the materials are very specialized. I recommend that you get an album for math (it’s a manual of all the presentations); here are some sources: The Ultimate Post About Montessori Albums.

    There are even free online albums (linked to in that post), where you can see pictures and instructions for all the Montessori materials, including math. Also you can google the name of any math material to find out more about it.

    Actually, children are using paper & pencil in Montessori math from the very beginning – in elementary, every time they use a material (the golden beads, the bead frame), they are asked to record some of their problems and answers on paper. In that case, they are writing down the numbers, but they are still using the materials to figure out the answer.

    However, the leap from concrete to abstract starts as early as 3rd grade. They are given materials that require more abstract calculations and less help in the concrete realm. By the time they shift completely to abstract work, by 5-6th grade, they have almost no problems because they understand the “why” of what they are being asked to do, whether it is carrying, borrowing, or doing long division.

    Also, because of the concrete materials, they have a very good grasp of basic math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for numbers 1-9), which makes doing work on paper fairly easy.

    The intention is always to move away from the materials when the child is ready – long before college entrance exams 🙂

  • monica kainz said at February 28th, 2012 at 9:10 pm :

    I am so glad I read this post. I have a daughter at Wonder Montessori in Chicago (I wonder if it is the same school that you mentioned), and they rely heavily on workbooks and worksheets.

    We are almost at the end of the school year and I think she may have been given two lessons on the materials. It has gotten to a point where my daughter cries in the morning when I get her up for school, and she is in first grade. I am not ignorant of the Montessori method…I grew up in Montessori, and both my mother and brother are Montessori teachers. So this school has been a huge disappointment for me.

    It seems as if the Montessori method is being used as a selling point, only to see the actual materials gathering dust on the shelves. I was initially wary when I saw a consistent use of workbooks/worksheets, but thought that maybe I was overreacting. Reading your post made me realize that this is not appropriate for a Montessori classroom, because they are certainly not used in moderation, as you suggest! I think what upsets me most is that I specifically chose this method of education because I really believe in its ability to foster a love of learning, and it turns out to be doing the exact opposite. Your post reinforced the fact that I need to get her out of that school ASAP before it’s too late! Thanks for the info.

  • Lori Bourne said at February 28th, 2012 at 10:12 pm :

    Hi, Monica! So sorry to hear about your experience. I’ve never heard of that school and it’s not the one I refer to, but it sounds like they are making the same mistake.

    As you’ve learned, it’s very important to observe the school first (even more than once) to be sure that they are practicing Montessori and not just using the word “montessori” as a selling point.

    Just Googling your school’s name, it looks like online reviews are quite positive. However, their website says that their elementary program is done in conjunction with another Montessori school – maybe that’s where the problem lies? Also, have you talked to the head of the school about it? Perhaps they don’t know what’s going on.

    Anyway, I hope you are able to figure out a good solution!