I have some very strong opinions on workstations and I know not everyone agrees. I think they are invaluable not only in allowing the kids to practice their skills while I work with small groups; but it also keeps learning fun-they are still able to move around, talk quietly to each other about what they are learning. A few thoughts:
1) I believe workstations are for practice. They should be hands-on, not worksheets. Serena and Venus don't keep score when they practice off the ball machine-it's just practice. Now I know your question, how do we know they are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing? We monitor from where we are in small groups. I can see Johnny is spinning the lid to the letter tiles around on his finger and not making words-and I can go redirect him. I also have them work in pairs, that way usually they can keep each other in check. Expectations are also made very clear, the task is modeled many, many times before I put it out as a station. And honestly, if Johnny and Mary decide they are going to sort the letters by color instead of alphabetical order, guess what, they are still talking about the letters!
2) You don't have to spend a lot of money at Lakeshore on pre-packaged resources (I do that from time to time when I see something I love that I know I can't replicate or don't have the time to). But you can be creative in what you use. I completely embarrassed a friend of mine recently by getting super-excited to see the Indiana Jones Life game on sale at Target. Am I an Indy fan, absolutely not-but the game board was perfect-blank spaces, a spinner that's attached. I know I can use it to make a station. (People outside of education just don't understand :). Here are a few examples:
Remember Toss Across?! I found these at TJ Maxx several years ago and new I could make them into a station (probably the only person in the world who goes to the games section 1st at that store-but they often have some good deals). The kids throw the bean bags and try to find 3 in a row-the top one is money amounts and the bottom one is synonyms.
Candyland-this one is for consonant blends, but I've also done vowel sounds. I just put magazine pics on the cards and write the letters in the empty spaces.
Picnic words-our housekeeping food matched to paper plates with that word on it.
Connect Four-alphabet stickers (from the dollar store) on the checkers-took me about 5 minutes to make this game. The students make words horizontally and vertically-very challenging!
3) Stations should be differentiated. I've tried many different ways to do this; it really depends on the group of kiddos you have. I put 3 different tasks in one station and allow the kids to choose what they want to do or start with the easiest and work their way up. I have also assigned them to one of 3 groups and they know what the "red" group, for example, needs to work on. If it's the alphabet station-the lowest group might be matching lower case/upper case, the middle might be putting the letters in alphabetical order, the highest might be putting words in alphabetical order.
Different options for the different groups in spelling using our patterns icon.