Homework: Is it useful, and can we make it any better?

‘…language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency. If the lessons – whether they are once a week, once a day, or more frequent than that – are the only occasions on which students are engaged with the language, progress will either not occur or be exceedingly slow. The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen”

van Lier, 1996

Cambridge indicates the number of guided study hours a student might need to move from one CEFR level to another. They argue that an average B1 student would need around 150+ hours of guided study to reach the ‘next level’. Here in Spain, that guided study often takes the form of a year-long or shorter intensive course at an extracurricular English academy. For example, a teenager studying for their B2 exam would receive around 90 hours of class time in the year, and might well take a short intensive course just before their exam date. Total: 120 hours since B1.

How do we get the other 30+ hours needed? We give them homework.

To explain why I think this myth is worth debunking, we can look at an academy staffroom fifteen minutes before starting a day’s classes. A teacher rushes in, looking rather flummoxed:

“I need some homework for them! There’s nothing good in the book!”

The teacher searches frantically, picking up random books and flicking through them, shaking their head. After several seconds (which feel like minutes to the teacher, their class waiting at the door), a lightbulb goes on.

“Ahah! That’ll do!”

As we leave the teacher to dash to the photocopier (praying nobody got there first, not least that one who has no idea how it works), we should dissect the criteria they used to choose the homework tasks. If it practises the target language/offers skills practice, and ticks the homework box for that class, then it’ll do. It might be valuable stuff, it might be time filler, but at least it keeps the academy/parents happy by making sure the kids get daily homework.

Homework seems to be ubiquitous with any formal type of learning, and there seems to be a whole tonne of expectation that this continues to be true. Schools use it as a way of ensuring (and assessing) progress and language development and teachers (sometimes) use it to consolidate learning or pass off monotonous and time-consuming tasks to the home. Parents expect it, but in equal measure are wary of it. In a previous DoS life, I’ve seen first-hand the frustration on parents’ faces when their child’s academy teacher isn’t giving regular homework, but it’s also hard to ignore the fact that many of their children are snowed under with exercise after exercise from school. How valuable is homework for the students, who are the reason we do all of this after all? If the homework task develops productive skills like writing, offers a chance to develop real-world listening techniques, or genuine collaboration and communication, then it’s probably very valuable. Is this the type of homework you regularly set them?

What are people saying about homework?

If these are some of the things that people are saying about homework, then great. They show that whilst we’ve got some things to improve, there’s probably a consensus that the right kind of homework can be valuable, as it potentially…

  • Offers a chance to consolidate learning and practice the language
  • Helps the learner become more confident at communicating and using the language
  • Develops skills for working autonomously, which is a key aspect of ongoing success in learning.

Plan your homework activities as you would any other activity for your class. Think about the dynamics of each activity, what they practice, and if they a good use of your students’ time.

These two exercises are taken from an A2-level workbook sample (the one typically reserved for homework tasks). Activity 3 is quite a good grammar revision task and is cognitively challenging to boot. The one on the left is much more dubious. The learner could easily rush through it without much care, and giving just two options leaves a higher chance that guesswork will prevail. Look at it more closely, and you can predict the types of arguments students will make for the wrong answer:

I find jeans more comfortable.

I find jeans the most comfortable (clothes to wear).

But my DoS says I have to finish the whole workbook, or else the parents will complain!

This is a common refrain from senior teachers and directors. It’s a result of that time a couple of years ago when the teacher in Room 3 didn’t believe in homework and never set anything. It doesn’t mean that you need to set every last page as homework. Instead, when you start a new unit of the coursebook, take a few minutes to plan out how you can use the workbook. Which activities:

  • Can you use as extra practice for weaker leaners?
  • Are good options for fast finishers?
  • Would make a nice warmer later in the week/term?
  • Could you save for that revision class before the end-of-term exam?
  • Just aren’t great exercises?

I usually post the answers on our class Google Drive (workbook and coursebook) when we’ve finished a unit. I know that some of my students have used their time to complete everything in the workbook and like to get the answers, and others will use it later as a revision tool. I’m fully aware that there are students who aren’t doing this at all. You can lead a horse to water, and all of that. If you’re using the workbook as fully as possible, then what’s the bother?

What alternatives are there?

There’s often a tendency for teachers (especially those with exam classes and bulky textbooks) to fear big reading and writing tasks since they eat up too much class time. I’ve argued elsewhere that writing belongs in the classroom, but eventually you’re going to set them longer pieces of writing homework to develop their skills outside of class.

Use Padlet to make writing (or any other task) more collaborative.

Put students in groups during class, and spend some time planning the writing task and dividing up responsibilities. You just set up a Padlet with columns labelled for each group. In the time between lessons, or over a week, students collaboratively write their task together on the Padlet. As a follow-up, you can ask other people in the class to peer-review the work by adding comments below each paragraph.

This type of task has numerous benefits. By turning the writing into a group task, the homework becomes both less daunting and more enjoyable. Peer reviewing works especially well (you need to give your learners clear parameters for providing feedback), and this type of group work between classes will again help to make your learners more autonomous.

USe edpuzzle to set video tasks

Edpuzzle is a great (and free!) web app which lets you set videos as homework. After creating your account, you search for a video (or upload your own) and then create multiple-choice or open-ended questions at different stages for the video. Creating the exercise for Bushfire Kids took me ten minutes, and the benefits of this exercise for students makes it a worthy use of our time. There’s a huge range of exercises and videos already on the platform as well, and you can link your account to Google Classroom or set up class groups on the app. 

What about blending your learning?
<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">It’s interesting how many teachers (myself included) would have turned our noses up at blended learning a few years (or even months) ago, but now it’s becoming part of our toolkits. If our aim with homework is to build autonomy as well as allow for language practice, then this might be the strongest option. Of the three alternatives, this is the one that takes the most commitment to get going. First you need to find the way you’re going to get students to do things online. It could be an LMS or a Google Classroom, or for interacting online perhaps Telegram or Slack could work well. Then you need to get students logged on successfully, and set them some ice-breaker tasks to start the interaction going. When they are engaged and interacting, you can start introducing online interaction activities. Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield go into some detail about different options in this video.It’s interesting how many teachers (myself included) would have turned our noses up at blended learning a few years (or even months) ago, but now it’s becoming part of our toolkits. If our aim with homework is to build autonomy as well as allow for language practice, then this might be the strongest option. Of the three alternatives, this is the one that takes the most commitment to get going. First you need to find the way you’re going to get students to do things online. It could be an LMS or a Google Classroom, or for interacting online perhaps Telegram or Slack could work well. Then you need to get students logged on successfully, and set them some ice-breaker tasks to start the interaction going. When they are engaged and interacting, you can start introducing online interaction activities. Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield go into some detail about different options in this video.

Some final thoughts

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">As we move into 2021, there’s a lot on our plate as ELT professionals. This past year has challenged us all in significant and varied ways. Teachers, managers, and owners alike are still figuring out how to adapt our profession to fit the ‘new normal’. As I write this there seems to be some hope that in 12 months we might be looking at a rosier future. Until March 2020 we might have been tempted to argue against change. ‘This’ is the way things are done, we might say. We have seen, though, that we can do things in more creative ways. ELT is better connected, training is easier to come by, and we are more open to change. Let’s keep that openness with us. Homework will probably always be a thorn in our side, but that doesn’t mean that we have to keep giving the same pages (and pages) of exercises. The next time you’re planning a class, plan your homework too.As we move into 2021, there’s a lot on our plate as ELT professionals. This past year has challenged us all in significant and varied ways. Teachers, managers, and owners alike are still figuring out how to adapt our profession to fit the ‘new normal’. As I write this there seems to be some hope that in 12 months we might be looking at a rosier future. Until March 2020 we might have been tempted to argue against change. ‘This’ is the way things are done, we might say. We have seen, though, that we can do things in more creative ways. ELT is better connected, training is easier to come by, and we are more open to change. Let’s keep that openness with us. Homework will probably always be a thorn in our side, but that doesn’t mean that we have to keep giving the same pages (and pages) of exercises. The next time you’re planning a class, plan your homework too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.