Little and Often: An Experienced ESL Teacherís View on Homework

Little and Often
An Experienced ESL Teacherís View on Homework

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,714 views |

What’s your position on homework?

I’ve met teachers who see it as absolutely essential, and others who regard it as a complete waste of everyone’s time. I imagine you’re somewhere in the middle, as I am, but the debate over homework seems to have intensified recently. We’re hearing more and more often that standards are slipping, that students aren’t as well prepared for the big, wide world as they used to be, and that perhaps homework can help fill in these gaps. But we’re also hearing, often from very experienced professionals, that it’s time to reform our views of homework, and to consider more carefully the reasons why we assign it.

At the invitation of BusyTeacher.org I’m going to set down some opinions formed over twenty years of experience and research. You might not agree, and I welcome debate on this important topic. But something tells me it really is time to review why we assign homework, and what its purposes are supposed to be.

Let’s begin with what I believe homework actually should be:

What Homework  Is:

  1. 1

    Additional Practice

    At its most simple, homework is the extended practicing of a skill. If the student has just learned ten new words, their homework should be to use those words in sentences. If they’re studying a grammar point, then they should be engaging with that point and understanding its intricacies. Like most of learning, homework is still about getting better at something.

  2. 2

    Obviously Useful

    The student should always know why they’re doing this work, and what outcome it is supposed to achieve.

  3. 3

    Support and Consolidation for In-class learning

    Homework is not a replacement for teaching. If information can readily be gained from a book, and then studied and practiced alone (history comes to mind) then that’s one thing, but the student shouldn’t be expected to teach themselves complex topics because the teacher ran out of time, or doesn’t want to work on a certain area.

  4. 4

    Productive

    The outcome of homework should be a enhancement of a skill, and/or the development of a student’s understanding of a certain problem or point. This development should then be provable, by demonstrating a greater ability when you next meet them. I generalize, and this won’t hold true for absolutely every field, but in ESL it’s a good guideline.

  5. 5

    Timely and Relevant Preparation for the Next Class

    If you’ve assigned preparatory work (a reading, research, the writing of a presentation), make sure to get the timing right. The student should feel that the hour of their free time they spent on this has actually carried forward their learning, and that the work directly connects to what comes next.

  6. 6

    Concise, Realizable and Limited in Its Aims

    Have your students practice a language point until they’re fluent in it, and no further than that. Endless pages of easy questions are wasteful.

    I actually tell my students, “Work through exercises six and seven until you’ve got it, then stop.”

    I actually tell my students, “Work through exercises six and seven until you’ve got it, then stop.” But I expect them to demonstrate true fluency and confidence with that language point during our next class.

  7. 7

    Carefully Planned and Considered

    I wouldn’t set an exercise without having worked through it myself, first. Unless you wrote it, or can otherwise be certain of its quality and relevance, you might end up accidentally setting poorly-written questions, misleading examples, and wordy and unhelpful explanations. Much as we respect the all-powerful Text Book, they aren’t always written by flawless geniuses.

  8. 8

    Varied

    I try to mix the types of homework I set, alternating between different formats.

    • reading (with or without comprehension questions)
    • online tasks (research, news-reading)
    • book work (completing gap-fills and the like)
    • answering my own quizzes and crosswords
    • writing practice sentences
    • answering multiple-choice questions
    • producing examples
    • writing paragraphs or essays
    • preparing for in-class discussions.
  9. 9

    Sensitive to External Factors

    I feel quite strongly that teachers don’t have the right to meaninglessly occupy their students’ free time. We hate it when such requirements are imposed on us (I have that very feeling every year at around tax time) and so we should be sensitive about this. Being a student is a full-time job, for many people, but it shouldn’t be more than that. Consider your students’ workload from other classes, upcoming school or local events, holidays and other celebrations, and their mood. Piling more work on the shoulders of stressed, busy people is a recipe for under-achievement and a poor atmosphere.

Next, I’d like to spell out very clearly what I think homework is not. My hope is that you won’t recognize your own homework policies in this list, but if you do, it might be time to take a second look at how you assign homework, and why:

What Homework  Is Not:

  1. 1

    Homework Is Not a Punishment

    Assigning additional exercises for students whose performance or behavior has disappointed you is a form of bullying. Worse still, it’s a stain on the very fabric of the educational experience. It turns learning into a form of torture. Gaining new skills is a joy, and a human right. Never allow your topic or your language to be used as a behavioral correction. It is deserving of so much more.

    If you’ve got discipline problems, assigning more work is not the answer. Look at the root of the issue – most often, that your students are bored and distracted because the classroom environment and learning materials aren’t engaging enough – and deal with it at its source. There are no bad students, but there are plenty of poorly designed learning environments.

  2. 2

    Homework Should Not Be Assigned ‘Just for the Sake of It’

    We do all kinds of strange things because they’re simply traditional. Some people even have a tree chopped down and installed in their living rooms for three weeks of the year, mostly because their parents and grandparents did just that. Homework doesn’t fall into this category. It should still be purposeful and related to your students’ learning needs, and if it isn’t, then spare them this tradition and let them do something else with their free time.

  3. 3

    Homework Should Not Be Assigned Just Because Your Teachers Did So

    You might think of homework as an inalienable part of the rhythm of the educational cycle, but it need not be so. I select different days of the week for my assignments (and would certainly never set homework every day) just to avoid this kind of repetition. Besides, did you always find the homework you were set to be useful and enjoyable? I suspect not.

  4. 4

    Homework Should Not Be Assigned to Provide a Power Trip

    If you’re sitting at home in the evening, watching your favorite show, and a small part of you is thinking, “Hah! Those little blighters in my morning class aren’t watching TV now, because they’re plowing through tense conjugations from the Murphy textbook!” then you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.

    Teachers aren’t bullies. They are caring people whose work is always informed by a selfless professionalism and a genuine concern for their students’ wellbeing. If this doesn’t sound like you, then please consider your career options, because we’ve all had teachers who were angry, jaded misanthropes, and they made our lives miserable.

Think carefully about how you use your students’ free time.

Make your homework assignments relevant and concise, based on the practicing of a specific skill until it has improved, and no further. Needless homework alienates students and abuses the learning experience, which should always be as enjoyable as we can make it.

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