Two or three hours of English is just not enough. Even studying in a classroom for several hours a day, you’re unlikely to achieve a high level if you do nothing in between.
As Leo van Lier put it, ‘The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen’.
Maybe what happens between lessons is as important – or more important – than what happens in them. Think of the classroom as a kind of ‘pit stop’ where learners come in to be re-fuelled and change their tyres. The real action is happening outside.
But I don’t like to call it ‘homework’. To me it’s more like ‘out-of-class work’. Or ‘between-class’ work. Confining it to the home is to limit it unnecessarily (not to mention all the negative connotations that are associated with the term ‘homework’). We need to take homework out into the street.
Literally. There is English everywhere and every learner have some means of collecting it, whether camera, cell phone or just pen and paper. Even if each student captures just one piece of English – that’s 20 potential topics for discussion (in a class of 20).
Here is some of the English I collected today in my ‘barrio’ in Barcelona, in just 20 minutes on the way to the gym.
OK, Barcelona is a fairly touristy town, but there’s English in the most unlikely places.
Some of it is just words, some phrases, and some whole sentences. Some is translated. Some is not. But it all sends a message. It’s part of the linguistic landscape, and it’s a great source of discussion and research, when your learners bring it back to the classroom. Here are some questions you could have them discuss:
- Where was this photo taken?
- How many languages can you see?
- Who wrote it? For whom?
- Why is (some of it) in English?
- Is there a translation? Why/why not?
- Is it correct?
- Is there anything you don’t understand?
- Is there anything you would like to remember?
Important homework is important. “Make-work” homework is evil. Workbook homework is too often mind-numbingly boring, and therefore not useful. Too much homework is cruel. Assigning the same homework for everyone makes sense for about 25% of the class, and therefore, is a waste of time for 75% of the class.
I’ve been battling what to do about homework for most of my teaching career. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and never quite making it happen. I am very often disappointed with homework by the end of each school year – both what they do for my classes as well as what I see them doing for other classes. Undaunted, I am about to try another new idea from the new
school year in April.
Of course, the key to success is determining what is important with homework. Rather than trying to figure that out myself, I am finally ready to hand that task over to the students. This idea dovetails with my belief in promoting learner autonomy (learning how to learn) and it also supports my belief that students must be engaged in their homework in order for it to have any meaning at all. By giving them joint custody of their homework assignments, I’m hoping that will increase their emotional commitment and their efforts.
My plan is to present the idea that everyone has her own strength and weakness in English. For some it is one of the input skills (reading and listening); for others one of the output skills of speaking and writing might be weaker or stronger. First, they must decide their approach. Do they want to improve a weak area, or do they want to strengthen a natural talent they possess? Both are valid choices, and they are welcome to make changes along the way.
I plan to ask for diary entries that I can confirm in less than a minute by walking around at the beginning of class. I would also assign one student each lesson to give a one-minute report about her homework in front of the whole class. As far as the content of the homework, there are no rules: it can be academically oriented, focused on vocabulary, one of the 4 skills, Western music, TV dramas, etc. I’ll accept anything if they can explain why they are investing time in it.
What do you think? I would love to hear some success stories about homework.
Try to picture this: you have just got home after a very satisfactory lesson (no matter what that was) and you are now ready to put your feet up, listen to some music or socialize. Out of the blue, a dreadful thought springs to mind; you have to do your HOMEWORK! It is a time of sheer sacrifice of all the wonderful things you wanted to do instead, which makes indignation drum into your head.
That scene has been described by the parents of certain children I teach, the latter being perfectly happy with the lesson, but totally reluctant to do any work at home. This is why I have decided to highlight the importance of continuing to study outside the classroom not only in every parents’ meeting I organize, but also in discussions I have with the students themselves.
Great benefits can be derived in doing a reasonable amount of homework. As long as it is related to classroom work in a moderately demanding and stimulating way, it can allow students to:
- Consolidate grammar, vocabulary and complex concepts. A case in point is my latest lesson with an advanced adult group that was about tolerance, prejudices and subconscious discriminatory behaviour; phenomena that cannot be entirely digested unless they are given serious thought in private space.
- Be creative. Homework can be combined with imaginative drawings or even arts and crafts, and creative written expression that can be cultivated through it as well.
- Understand that learning does not stop in the classroom. True learning is not only about attending a lesson; the primary aim of every learner should be to constantly try to build on previously acquired knowledge in any way they desire, such as listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video in the foreign language.
- Choose which extra activity they want to do – one that suits their tastes or needs. More specifically, teachers can allocate obligatory and optional homework. My experience has shown that, more often than not, students do both. They willingly decide to carry out the additional ‘mission’ simply because they are under no obligation to do so.
Even if all the above does not convince students to do their homework, all of you readers of the iTDI blog did not fail to do yours; that is, read all thought provoking texts on this blog and make a further step towards becoming the teacher you are, as Chuck Sandy says. I am deeply grateful for your time and I certainly welcome any comments you may wish to leave underneath.
I believe that homework is the most important part of a language lesson. Yet, it is one of the most poorly utilised elements of a language class. We should give it a lot more importance and make sure it is relevant. In fact, I the question should not be whether homework is important but what homework is. If we approach the question from the traditional input-led classroom perspective, that is we perceive homework as simply an assignment given by the teacher to the student to complete between one lesson and the next, I come down very hard on the “not at all important, abolish it as soon as radically possible” side. If, on the other hand, we look at homework as an opportunity for students to investigate ways in which the information, knowledge or content derived from the classroom can be internalised, expanded and personalised by the student, I am very much in favour of it. Homework of this kind provides opportunities for students in the form of tasks, ideas and challenges they can freely engage with in their own time, at the best of their abilities, and to the depth they deem necessary or relevant.
Giving an assignment like “Write 12 sentences on dinosaurs” (because contemporary coursebooks seem to have a love relationship with dinos, and that’s the unit we have just completed), is a complete waste of time. If some kids like the topic, they should be encouraged and supported in their research, but for those who are not in the least interested in animals long dead, I see no reason why they should be forced to Wikipedia 12 sentences and submit them just so that they can tick the box and move on to another subject. That’s meaningless.
Homework is not about kids going home and doing something on their own. It could also be about learning how to collaborate and share ideas. Therefore, homework does not always have to be in English, for English or about English, really. If an exercise is designed to have a meaningful learning outcome such has learning how to work better together or use a new tool collaboratively, the language can come later. Everything can feed into language practice, even if it is not done in English from the beginning. For instance, if as part of their homework I have kids get together after school to take photographs of interesting places and people they pass by, I would not ask them to speak English during this stage. The value of the exercise lies elsewhere. They can turn the experience they had with the camera on the streets into a language-learning outcome by later using what they produced in a meaningful, relevant and interesting setting into descriptions or a presentation or something. That would be good and in fact it’s all good — not just the practicing language part.
I recently asked my students what they think about homework and how effective it can be. The result was a lovely informal discussion and lots of great ideas. After all, homework (as part of learning and life) should be about students and not about me as a teacher. One of my students said:
“Every homework that is not done is a bad one.”
No matter how harsh it may seem, I do agree with him. Just think about it. If a student doesn’t do homework, it is probably boring, irrelevant or too difficult and frustrating.
As a teacher I have inspiration and encouragement as my main goal and so it means I can’t make my lessons fun and exciting and then give my students boring routine homework to fill in and hand me back next time. Learning is a natural, life-long process and most of it happens outside the classroom and that’s why I think homework is important if it is interesting, meets students’ expectations and needs and is even better when students don’t even think about it as homework they have to do.
Thinking of homework I keep in mind:
- there is a life outside the classroom walls – do not separate it from learning
- build on students’ background and prior knowledge
- include their personality
- make them curious
- homework can’t be a burden for anyone (students, teachers or parents!)
And maybe a little more advice from me: Do not give homework and then ignore the efforts your students have made. That’s the first thing. Then there’s this: the next time you are about to announce the homework, be creative and avoid using the word itself. Don’t say the word homework. Instead how about saying “I am curious to know what your story is…?” or “Do you think you could find that and share it with us next time?” If you do this, then it’s not homework. It’s just learning.