How important is homework? – Steven Herder

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.

Steven Herder

Error correction – Steven Herder

Over the past 23 years, I’ve taken a number of approaches to error correction, and my current ideas are pretty indicative of how my teacher beliefs have grown and been affected by my deepening understanding of motivation, learner language (or ‘interlanguage’ – the language that is somewhere between L1 and L2) and learner confidence. Before describing my own principles of error correction, I have to make the disclaimer that my approach COMPLETELY depends on the level of the students and the context in which I am teaching. So, here is what now guides me now when addressing output errors (speaking and writing):

  1. Speaking – Meaning is all-important. My students know that I’ll step in and correct when meaning is lost, too confusing or very unclear. Otherwise, I ignore small errors that don’t interfere with meaning, such as “She work_ on Sundays” or “She went to _ movie.” Language is becoming more of an international communication tool than ever before, so I choose to spend more time building fluency and confidence, than worrying about incidental errors. Of course, I tell students at the end of activities, how some people will be even more impressed with them if they can clean up the small errors!
  2. Writing – More and more, I’ve come to realize that the most meaningful time to correct GRAMMATICAL errors (as opposed to structural or organizational weaknesses) is while students are sitting at the computer typing away. I see them really “getting it” – processing, digesting and storing a learning moment when given immediate feedback while they write (elicit first, supply answer if necessary). I endlessly walk around and around the class, trying to spend equal time with all of my students as they write. When I take essays home to correct, I give written feedback much more on content, style and impact as a reader.