7 ways to create meaningful English homework
Homework. The bane of student life everywhere. And teachers too! Won’t someone please think of the teachers?
It has been one of the hottest raging debates among progressives and traditionalists in education circles for many years now; is homework a help or a hindrance?
There are undoubtedly millions of student-hours per year wasted on busy work that adds little to student learning. But, that doesn’t mean that the judicious use of homework can’t add greatly to student learning; particularly in an area as complex as literacy.
When it comes to reading and writing homework, there are good points to be made on both sides. But, as with many hot button issues, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
In this article we will look at what we need to consider when we set homework to ensure it provides value to our students’ learning. We will look at what to do, what not to do, and just how much of it to do.
TIP 1: Bin the Busy Work!
Ask your average student what their pet peeve is regarding their current station in life, and more often than not, homework will mentioned in the reply. It is just as much a fixture in the life of a student as an oven is in the life of a baker. Unfortunately, as many of students robotically complete their homework as teachers that robotically set the tasks. And here lies our first problem - busy work!
Homework should ALWAYS be focused. It should be carefully designed and purposeful. Without clear objectives built in, the homework serves little to no pedagogical purpose. It is more likely to be a waste of the student’s time and the time of teacher who is doomed to mark it.
The first rule of Homework Club is Bin the Busy Work!
TIP 2: Make The Homework Fit for Purpose
It may seem obvious, but homework must be suited to the ability of the student. How often have diligent students pulled their hair out struggling over a problem all night, press-ganging parents into the effort, only to be soundly trounced by a problem Einstein himself would need his morning coffee before attempting.
Avoid setting a homework that will stretch the student to the elastic limits of their abilities. We don’t want anyone ‘snapping’ here. The material chosen for a reading or writing homework should, however, challenge the student to some degree. Just as with strength training, some resistance is required to build ‘muscle’ here.
As in Rule #1 above, homework should be carefully designed to achieve a certain objective. But, one size most certainly doesn’t fit all. Be sure to differentiate homework appropriately for the different abilities of different students. Often, you won’t need to set different tasks, a slight tweak in the instructions given will be enough to make it suitable for the various ability levels.
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TIP 3: Set Time Limits
We all have both good days and bad days, and all sorts of days in between. Regardless of what sort of day you had, one thing is for sure, there were 24 hours in it. One of the more difficult things as a teacher, especially in a school with a vague homework policy, is just how much homework to set. The answer is, of course, it depends, and while time is certainly an imperfect means of gauging this, it at least provides some guidelines.
Just how much time depends on quite a few things. The time of year, for example. If exams are ongoing, you may want to avoid heaping extra pressure on your students. Perhaps too, your school has a very prescriptive homework policy that restricts your flexibility in terms of how much time you can set for homework tasks.
All that aside, the general wisdom on setting homework is that it should start at around 10 minutes for grade 1 and gradually increase by around ten minutes per grade, up to a maximum of 2 hours per day for the oldest students.
Like most things in teaching however, this is more of an art than a cold, hard science. Pay attention to your students and how they are bearing up under the workload. Your priority here should always be to maximize the learning done in the classroom, so don’t overdo it.
TIP 4: Give Timely Feedback
For feedback to be useful, it must be timely. If a student has spent hours composing an essay; researching their material, drafting an outline, organising their structure, writing and rewriting to submit their finished piece only to be told 4 weeks later that the third paragraph lacks purpose, the third paragraph will not be the only thing that lacks purpose.
If feedback is to be of any value, you must strike while the mental forge is still hot. Our students’ lives are most likely busy and interesting. Often their focus will be transient, if not downright fickle. If you want your feedback to stick - it must be delivered while the smoke still hangs in the air.
TIP 5: Get Creative with the Tasks
Many of our students hate homework. Perhaps ‘despise’ would be a better word. And is it any wonder? Especially when it comes to reading and writing. Learning to read and write well requires lots of practice, and a certain amount of repetition is inescapable. But, I would argue, there should be no reason for homework to be boring. There isn’t a more wondrous subject in the world than literacy, after all!
Reading and writing are very broad areas of learning. Ample opportunities are afforded to allow you to come up with engaging and creative ways for your students to reinforce their learning. You just need to begin with your learning objective and reverse engineer unique ways to get there.
Let’s take instruction writing as an example. Say you have already taught the key criteria of instruction writing: a title, a resource list, some diagrams with captions, bullet or numbered points, use of transition words and imperatives etc. You now want the students to consolidate their understanding of the genre by writing their own set of instructions at home, but how to do it in an interesting fashion?
Well, let’s brainstorm and see if we can’t make things a little more interesting for our students. Recipes are a type of instruction writing. You could set them the task of writing a recipe for their favorite sandwich, but that’s kind of, well, lame!
How about writing a recipe for the most disgusting sandwich in the world? Yes, now that’s much better. Maybe they could word process it too and include Creative Commons images to support the text, Or, they could even make a script and record a video instructional, sharpening up their video-editing skills along the way.
Regardless of which of these methods you choose, your students would still be fulfilling the original objective of reinforcing their understanding of the criteria of the genre.
Bear in mind however, you should not set a homework that requires students to use resources that they don’t have access to, so be sure to give this due consideration when getting creative with your homework tasks.
TIP 6: Leverage Interest
“You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, as the old saying goes - and it certainly applies to homework.
This rule relies heavily on the relationship you build with your students over time. Allied to the point above, there are a million different ways to teach an objective, but try to engineer activities that leverage the specific interests of your students.
If you are setting a homework task to reinforce reading comprehension skills, for example, are there opportunities for you to select, or allow your students to select, material that they are interested in?
The same applies when selecting topics for writing. Where student interest is engaged, learning often becomes effortless.
TIP 7: Give Homework At The Start of the Lesson
It is general practice to give homework at the end of the lesson. By then, you will have introduced a lesson objective, worked through some examples during class, and now you can set a homework for the students to further consolidate their understanding at home.
It makes sense, right? Well, yes, but there is another option.
Sharing what the homework task with your students at the start of class may, at times, be preferable. There are several benefits to this. Often, at the end of class our students are worn out. They are like greyhounds at the starting gate, raring to go home, to the next class, or for lunch. The last place their attention is is on more of the topic they have just been working on. Setting homework at the start of the class avoids that feeling like you are trying to heard cats at the end of class.
Another strong benefit to setting the homework at the start of the class is that it focuses the students on specific learning goals for the lesson to come. Students will be motivated to engage more with their learning as it will make their homework much easier to do that evening. Give it a go with your class and see!
Homework should be used as a means of consolidating learning done in the classroom. Tasks should be focused and offer opportunities for students to improve their understanding of important concepts or develop specific skills.
Homework should be designed in such a way that it is manageable by students. It should not be beyond the limits of their abilities and time limits should be set to prevent student frustration boiling over if they struggle to complete it.
Feedback needs to given in a timely fashion for it to serve any useful purpose. This means that consideration must be given to your workload when assigning homework. Will you have enough time to mark the students’ work and provide the necessary feedback in a timely manner?
If not, reconsider the tasks you are setting. Remember, you may also find value in peer assessment activities too.
Also, try setting homeworks at the start of class to motivate student participation in the lesson to come. And, you’ll avoid that tussle at lesson’s end as the students rush for the door!
Literacy is such a fascinating subject area that there will always be room to create interesting homework tasks. You just require a little space to allow your imagination to run freely. The personal interests of your students can provide a great starting point for the creation of engaging and fun homework tasks.
Remember too, there’s an upper limit to how much homework you should set, and it may not always be necessary to set homework. When you do set homework, set it judiciously, and you will undoubtedly add to the learning experience of your students.
Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years teaching and administration experience. Editing and support content has been provided by the literacyideas team.