Homework seems to be an accepted part of teachers’ and students’ routines, but there is little mention of it in ELT literature. The role of homework is hardly mentioned in the majority of general ELT texts or training courses, suggesting that there is little question as to its value even if the resulting workload is time-consuming. However, there is clearly room for discussion of homework policies and practices particularly now that technology has made so many more resources available to learners outside the classroom.
Reasons for homework
• Homework is expected by students, teachers, parents and institutions.
• Homework reinforces and helps learners to retain information taught in the classroom as well as increasing their general understanding of the language.
• Homework develops study habits and independent learning. It also encourages learners to acquire resources such as dictionaries and grammar reference books. Research shows that homework also benefits factual knowledge, self-discipline, attitudes to learning and problem-solving skills.
• Homework offers opportunities for extensive activities in the receptive skills which there may not be time for in the classroom. It may also be an integral part of ongoing learning such as project work and the use of a graded reader.
• Homework provides continuity between lessons. It may be used to consolidate classwork, but also for preparation for the next lesson.
• Homework may be used to shift repetitive, mechanical, time consuming tasks out of the classroom
• Homework bridges the gap between school and home. Students, teachers and parents can monitor progress. The institution can involve parents in the learning process.
• Homework can be a useful assessment tool, as part of continual or portfolio assessment.
Attitudes to homework
Teachers tend to have mixed feelings about homework. While recognising the advantages, they observe negative attitudes and poor performance from students. Marking and giving useful feedback on homework can take up a large proportion of a teacher’s time, often after school hours. Students themselves complain that the homework they are given is boring or pointless, referring to homework tasks that consist of studying for tests, doing workbook exercises, finishing incomplete classwork, memorising lists of vocabulary and writing compositions. Where this is actually the case, the negative effects of homework can be observed, typified by loss of interest and a view of homework as a form of punishment. Other negative effects of poorly managed homework include lack of necessary leisure time and an increased differential between high and low achievers. These problems are often the cause of avoidance techniques such as completing homework tasks in class, collaborating and copying or simply not doing the required tasks. In turn, conflict may arise between learners, teachers, parents and the institution.
In order for homework to be effective, certain principles should be observed.
• Students should see the usefulness of homework. Teachers should explain the purpose both of homework in general and of individual tasks.
• Tasks should be relevant, interesting and varied.
• Good classroom practice also applies to homework. Tasks should be manageable but achievable.
• Different tasks may be assigned to different ability groups. Individual learning styles should be taken into account.
• Homework should be manageable in terms of time as well as level of difficulty. Teachers should remember that students are often given homework in other subjects and that there is a need for coordination to avoid overload. A homework diary, kept by the learner but checked by teachers and parents is a useful tool in this respect.
• Homework is rarely co-ordinated within the curriculum as a whole, but should at least be incorporated into an overall scheme of work and be considered in lesson planning.
• Homework tends to focus on a written product. There is no reason why this should be the case, other than that there is visible evidence that the task has been done.
• Learner involvement and motivation may be increased by encouraging students to contribute ideas for homework and possibly design their own tasks. The teacher also needs to know how much time the students have, what facilities they have at home, and what their preferences are. A simple questionnaire will provide this data.
• While homework should consolidate classwork, it should not replicate it. Home is the outside world and tasks which are nearer to real life use of language are appropriate.
• If homework is set, it must be assessed in some way, and feedback given. While marking by the teaching is sometimes necessary, peer and self-assessment can encourage earner independence as well as reducing the teacher’s workload. Motivating students to do homework is an ongoing process, and encouragement may be given by commenting and asking questions either verbally or in written form in order to demonstrate interest on the teacher’s part, particularly in the case of self-study and project work.
Types of homework
There are a number of categories of useful and practicable homework tasks.
1. Workbook-based tasks. Most published course materials include a workbook or practice book, mainly including consolidation exercises, short reading texts and an answer key. Most workbooks claim to be suitable for both class and self-study use, but are better used at home in order to achieve a separation of what is done in class and at home. Mechanical practice is thus shifted out of class hours, while this kind of exercise is particularly suited to peer or self checking and correction.
2. Preparation tasks. Rarely do teachers ask learners to read through the next unit of a coursebook, though there are advantages in involving students in the lesson plan and having them know what is coming. More motivating, however, is asking students to find and bring materials such as photographs and pictures, magazine articles and realia which are relevant to the next topic, particularly where personalisation or relevance to the local context requires adaptation of course materials.
3. Extensive tasks. Much can be gained from the use of graded readers, which now often have accompanying audio material, radio and TV broadcasts, podcasts and songs. Sometimes tasks need to be set as guidance, but learners also need to be encouraged to read listen and watch for pleasure. What is important is that learners share their experiences in class. Extensive reading and listening may be accompanied by dictionary work and a thematic or personalised vocabulary notebook, whereby learners can collect language which they feel is useful.
4. Guided discovery tasks. Whereas classroom teaching often involves eliciting language patterns and rules from learners, there is also the option of asking learners to notice language and make deductions for themselves at home. This leads to the sharing of knowledge and even peer teaching in the classroom.
5. Real-world tasks. These involve seeing, hearing and putting language to use in realistic contexts. Reading magazines, watching TV, going to the cinema and listening to songs are obvious examples, offering the option of writing summaries and reviews as follow-up activities. Technology facilitates chat and friendship networks, while even in monolingual environments, walking down a shopping street noticing shop and brand names will reveal a lot of language. As with extensive tasks, it is important for learners to share there experiences, and perhaps to collect them in a formal or informal portfolio.
6. Project work. It is a good idea to have a class or individual projects running over a period of time. Projects may be based on topics from a coursebook, the locality, interests and hobbies or selected individually. Project work needs to be guided in terms of where to find resources and monitored regularly, the outcome being a substantial piece of work at end of a course or term of which the learner can claim ownership.
Finally, a word about the Internet. The Web appears to offer a wealth of opportunity for self-study. Certainly reference resources make project work easier and more enjoyable, but cutting and pasting can also be seen as an easy option, requiring little originality or understanding. Conferring over homework tasks by email can be positive or negative, though chatting with an English speaking friend is to be encouraged, as is searching for visual materials. Both teachers and learners are guilty of trawling the Net for practice exercises, some of which are untried, untested and dubious in terms of quality. Learners need guidance, and a starting point is to provide a short list of reliable sites such as British Council ‘learnenglish’ and BBC ‘Learning English’ which provide a huge variety of exercises and activities as well as links to other reliable sources.
Cooper, H. Synthesis of Research on Homework. Educational Leadership 47/3, 1989
North, S. & Pillay, H. Homework: re-examining the routine. ELT Journal 56/2, April 2002
Painter, L. Homework. English Teaching Professional, Issue 10, 1999
Painter, L. Homework. OUP Resource Books for Teachers, 2003
first published 24 October 2007 http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/homework