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How can we make homework an effective tool for language learning?

Copyright © Johanna Stirling 2000

Introduction

"Right, for homework I'd like you to do exercises 1 to 4 and give it to me tomorrow".

Is there anything wrong with this type of homework instruction? This paper explores the value of homework per se from both the teacher's and students' point of view. We will ask if homework is a useful part of our students' English training and if so, how we can deal with it most effectively. We need to consider the amount and different types of homework that we give and what preparation students need in class before they tackle tasks at home? Then we will move on to think about how students actually do their homework and whether this matters. Then there is the thorny question of marking - who does it, how and what students do with work that has been marked.There will be included results of a survey conducted by my students in which they interviewed other learners in the Norwich Bell School about their habits and attitudes to homework.1 This paper will not include self-access, that is students doing extra study "off their own bat", only tasks set by the teacher. The report is structured as follows:

Value of homework

How much, how often?

Types of homework

Setting homework

How students do their homework

Marking/Correcting

Conclusions

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

 

Value of homework

Why do we as teachers give homework? Some reasons that have occurred to me are:

  • Preparation for next class

  • Revision of work done in that day's or previous classes

  • Consolidation and practice of work done in that day's class

  • Extension of language knowledge

  • Further skills practice

  • Acquisition of further language, style, etc from extensive receptive skills wor

  • Finishing off work started in class or to save class time for more communicative activities

  • To allow students to work at their own pace.

  • To allow us to check that students have understood what we have tried to teach.

  • As a diagnostic tool to identify gaps in students’ knowledge.

I am sure this list is not exhaustive.

Now, what about students? What do they see as the value of homework? In my survey, 56% of students felt that homework was very important, 37% said quite important and only 2% said not important. This confirms a feeling I have as a teacher that although students often groan when homework is set, they secretly like it or perhaps they just see it as a necessary evil.

The most common reasons that students gave for its value were the opportunities for revision and practice of what they had been taught that day. Some felt that they would not study outside class unless homework was set and others appreciated being able to work at their own speed. Somebody pointed out that they understood more when they studied by themselves and another student said it was a useful way to find out your own weaknesses. Other reasons given were more independence, a chance for your teacher to check if you have understood the lesson, extra hours for studying and the only time to really memorise vocabulary.

Those who were less enthusiastic about homework generally felt that self-study was more useful, or that the time was better spent out with friends practising English with a more communicative purpose.

I have been unable to find any research about the value of homework. However we can see many reasons for giving it and in general students seem to feel it is necessary, so I see no benefit in omitting it from our learners' programmes of study. The students' comments about self-study and using the time for socialising in English are extremely valid ones, but as long as there is not too much homework set, there should still be time for this.One possibility is to make some homework optional for those students who can make a case for using the time in a more profitable way.

How much, how often?

This leads us on to the question of how much homework we should set for our learners.According to my survey most students (72%) felt that they should spend 20 to 60 minutes a day on homework. When asked how much time they actually spent on doing it, most students said between 20 minutes and two hours. A straw poll of teachers in the Norwich staff room suggested that most also thought up to one hour of homework should be set for each night, to allow time for self study too.

Either the teacher can just decide how much homework she2 wants the students to do, perhaps taking into account the figures above and in the survey, or she can negotiate with the class.Some teachers agree a type of contract with their students which includes the amount of time to be spent on homework.It may be useful for students to note on their homework how long they have spent on it.When setting homework it is important for teachers to think about the students' overall load for the day, that is how much work they are to get from other teachers too.One way to deal with this is to agree which teachers will give homework on particular days.Or a more flexible approach is to tell students that if they feel they have been given too much homework to negotiate as a class with a teacher so that some of it can be handed in later.

This leads us onto the question of whether homework should always be compulsory. We are after all teaching adults who must take the responsibility for their own learning.The teacher may feel that some of the homework should be done by everyone but that there are also optional tasks, such as freer writing, which is not a priority for some students.Or the students may be given choice about what they do; an instruction my be "Do three exercises from unit 5 of the work book that you think are most useful for you."

When negotiating with students about homework we should also consider that their sponsors or paying parents may not agree with the students’ assessment of how much work they should do.

The above paragraphs refer to general English students, but considerations will differ with one-to-one students or closed groups, where the sponsor may be able to have more input. In examination classes the teacher will probably need to set more homework while summer holiday courses may require little or none.

Types of homework

What types of homework can we give students to do? Here is a list of some:

  • Exercises from the workbook or from grammar or vocabulary books.
  • Controlled writing, using a model or strict guidelines.
  • Free writing e.g. Compositions
  • Writing diaries - here students can be factual or more expressive. Barton and Walton3 suggest that we “leave a space for both creativity and lack of creativity”.
  • Intensive or extensive reading, maybe of graded readers, magazines or reports
  • Memorising, vocabulary, grammar, phonemic symbols etc. for a test
  • Listening. This could involve students taking EFL tapes home (though we must abide by copyright law if copying tapes for them). Or the listening could be from the media: soaps, news, programmes that interest them etc (though we must be aware that students living with host families may not be able to choose what they watch on TV). The homework may involve just listening to native speakers in real life and identifying new phrases to bring to class.
  • Speaking. This could take the form of interviewing somebody or chatting more informally to them about a subject. Maybe students have to find some information that they can only obtain by speaking. The task may be to try to use a certain recently-learnt phrase in a real-life situation and then report back on whether it was understood, what the context was, etc. The students may be asked to audio tape their conversations.
  • Project work – this could involve any of the skills.
  • Preparing oral presentations.
  • Organising classwork notes or vocabulary records.

So homework can take many forms beyond the traditional gap-filling type of exercises. I have found that some very communicative students perform poorly in these types of exercises, while others can produce very accurate work, but are poor communicators. A wide variety of homework types seems the best answer. We should consider carefully whether homework tasks should be contextualised and communicative or if we should be asking the learners to work on one discrete area, rather like doing reps in the gym, working one muscle at a time. Again, a balance is desirable

Setting homework

How can we make sure that students are fully prepared for the homework we have asked them to do? Here are some suggestions

  • Write instructions for homework on the board.
  • Write instructions on an A3 sheet drawn up as a table on the wall – like a timetable that students can refer to.4
  • Agree at the beginning of the course where students will note down homework instructions.
  • Prepare students for the work. For example, if you want them to do a particular type of writing it would be useful for them to see a model first or have input on structure or relevant discourse markers.
  • Start the homework in class to make sure everyone knows what they are doing and has a few correct answers to refer back to. This safety element can be reduced as the course goes on.
  • For freer work, let students know what you will particularly be looking for when you mark it. You could say “Impress me with your use of ... (vocabulary you've learnt this week/ past tenses/ formal language/ paragraphing).
  • Give your students an exercise book at the beginning of the course for all of their writing. They could write diaries starting from the front and other written work from the back. Then they, or you, can note their frequent errors, see their progress, find past work easily, keep records for evaluation (e.g. for report writing) without extra paperwork on your part.

How students do their homework

Thinking about how learners actually do their homework may make us think more about the homework we give and what we expect from it. My survey suggested that most of the students usually worked alone in their bedrooms in the evenings. A smaller number worked in the study centre after school. When asked if they got any help with their homework, 67% said they did not. Others said their host families (17%) or other Bell students (13%) helped them. Should we actively encourage collaborative homework? This allows opportunity for more communication, may help consolidate learning and is often more enjoyable, but it is not always easy for students to get together.

This leads us to the question of cheating. There is a fine line between working collaboratively and copying from another student, and encouraging one may be seen to sanction the other. The workbook key also seems to be another great temptation. Why do learners cheat though? It could be that the work is too difficult for them, that they do not know what to do, that they want to impress their teacher with good answers, that they do not have time or just that they are lazy. Very often the teacher can tell if a student has cheated, but does it really matter and what can she do about it? She can let student know she knows and try to establish who copied from whom. Then she could explain the value of collaborative work but that if this is how the students have worked they should make it clear. She may like to ask the students some questions to make sure they have both understood and so they know they may be quizzed in future.

Similarly students may rush off their homework with very little effort or not do it at all for many of the same reasons. They need to be shown how important homework is and to feel that their work has been taken seriously. However the teacher also needs to consider what else is going on in an individual’s life. Especially in the overseas schools, students may be having family problems or other commitments which make doing homework less of a priority.

Marking/correcting

So the students have done their homework. What now? The obvious answer is that the teacher collects and marks it , but how does she mark it and what are the alternatives to this?

Teacher collects and marks

Teacher corrects every mistake. This is what many students say they prefer but where is the value in this unless the learner very conscientiously goes over all the errors, studies why he made them and learns from this? Most students glance at the returned work, notice a great deal of red pen and put the homework away feeling rather despondent. Colour coding could be used here, e.g. red for serious mistakes and green for less important ones, or purple for mistakes the teacher corrects and yellow for those that the student should self-correct, in order to promote self-assessment. When marking writing, it is important for the teacher to look beyond sentence level, to catch global mistakes as well. This method tends to exclude this kind of “holistic” assessment. It may also fail to include praise.

Teacher corrects some mistakes.

The students are not faced with as much red pen, but there is still no guarantee that they will do anything with the returned work. If only some mistakes are corrected students may think that the rest is perfect, unless you state what you have marked it for. It is often a good idea to tell students when you set homework what you will be concentrating on when you mark it – see the “Impress me with….” idea above. Or in tutorials you could agree with individuals on their most common written mistakes, write these on the inside cover of their writing books and mark only for those (of course they will need reviewing regularly).

Teacher highlights errors but does not correct them.

The students then need to be given time to try to correct their work themselves and to resubmit it. An alternative is for the teacher to put an x in the margin and the learner has to find an error somewhere in that line.

Teacher uses correction code.

The teacher uses a correction code that the students are familiar with and marks the code in the margin. The errors can be underlined to give the student more guidance or not underlined to make them think more deeply. Again you need to leave time for correction and remarking. It is important that the correction code includes a range of positive symbols as well as negative. Just a tick is not really adequate, as it does not tell the student what is good about it. Symbols are needed for “good use of lexis”, “well-expressed”, etc.

Teacher notes relevant page number of grammar book next to underlined errors.

This is useful if all the students are familiar with the same grammar book and if grammar is particularly important to them. It really allows them to learn from their mistakes. 

Teacher does not mark individual errors but makes some general comments on the student’s language at the end, e.g. “Good paragraphing and organisation, good use of linking expressions, check verb agreements carefully and please learn to spell these words …………”.

This is very useful feedback for the student – it guides them in what they need to pay attention to in their subsequent of work.

Teacher responds to content only.

So do not mark the language at all, just react to the work as communication. This method is particularly useful for diaries. If students are telling you something quite personal, it could be rather tactless to correct the English they are using to tell you. You may just write comments such as “I’m glad you enjoyed the film. I must say I didn’t! Don’t you think it would have been better if…..?”

Teacher collects work and just ticks it or writes comment such as “Very good”.

Not very helpful for the learner.

Students edit homework in class

Students check their work with a partner before handing it in. If it is writing, the teacher can use guided editing e.g. “Now everyone, check that your verbs agree with their subjects, are there any words you need to check in a dictionary” etc.

Students agree answers in groups and only one member of the group hands their edited work in for marking.

For more controlled work only. Less marking for the teacher and more communication for the students, as they have to check with each other again after the work has been returned.

Teacher goes over homework in class and students self-correct.

Especially useful with very controlled e.g. Workbook homework. This gives an opportunity for class discussion of the right and wrong answers thus reinforcing their knowledge. However it can take up a great deal of class time. If the students correct their work with a different colour pen, the teacher can then collect the books if she wishes to see where there were problems.

Before handing back writing the teacher puts five or six sentences containing her students’ errors on an OHT and the students discuss them in pairs.

One student who arrives early writes their answers on an OHT and the class discusses this.

Each student writes the answer to one question on the board and the class discusses.

Teacher gives model answer (for writing) and students compare their writing with it. The teacher is available for questions.

Students mark their own work in their own time.

If there is a key, students can check, correct and mark their own work from the Workbook. I suggest students are instructed to do the homework carefully, check in the key, and correct their work with a different colour pen. They can also write questions to the teacher (e.g. Why is my answer wrong? Can I say…? I don’t understand this.) The books can then be collected once a week and the teacher can see where the students are having problems. The advantages of this are that students are made more independent, they have time to consider why their answer is wrong, and it saves time for the teacher and the class as a whole. There are also disadvantages. Training students to mark their work conscientiously after they have done it is difficult and some dislike it as they feel it is the teacher’s job to mark it. When collecting books the teacher can actually comment on how thoroughly the student has marked their work as this is an indication of their study skills. In my survey, a majority of students said they preferred the teacher to mark their work, but I think they understood this as the teacher going through each piece of work individually with them.

Students mark their work from answers that teacher puts on the class notice-board.

 

However the work is marked, we need to encourage our students to take conscious note of our comments and corrections. Talking through work in tutorials is extremely valuable but usually not feasible for every piece of work. Personal error sheets are a useful tool for helping students to avoid repeating their most frequent mistakes. An example of these can be seen in Business English by Wilberg and Lewis.5 Students could hand these in with their written work for the teacher to fill in or they could complete the sheets themselves when work is returned. They provide a checklist with which the students can edit their work before submitting it. Similar ideas are "hot cards", a card given to students with their mistakes on, or invoice books, whereby the students can be given a note of important mistakes while the teacher keeps the carbon copy

Conclusions

In this paper we have not noted any reasons for the exclusion of homework from our courses.

For most general English classes, a total each day of about an hour seems manageable and reasonable, still leaving plenty of time for socialising and self-study. This can be negotiated with students.

Optional work may be offered.

Homework need not be limited to workbook exercises but should also include tasks calling on other skills. Contextualised and communicative homework should play a major part.

Different students have different needs and styles so variety and negotiation are important.

Students need to be carefully prepared for homework and should always know what is expected of them.

Collaborative homework tasks are useful but the teacher needs to check that there is a balance of input from each student.

If the teacher marks homework she needs to be encouraging and allow opportunities for students to process the returned work in some way.

Students should be encouraged to edit their own work to foster independence.

Homework should be returned to students promptly.

 

Johanna Stirling Feb 2000

Footnotes

1.I felt that in writing this paper I needed to take into account how students felt about homework, so I asked my upper intermediate English Extra group to help me. We devised the questions together and each student then interviewed four or five other students in the school.Forty-six students responded in total. Although this was useful as a language exercise and gave rise to several other tasks (some for homework!), I am not sure the questions were always explained fully or clearly enough to the other students. Therefore in the course of the paper I will state some reservations about the validity of some of the answers. Many thanks however to the students involved. The questionnaire with results can be read in Appendix 1.

2. For ease of reading in this paper I refer to teachers as ‘she’ and students as ‘he’, as there generally seem to be more female teachers and more male students. This convention has no other implications but convenience.

3.Barton, M and R Walton, 1991. Correction: Mistake Management. Hove: LTP. 

4.See Appendix 2 for suggested layout.

5.Wilberg, P and M. Lewis. 1990. Business English. Hove: LTP

Appendix 1

Homework Questionnaire

(Results are in italics)

There were 46 respondents

Do you think homework is important for learning English?

very important..........26

quite important.........17

not important............1

other ..sometimes .....2

Why?

Important Not so important
To revise the day's work - 11 Self study is more important - 3
To practise - 9 Also useful to be out with friends - 1
Encourages students to study - 4 Listening and speaking practice with English people is more important - 1
Allows students to work at different levels/speeds - 2  
Can memorise vocabulary - 1  
Not enough time in class - 1  
Students undersand more if they study by themselves - 1  
Students become aware of their problem areas - 1  
Students have more independence - 1  
The teacher knows if students have understood - 1  

2.How much homework do you think students should do each day?

less than 20 minutes ........5

20 minutes to one hour .....33

more than one hour ..........8

3.How much time do you usually spend on your homework each day?

less than 20 minutes ......8

20 minutes to one hour ...22

one to two hours ............15

more than two hours .......1

4.Where do you usually do your homework? (More than one answer often given)

at home in your bedroom ....................39

at home in a room with other people ....2

in the study centre ............................11

in the classroom ................................1

other ................................................different every day

5. When do you usually do your homework? (More than one answer often given)

straight after school ....10

early evening ..............24

late evening ................15

early morning ...............0

lunchtime ....................0

during the class ............0

different every day ........1

6.Do you usually get any help with your homework? No: 31

If so, who helps you

host family ..........................8

another Bell student .............6

other… wife

...........English university students

7. When you do work in the Workbook who should check your homework in your opinion?(More than one answer often given)

you, using the key ..........................................11

the teacher ....................................................28

everybody together in class the next day ............10

other

8. Why?

You, using the key The teacher Everybody in class
I can think about my mistakes 6 Teacher will correct my mistakes 8 T explains reason for right answer 4
The key is accurate Teacher gives more explanation 5 I can hear everyone’s answers
I can use a dictionary too I can discuss it with the teacher 2 More conversation practice
Doesn’t waste time Teacher is more accurate 2  
  I want to speak to the teacher more  
 

It’s the teacher’s job

 
  The teacher wants to check it  
  The teacher can see my weak points  

9. What do you do with your homework when the teacher has marked it? (More than one answer often given)

put it away and forget about it .........................................3

read the teacher’s corrections ...........................................22

talk to the teacher about your mistakes .............................22

keep a note of your mistakes so you don’t repeat them ........12

other

Johanna Stirling February 2000

Appendix 2

Homework Timetable

Group:

 

Date Homework For (date) Notes

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

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