4 reasons not to give our language learners any homework

One of my most popular posts of 2012 was ‘6 great techniques for getting students to write down their homework.’ While I stand by my advice, I do feel a little embarrassed by its popularity, given my great reluctance to actually ever give homework to my learners. Here’s how I introduced the post back in December, 2012:

‘Just like you, no doubt, I assign homework to my students with clear goals in mind: to increase their knowledge and to improve their abilities and skills. Just like you, too, hopefully, I never assign homework for its own sake.’

As I said, I stand by this statement and everything else I wrote. Nevertheless, I’d like to redress the balance somewhat with this spiritual follow-up which argues beyond not giving homework just for the sake of it, suggesting that we might not want to give homework in any situation. Here are four good reasons for keeping learning in the classroom.

Here's a bottle of wine I'm drinking instead of giving homework

Here’s a bottle of wine I’m drinking instead of giving homework

1. People need a life

If you teach adults, it’s almost entirely likely that they will have a work life and a social life outside of your classroom. Are you really doing them a favour by eating into this time with your demands that they do extra study? If you teach young learners, these children need unstructured play time to become social creatures more than they need homework from you. Homework can have a negative influence on learning experiences. Adults will feel guilt at not doing the work you’ve assigned or resentment about having to do it when they should be getting on with something else. This will affect how they feel about your class and not in a good way. Children will also be negatively affected by the addition of homework.

If you really must…

Find out how much time your learners have to do it and assign work accordingly.

2. Let’s face it: you don’t know what you’re doing

As qualified as you might be and with as much knowledge of teaching pedagogy as you might have, do you honestly believe you know exactly what you’re doing when you assign homework? What objectives are you aiming to cover? How will this further your learners’ ability to do whatever it is you’ve done in class? Granted, a lot of coursebooks have workbooks which are largely intended for self study, but you nevertheless have to be careful that there is a definite purpose behind what you’re assigning.

If you really must…

Consult with your learners and ask them what they see as an appropriate follow-up task for them to do at home to supplement what you have done in class.

3. They don’t really need it

People are constantly learning in the 21st Century and traditional homework should become obsolete within the next decade. Thanks to technology, learning is now a constant in our lives. With access to applications, software programs, as well as educational websites such as the Khan Academy, learning is an ongoing process. So much of what learners can access is through the medium of English that it is unlikely that they can spend many days of their lives without acquiring some knowledge of the language from their everyday environment.

If you really must…

Instead of assigning homework, utilise the technological tools that your learners use in their everyday lives. Get them doing something in English with their phones or on Facebook.

4. Homework doesn’t lead to better performance

Too much homework can be a bad thing. Research indicates there is a weak link between achievement and homework, particularly in young learners. Furthermore, countries that assign more homework don’t outperform those with less homework. Countries such as America and the UK have relatively high levels of homework in schools and yet don’t show a correlation with high performance. Japan is one country that has taken the opposite route, having instituted no homework policies at younger levels to allow family time and personal interests. Finland, one of the most successful nations in terms of international tests, limits high school homework to half hour per night. While a small amount of well thought out homework can be beneficial, assigning excessive amounts of homework is at best counterproductive.

If you really must…

One good tactic, particularly for teachers of young learners, is to assign homework for improving study skills, rather than learning. Assign homework that is uncomplicated and short, which involves families or friends, and which above all engages learner interests.

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14 Responses to 4 reasons not to give our language learners any homework

  1. Bill says:

    I suppose it depends if you believe in the acquired knowledge vs. learned knowledge distinction but I think HW helps to prime students for learning in the classroom. For example, I might have a listening activity involving certain vocabulary. With limited class time, I think it makes sense to have them read and study the vocabulary before class so you don’t have to take 20-30 minutes to explain the vocab list in class. Don’t you think?

    • Adam says:

      Thanks, Bill. You have a very good point about using homework in this way, although I’d still suggest that you plan according to not all your learners having done the homework. There is much to be said for your suggested approach, as it definitely enables you and your learners to get down to business and not waste time doing something that can certainly be done outside of class.

      As for doing it myself, I might go about this in a stealthy way, such as asking learners to find a great tool for learning new vocabulary and then getting them to tell others about it, using the target vocabulary as a model, i.e. making it also homework that focuses on study skills.

  2. Hywel says:

    One purpose that I do see for homework relating to the second point is checking understanding. In 3 situations – the class is a shorter duration than ideal to be certain the learners have understood what has been done; the amount that has to be done in class is dictated by an imposed course schedule; or when the number of learners is too great to effectively check understanding thoroughly, homework is very helpful. As a teacher, there are occasions, hopefully few, where a student’s lack of understanding becomes apparent through inability to complete a homework task independently. I’d rather realise this through homework than plough on to later realise students are becoming lost and lack confidence to communicate this. I’d think this was common for many teachers and a purpose that many understood clearly when they’re setting HW. I’d be interested to know if others agree.

    • Adam says:

      Thanks, Hywel. I’d agree again that there is value in this and that we perhaps might not pick up on this misunderstanding only through class work. In such occasions, I’d return to my suggestion that learners be allowed some input into what homework they choose to do. When assigning extra work on this basis, i.e. to check understanding of what has been done in class, I make it optional whilst emphasizing exactly what benefit there might be to those who choose to do it.

  3. Wendi says:

    Without homework, some of my students don’t use English outside the classroom. I figure homework gives them a short opportunity (5-10 minutes a day) where they need to stop using the NL and practice the TL.

    • Adam says:

      I know exactly what you mean, Wendi. When this is the case, as it often is, I do as I suggested in the post and try to work the homework into the kind of activities they do online anyway. As you suggest, a very short activity, such as replying to messages on Facebook or tweeting in English, can be beneficial.

  4. Kirra says:

    I try to never assign “fluff” homework (a bunch of exercises on the unit’s grammar or vocabulary) although I usually ask students to do a writing task each week.

    For grammar or vocabulary homework, I have some exercises available for students who think they need more practice. Students can check their own answers and then discuss any problems they have with me after class. Some students get it and choose not to take extra homework. Why waste their time (and mine)? It leaves class time for activities.

  5. While I agree with some points, much of homework’s potential is to force students to use language outside of class rather than reverting back to their L1 during their entire off-time, not to mention allowing for time to digest info from class. Not everyone (most of my students in fact) do this of their own accord.

  6. Rhonda says:

    As an ESL teacher and FSL learner and user, I disagree.

    The language learning classroom provides only a snippet of L2 input for students and this language is often artificial as it doesn’t really reflect the spoken language that they will encounter in their environment. That leaves learners with a very limited exposure of how their L2 works.

    Adults, in particular, rely on patterns in the language to learn their L2 and time in the classroom is rarely enough to recognize or learn these patterns. Homework should be an extension of the in-class activities that were recently learned so that learners can see how patterns work in their L2. This makes homework an off-line activity with none of the pressures to perform in the classroom and it gives adults downtime to reflect and investigate their L2 and even compare it to their L1.

    If I had relied only on my in-class instruction, or my daily interactions in French, to teach me patterns in the language, my L2 proficiency would be years behind what it currently is. Teachers who are native speakers are great phonetic representatives of their language, but they do not always have the ability to distance themselves from their L1 and teach it in a way that is logical or understandable to a NNS. As a result, I always did more homework than was assigned and ended up learning patterns on my own and then asking my teachers to confirm them with me.

    I disagree with the comments that suggest learners must stop using their L1–that should never be the goal of a second language teacher. No one needs to stop using their mother tongue to start using a second language and besides, this could cause serious social and cultural problems.
    That being said, if a learner never gets out of their comfort zone to work with their L2 outside of the classroom, they may never cultivate the skills they need to stop being a L2 learner and start being a L2 user.
    Learning a second language as an adult is not easy at first but it will never get easier if you don’t push yourself a little.

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on this.

  7. This. I completely agree with this. Nothing like homework to suck all the fun out of learning!

  8. Pingback: English Language Teaching | Pearltrees

  9. Pingback: The case for: 6 reasons why our language learners should get homework | Teach them English

  10. Interesting debate here. The original post is convincing. I teach in a college context (EFL in France) and I’m sure that a lot of the homework I give is not really effective, or at least is not effective for all students. Yet, like Rhonda, in my own experience as a FL learner, I found homework absolutely indispensable. I ate up all the homework given and it helped me learn, and delve further into the language.

    In the cultural context where I teach, giving some homework is expected. I suppose the ideal would be a minimal, baseline homework assignment that all the students need to do, with a variety of options that students can correct themselves, do or not, etc.

    I would also add that giving a single homework assignment to a class, or “variations on a theme” assignments to groups or pairs, does foster group work and peer learning. Of course they can do this without a homework assignment too, but I think having one set facilitates the process.

    How do other college/university teachers feel about this post?

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