In this post I am going to discuss two things:
1: The practice of setting generic homework
2: How to set meaningful homework tasks for EFL/ESL classes (the main discussion will relate to this point)
First up – Generic Homework
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Yeah, I’m talking about the sort of homework that lazy or boring teachers give. I’m talking about the type of homework that teachers give when they feel like they need to give something (anything will do – right?). I’m talking about the sort of homework that makes kids (and adults) dislike learning a language (e.g. Hey kids, do the next five pages of boring, repetitive, decontextualized exercises for homework.). I’m talking about the sort of homework that lacks meaning and direction. I’m talking about the sort of homework that has no real place in professional education.
I’m not going to harp on about it; all I want to do is make a simple request. The next time you are going to give generic homework, please think twice before doing so. I truly think our students deserve better than just receiving generic homework tasks.
Your students aren’t generic. You aren’t generic. And so your homework tasks shouldn’t be generic.
In the above section I mentioned that I didn’t think generic homework had a place in our classrooms. But what is generic homework? Well, generic homework is the type of homework that a teacher gives without paying any special attention to the needs of their students. It is the type of homework that is based on the idea that teachers must give homework as part of the job instead of being based on the idea that homework tasks need to have a purpose. That’s what I mean by generic homework.
However, homework should not be generic! Homework should be meaningful!
But in order for homework (out-of-class learning) to be meaningful I believe it must fulfill certain criteria. Check out the following list and let me know what you think in the comments section.
Josh’s 7 Tips for Setting More Meaningful Homework Tasks.
1. Have a purpose and let it be known: A homework task not only needs to have a clearly defined purpose (e.g. enhancing fluency, improving reading, finding gaps in a student’s knowledge, encouraging critical thinking, increasing input, etc.), but also needs the students (or their parents) to understand that purpose. If the teacher and the student both understand the purpose of the task then the task becomes more meaningful.
2. Personalize it: Once we have a purpose we can then start to personalize the homework. For example, if every student has to read the same chapter of a book for homework, does this mean that every student should have the same focus point? No, of course not. Some students might be slow readers, so their task might involve just re-reading the chapter again and again to help increase their reading speed. Other students might be faster or more advanced readers, so their task might include thinking about why the writer used certain words and then drafting a list of alternatives.
Note: There are so many ways we can personalize homework to suit the needs of the student – even when the students are doing the same activity. Try to give each student as much personalized care as possible.
3. Make it engaging: When setting homework tasks we should really strive to come up with ways to make these tasks more engaging. No one wants to do boring homework. Tap into your students’ interests and use these ideas to promote learning.
Note: Sometimes teachers need to set certain homework tasks due to school or national policy etc., but this should not mean that we can’t try to make these tasks engaging or novel in some way.
4. Time matters: This is a no-brainer – don’t make homework tasks too long. Sure, we all know the importance of input and time-on-task for learning a second language (if you don’t then check out my lectures on Frequency & Time and F.I.T.T), but this needs to be balanced with the student’s time limitations. A busy businessperson usually does not have 2 hours a day to spend studying English, so why set 2 hours of homework? Wouldn’t it be better to set 20 minutes of meaningful homework?
Note: Remember you need to consider time constraints and attention spans. An activity with a high cognitive load requires more focus (that’s why tasks need to be interesting and engaging) than less demanding tasks – so asking a young child to watch a Disney film might be more feasible than giving the child one hour of grammar homework.
5. Empowerment, ownership, and choice: One of the goals of teaching should be to help your students acquire the valuable skill of self-regulation (i.e. the ability to monitor and control one’s own behavior, emotions, or thoughts, altering them in accordance with the demands of the situation or academic pursuit). By allowing our students to have a say in which homework tasks are set we can actively empower our students and encourage them to take ownership of their own learning.
6. Make it possible: Students need to be able to complete the task (with limited assistance). This can help to build confidence and competence.
Note: A task which is too hard may result in a loss of motivation. Also remember to give clear instructions and ensure that the students possess the required skills to complete the task.
7. X factor: Finally, a task should, if possible, have an X factor. You can create this by making tasks visually appealing, humorous, or novel in some way. If a task is enjoyable your students will probably be happy to do it.
Note: Your out-of-class learning tasks should be informed by current best practices and relevant research.
In closing I would just like to say that homework does not need to be an individual pursuit. Why not set tasks that require group or partner participation? These types of activities have been shown to help enhance teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills.
If you teach younger children why not set tasks that require parental participation (e.g. parent-child reading). Not only will this aid with language development, but it can also serve to strengthen the bond between parent and child.
That’s all I have for you on the topic of setting meaningful homework. I hope you and your students can all benefit from some of the above tips and that you are now more confident in developing homework (out-of-class learning) activities that will better suit your students’ needs.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
Keep English Real!