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Homework and TEFL Teaching

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Homework… when she would rather be somewhere else!

Homework is simply work your students do at home rather than in the classroom.

Many teachers give it to their students as a matter of course.

Almost all schools will expect you to give it, often with a time caveat: “Give them at least 30 minutes of homework after each lesson!”

And almost all students will expect it with most not liking the idea at all!

However, whilst among students homework is almost universally accepted (much like taxes and death once one leaves school) as a teacher you need to make sure that you use it wisely and that you don’t just follow the crowd on this one.

Reasons to Give (or Not to Give) Homework

Educators often offer a number of reasons why we should give homework. These are often to do with allowing students time for self-study either revising the last lesson or preparing the next one.

Meanwhile on the flip side of the coin, other educators say that homework is pointless and doesn’t actually achieve anything.

The research shows, however, that the right kind of homework can definitely be useful and pays off dividends. So, assuming you will give your class homework, the next thing to decide is how much.

How Much Homework is Good for Students?

Research by Duke University in the US has shown that homework has a positive benefit if it is given in moderation but that too much homework is of no benefit at all.

They cite the ’10 minute rule’ which has become widely accepted at many schools. This states that students should get 10 minutes of homework per grade. So roughly speaking 1st Grade students (aged 7) are given 10 minutes homework per day; 2nd Grade (aged 8) are given 20 minutes; and so on until 10th Grade (aged 15) are given 100 minutes.

In the UK, on the other hand, the Department of Education has suggested much longer with well over 2 hrs per night for Year 10 (10th Grade) students and research has borne this out.

A lot, however, is tied in with the kind of homework given and the expectations of the student. (More on this later.)

So let’s assume that you are teaching a class of 15 year olds and you decide that they need about 100 minutes a night.

Here’s where TEFL teachers often run into problems.

This is because the figure of 100 minutes is for their full school day including all lessons and not just for you and their English lesson with you.

This can be an issue because it’s not uncommon for students to take English in a private school outside the state system so your students may well have spent the day at state school and also have other lessons to attend at other private schools. Your English class, in other words, could be competing for homework priority with a dozen other lessons that day!

In the end, you might only feel they have time for 10 minutes from your class. This isn’t, however, a problem because it is the quality of the homework which is most important, not the quantity.

Homework Focus

Research has shown that there is no point in giving homework just for the sake of giving homework.

No. Homework must have a focus and be relevant otherwise it will be useless.

Don’t forget that your homework is probably competing against x-boxes, online flirting, tonight’s big match and a thousand other distractions so it has to be as interesting as possible. And bearing in mind that you’ll sometimes find your students’ attention wandering in class; imagine what you need to do to keep them interested when you are not there to help/cajole/persuade/encourage them!

So for best results, keep homework simple, keep it interesting, keep it relevant.

(This applies to all your lessons of course; don’t forget the Needs Analysis‏‎ to keep things on track with your class).

Useful Homework Assignments

More than ever you need to make sure the homework assignment will engage your class. Just asking them to do the exercises from a book is of little use. If you do this you’ll find many students do the work in a slapdash manner or just copy from each other.

So try to be forward thinking here.

Get the students to look forward and prepare for the next lesson rather than simply revise and go over the previous lesson. In this way:

  • reading – let them know that what they are reading will be used in the next lesson
  • writing – preparing for the next lesson; what they write will be used to present to class or develop further
  • preparation – this could be a speech, a short presentation, an argument or something similar
  • research – they need to find some information which will be used in the next lesson somehow

In other words, the students’ homework will be used in class and is not just something remote and unrelated to what they do with you. If the class can’t see a reason for doing it (other than ‘because you told them to’) then it’s not worth doing.

Giving Homework

Too often as the end-of-class bell rings teachers will call out to their students to do the exercises on pages such-and-such for the next lesson as they are leaving the room.

This devalues homework.

It makes it sound like homework is an afterthought from the teacher and the students will often realize this. If you can’t be bothered to prepare the homework, why should they be bothered to do it?

Instead, spend time in preparing relevant homework and present this to the class well before the final bell!

  1. Explain what will happen in the next lesson.
  2. Then explain what the homework is.
  3. Then explain why it is necessary for the next lesson.
  4. Make sure the whole class understands and check this so everyone is certain about what needs to be prepared.

One very useful method here is to put the homework online. If the class has a space online you can set aside a page where you explain precisely what the students need to do and field there any questions they might have. This kind of collaborative effort can be very effective.

Receiving Homework

Then, when the students come back in the next lesson, make sure you involve their homework in some way.

Let them know that what they did was relevant and useful and not just an exercise in wasting everyone’s time. Make sure they see that the work they did was important to you and not just something to be filed away and forgotten.

This could mean:

  • grading it yourself and handing it back with comments (see correcting work‏‎ for more on how to do this well; link below)
  • or maybe having students grade each other (see peer correction‏‎ for more on this; link below)
  • or comparing their answers between them, not to copy but to work out in small groups what the best answers are

Or more simply, more effectively, and more powerfully, it could mean having them use what they have prepared in the class and continually getting your students to contribute to the lesson using the work they have already done at home.

Final Thoughts

A few final ideas:

  • Since homework as a word has such a bad reputation among some students, you could always think about renaming it and calling it preparation. Granted Shakespeare wrote that a rose would still smell as sweet regardless of its name, but students aren’t usually that sensitive!
  • Assign homework (or should that be, preparation?) in the first few classes of the term so students get used to the idea of having to do some; and be strict about collecting homework and making sure all students do it properly. Later in the term you can miss a few lessons but this sets a good precedent.
  • Make sure you keep a note of what homework you have set for each class (perhaps in your English Teaching Portfolio) as it’s easy to forget and miss using it in the next lesson. This discourages students and makes you seem disorganized.

Useful Links

Correcting Work – how to correct work effectively

Peer Correction – students correct each other

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