Homework, or The necessary evil and why it doesn’t have to be

The Joys Of Homework
The Joys Of Homework -- Image by Cayusa via Flickr

Homework is such a loaded word, often sending people into apoplectic shock with the memory of school assignments too difficult or numerous to complete.  As students we all dread homework; it becomes just one more way in which school tries to encroach upon our personal life, taking time away from all of the fun things we want to be doing.  And honestly, homework doesn’t really prepare students for the real world – when was the last time your boss gave you an assignment and told you to complete it at home and bring it back the next day?  Most of us are able to leave work at the office and not worry about it until 9:00 the next morning.  And yet we accept it as normal and necessary to give students homework everyday.  In fact, if a teacher told parents that there would be no homework assigned in class, I’m sure parents would consider putting their students in a different class; one with a teacher who actually cares about their students.

As a teacher, though, I am beginning to see the benefits of homework, especially in a foreign language classroom, though I will admit, there are definitely ways we can improve the way homework is handled in school.  For me, it always come back to the big picture.  I’m one of those who is always asking, ‘what’s the point, what’s the purpose?’  The purpose of a foreign language classroom is to teach students to communicate in that foreign language.  That is the goal.  And homework can definitely help with that goal.

Let’s look at how language is learned – consider your native language.  How did you learn it?  In school?  Probably not; I bet you were already talking before you started Kindergarten.  How did you learn?  By being immersed in the language.  All around you, everyday, you heard the language spoken.  Your parents, random strangers, television, movies, radio, etc.  Everything you heard, you heard in your native language and you assimilated that into learning grammar rules and vocabulary.  Young children learn grammar rules very well, and surprisingly early.  Have you ever heard a child say “I goed” or “I eated” ?  They have heard that when people talk about things in the past they add ‘ed’ to the end of the word, so they do the same with these irregular verbs.  They have already learned the rule, they just haven’t quite grasped the concept of exceptions to the rule.

So, what does this have to do with homework?  Well, to learn a language we have seen that children require a lot of time and exposure to that language in order to learn and pick up on the rules.  Yet in school, when we teach foreign language, we get about an hour a day, maybe five days a week. That is not hardly enough to expect students to learn a language well enough.  Homework, then, becomes necessary as a way of getting in that extra time needed to learn a language.  I want my students to practice their language skills they are learning in the classroom so that they can improve and become confident speakers.

But, I also understand that children are busy.  In high school they will have other classes, all of which also assign homework, they are involved with sports, music, theatre, other extra-curricular activities, jobs sometimes, family time, etc.  The last thing I want to do is overwhelm my students with one more homework assignment (I have been in that situation myself, and it’s not fun when you stress out because you simply do not have the time to do all that has been assigned), nor do I want them to turn in shoddy work because they didn’t have the time or the inclination to do the homework assignment properly.  Homework needs to be a help, a benefit, a way for students to get a little extra practice so that the principles become natural and ingrained.  It should not be busy work.

And we need to think back to the whole purpose of school, of the foreign language classroom: To help students learn a language.  All homework assignments should be geared towards this goal. And grading and assessment of homework needs to be done with this goal in mind.  Personally, I hated homework in school.  It became a joke between my teachers, my friends, and I.  Everybody knew that David never did his homework.  Teachers would be surprised and make jokes when I actually turned in my homework, completed.  But I got A’s in most of my classes.  For me, the point of homework is practice and help to learn the principles.  If I understood the principle after 2 or 3 homework problems, I would quit, because to me, anything more was busy work.  I would like to develop some way of allowing students to prove that they have learned the principles, even if they do not do the homework.  But at the same time, I want to be fair and reward those students who put in the time and the effort to do their homework.

That seems to be the dilemma.  Some students will be naturally gifted and learn things easily, others will need a lot of work and effort to learn the same things.  How can you reward a student for the tremendous effort he puts in, and at the same time not penalize a student who learned it quickly?

I would also like to allow a certain number of homework assignments to be turned in one day late.  I do recognize that students are busy, they have other things that they need to do.  But doing the homework, practicing the language is important.  I don’t assign homework just because, I want students to learn. But I want them to really learn.

I am thinking of giving students a permanent homework assignment of studying vocabulary or grammar 10 minutes a day.  They will have to do a self-assessment, find an area where they need extra study and practice and then study that aspect.  And 10 minutes a day is not very long at all.  There will also be some additional homework assignments.  I would like to have students watch or listen to German programs online, 20-30 minutes a week, even if they don’t understand every word, they are getting that exposure to real German language.  And there are a lot of great kid shows out there that use a simplified language, but are still entertaining.  And then there might be a worksheet or two a week, just a review and a practice of what we had learned in class.  This is all designed to help students practice and review what they have learned, get experience with actual, practical German, to learn the language in the same way native speakers do, and to help them learn how to study aspects of language that they personally need.  That study skill will be what helps them continue to improve their language ability long after they finish with school.

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One thought on “Homework, or The necessary evil and why it doesn’t have to be

  1. Shortly after graduating college with a teaching degree I found myself working in a public library. A father came in to do his 2nd grade daughter’s homework and needed help with finding the answers. He was very upset with the assignments his child’s teacher was sending home. I took a look at the assignment and was more than a little shocked. I would not have been able to read the instructions or the questions and understood them in the second grade. And I was an advanded reader who by 5th grade could be seen toting around a book of Shakespeare almost as big as I was. Homework should not be ‘parent work’. I like how you look at it. More teachers need to see it that way. Homework, like any tool, is only useful if applied in a suitable manner.

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