This week’s post comes from my friend, Rob Haines in Oregon (USA). Rob is currently a curriculum designer and ESL instructor for a program serving low-income scholars and community leaders from Latin America and Haiti in Oregon. He has an MSc TESOL from Aston University (UK), and co-moderates the Dogme discussion list where he periodically posts descriptions of his materials-light, learner-centred classes. Rob kindly contributed the following post, where he starts by asking: Is homework really necessary?
“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).
If you agree, then you’re likely to supplement classroom learning with homework, that is, tasks to be completed between classes. Van Lier (and others) would maintain that “between-class-learning” should complement classroom learning, particularly if learners attend classes only a few hours a week, so that the time in between classes affords further learning opportunities. As van Lier (1996) puts it:
“If the lessons – whether they are once a week, once a day, or more frequent than that – are the only occasions on which students are engaged with the language, progress will either not occur or be exceedingly slow. The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen” (ibid.).
What sort of tasks are best?
Assuming you are not obligated to assign specific tasks, the kind of homework you set is probably up to you. As if by default, homework often becomes the set of exercises at the end of a course book unit. Understandably, busy teachers might tend to rely on prefabricated assignments for homework. But saving time this way all too often fails to connect what happens in class with students’ lives in ‘the real world’.
Rather than reaching for a course book or a ready-made handout, a better resource might be the learners themselves. Working within the parameters of your context, while respecting learners’ attitudes towards the role of the teacher, you can facilitate, organize, and coax as necessary to involve learners in the design and execution of homework tasks.
Here are a few tips:
- Turn homework into a peer-teaching opportunity by asking learners to read and check each other’s work
- Discourage learners from simply copying information off the Internet by setting tasks that are highly personalized, such as preparing a presentation about their families, making a list of their favorite foods, describing the flat, house or dormitory where they live, etc.
- Pair learners into ‘study buddies’, so that they can work on a homework task together
- Arrange ‘scavenger hunts’ or similar tasks with an element of mystery and surprise
- Develop personalized learning plans that allow learners to set goals as well as demonstrate and assess their progress
- Maintain and utilize a collection box where learners can store vocabulary, grammar questions, and ideas they have gathered outside class
- Ask learners to keep a journal
- Have learners design quizzes
If you’d like to come up with your own tasks, Steve Darn, over at the British Council Web site http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/homework, lists a set of principles to guide teachers through the process of creating meaningful tasks beyond the classroom.
The take-home message
Considering how research underscores the need for social interaction and engagement with our immediate surroundings, homework that affords language learners opportunities to explore and investigate English (or any other target language) through meaningful tasks are likely to be most effective and enjoyable for all.
van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy, & Authenticity. London: Harlow.