How I teach - Make light work of homework

Target tasks to boost learning and lessen the load of marking

When I was a trainee English teacher, attempting to tutor teenagers in a "challenging" sixth-form college, I would factor homework into nearly every lesson. I would try to keep it varied. "Here is some reading," I would say. "Please pair up and produce a short presentation", or, "Now, give me two sides of A4 on what would have happened if Romeo hadn't drunk the poison." Unfortunately, little homework was submitted so I ended up abandoning the idea altogether.

Now that I teach English to adults, I have the opposite problem. Having made the decision to learn in their precious spare time, adult learners are generally hard-working and dedicated. Not only do the vast majority complete all the homework that I set but many ask for more and even complete pieces of writing that haven't been requested. For a while, I would prepare homework and extra homework and optional homework, and each lesson I would be handed mountains of paper.

I soon realised that homework for its own sake had its downsides. So I changed tack and began to explore the following ideas. Thankfully, I found that they worked better for all of us.

Less is more

If I have acres of homework to mark, I have to whizz through it. If I receive less, I can dedicate more time to writing detailed feedback, which is far more useful than the virtually meaningless phrases "good", "well done" and "this is OK". I work with people who left school years, if not decades, ago; I'm probably the first person in my students' adult lives to identify their mistakes. They've been waiting a long time, so simple corrections aren't good enough.

Insist on homework-free lessons

This is not a tactic to get out of marking (honest). My adult students juggle learning with jobs and family commitments. They study in the evenings when they are tired and sometimes, for one reason or another, they can't attend classes. I don't want that reason to be guilt over not completing their homework. If you've got three children and a full-time job, practising homophones doesn't take priority. Homework sabbaticals allow the learners with the busiest lives to catch up with the others.

Make it pleasurable, not painful

I teach literacy, so I encourage my students to read at home, whether it's a whole book, a single chapter, a newspaper article or just the side of a cereal box. In each lesson we discuss what we're reading or comment on news pieces that piqued our interest. This "work" is not marked and it's not compulsory. I want my students to read for pleasure and to form a habit that will last long after the course has finished.

Reflect, reflect, reflect

I had a student who would repeatedly misspell a few common words. Week after week, he handed in reams of writing littered with the same errors. First I corrected them, then I circled them, then we discussed it and then I said I would shoot myself if he did it again. He wasn't reading my comments and reflecting on the mistakes, he was just churning it out. Now I ask learners to really read through their work, digest it and improve it. Write less but make it more accurate. Proofread, edit, swap with peers and reread. And then hand it in.

Create bespoke homework

Once I have established a student's area for development, I work on it. That means devising exercises tailored to their needs - and that's where homework is invaluable. I can send 15 students home with 10 different pieces of work and leave lesson time for joint exercises. Differentiation can be employed effectively here, with students working at their own pace at home rather than finishing at different times in class.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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