HOMEWORK: TO BE OR NOT TO BE.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
When I read Adam Simpson’s post on Homework, I felt like he had said all there was to say on the subject. It is extremely gratifying to see that somebody else has thoughts and ideas similar to your own!
Our short Siberian summer is the season for real live communication, it is warm, and we can move around freely; lots of my colleagues and former students come to visit. Being inveterate chatterboxes, we talk about everything, including the ever-present problems in our professional life. My own children, who used to be my students, ask about my TE posts.
Rather to my surprise, they regurgitate what I taught them. I re-read the questions that Paul Braddock posted for this topic, and re-arrange their order a little. Gradually, all those external stimuli coalesce, and ideas start to flow into my head.
• To Be Or Not to Be? To give homework or not to give homework? I would say this is the central question. For years, while teaching at the university, I was routinely reprimanded by the authorities for NOT giving any homework to my students. I presented the same arguments in favour of my position. One, I taught translation to senior students, who had already passed their state exam in English and received top marks. Two, four hours a week was ample for fulfilling the whole curriculum in the classroom. Three, I trained them to take some notes, and to always know where we were so to speak: I had only to tell them, say, “We are reviewing the articles today”, and they would open up the relevant pages in their notebooks. I kept the most persuasive argument to myself though. In my country, the working week for students is six days including Saturday; they have an enormous amount of classes, and an equally huge homework load. I saw no reason to add to their overload.
• Homework – how much or how little? There are clear-cut medical recommendations on the amount of homework in my country: it should not be more than 15% of that done in the classroom. For instance, if we have done seven or eight exercises at a lesson, homework should be only one exercise aimed at consolidation and revision of a theme. This seems sensible, and it provides a good answer to the question, From what age should learners be given homework? Any age, provided we observe the recommendations and are sure that the tasks we assign are doable.
• Naturally life differs from any ideal “norms”. I have met many teachers who would tell their pupils of any age “to finish up at home”, and the number of problems to solve could be ten. Multiply this by the number of subjects in the final year of school, about twenty, and it becomes clear at once why seniors almost never do any homework. I always checked the school time-table to see how big or how relatively small the workload for my students was in all their subjects, and allotted my own tasks accordingly, if at all. With seniors, we habitually discussed which day of the week was good for a revision or a current test. Once we eliminated unnecessary stress, we could come up with various solutions for any situation.
• How can we make it creative? Aye, there’s the rub. Let me divide the answer into two parts.
• Part 1: The Slings and Arrows, or How Not to Do It. As a university student in Moscow, I had an amazing teacher of German. She would give us a list of 50 words at every lesson, to learn by heart and to write a dictation next time. Needless to say, the words we had learned last week disappeared from our memory by the beginning of next week. We also had to memorize a lot of grammar rules, and rattle them off at regular oral tests. When my father came to Moscow on a business trip and we met, I complained to him that this was no way to learn a language, and what could I do? He gave me a book in German and a dictionary, and told me I could read it by myself, writing out every unfamiliar word. He also bought some audios for me. At first, I used to bemoan my self-imposed homework. Then by page 10, I discovered that I began to understand some sentences; by page fifty, I was more or less reading. The fact that, for example, that the articles had gender, singular and plural forms, and declensions as per grammatical cases, became firmly established in my memory. I believe I learned even then a few things about homework, and how NOT to assign it.
• Part 2. There are things in heaven and earth. EFL/ESL teaching differs from any other subject. Children study literature, science, mathematics in their own language. Once they step into our EL classroom, they find themselves in a different world. They need to learn a new alphabet, train their hearing to distinguish new sounds, and absorb a great number of new words. All or most of the realia they come across even in their textbooks, not to mention literature, may also be completely alien to them. Teaching them to see our lessons as a window into the world, helping them realize that when we suggest they read a book in summer we do not mean homework, but rather show them how to enlarge their own knowledge, how to widen their horizons, is a great task for any EL teacher. If after a long summer break our students rush into our classroom eager to share their impressions of a book, a film, a song or a trip in which they had to speak English, we have arrived. All we need to do is support that interest. If they come in empty, or if it is our first meeting with a new batch of students, we can only continue what we have been doing.