Oxford Resource Books for Teachers: Homework
Lesley Painter (2003)
Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pp. xiv + 146
A pall of silence seems to cover the subject of homework in the literature on language learning and teaching. This can probably be explained by the emphasis placed in the last decades on communication in the classroom, which has excluded more conventional forms of learning such as translation or written assignments. But can and does language learning take place only in the classroom?
Teachers do assign homework (when they can be bothered to "correct" it and/or if they are not so overloaded with classes that it becomes impossible). In classes of thirty or more, they have to make sure learning is done. Class time is too short and so is the attention span: when one can spend a whole hour without being solicited to practise the language actively. Testing in class can be done. But the learning process has to take place outside the class as well as inside. It does not stop when the bell rings or very little will be remembered. Lessons have to be revised, exercises done to ensure fixation. Practice of the language would be better but is far too often impossible.
For more than twenty years I assigned homework to my students on a regular basis. The main reason was that not only was class time extremely short but, with absences, holidays, strikes (!),very little time was left to practise the language. If we want to concentrate on oral communication, the skills that do not require interaction the way speaking does, namely writing, reading, vocabulary, grammar, can be done on one's own, at home. There is a need too to force students to work regularly. The habit to cram before exams is endemic and it is hard, not to convince them that they have to practise English regularly but to ensure that they do so, like they would do piano scales or sport training. From the moment I started giving regular homework, progress was noticeable, especially compared with students of the same level whose teachers set homework but did not count it in the global mark the way I did. This system also increased my workload more than I would have wished, especially as marking is not gratifying work and at the end of each academic year I could no longer bear the sight of a homework paper or even of a red pen.
I am talking in the past because things have changed in the last two years. The main problem with homework is that students tend to copy: it makes homework useless. I have seen this evolve over the years. I have passed from students who took English as an option and came from diverse backgrounds: copying was rare because students who had chosen to do English understood the importance of homework and they could not really copy because, coming from different groups, they never met outside the English class and thus it was not easy. Now, English has become compulsory and, for the first time in my career, I am giving up setting homework because everybody cheats. I am not stupid enough to spend time grading identical work. So, what I have to figure out, and have failed to do until now, is how to give homework that is relevant to students' needs, make sure it is done, that it is profitable and not spend five to ten hours a week dealing with it. Homework, by Lesley Painter, offers a few pointers. [-1-]
Last year, after reading the book, I tried to ask students who wanted homework to say so. At first, nobody said "I do". Nobody wanted to be seen as teacher's pet. I reiterated the offer. A few students (all girls) came to see me after class to say they would like to do homework. I asked what sort of homework they needed and gave them tasks accordingly. Very few among the few gave any homework back. The conclusion is obvious: not compulsory = not done. Also, after reading one of Lesley Painter's suggestions, I sought my students' feelings about the idea of a "diary" (not for themselves that year, I knew the answer) but for the other students, the following year. They said no, not a good idea. I have suggested it again this year, as an alternative to giving an oral presentation. About five students have chosen this option. I will see the results in May.
Many of the ideas presented in the introduction to Homework are plain common sense, although I am dubious about the precept "language should be liberated from the classroom" (p. 6). Also, the author thinks that what she would do if she were to set herself homework to learn French is applicable to a student. Motivation is certainly not the same and we, teachers, know what is good for us. Furthermore, learning a language in a country where the language itself is spoken and in one where it is not is a totally different situation as far as opportunity to practise the language is concerned.
I wholeheartedly agree with the aim that teachers "should devote energy to homework that is stimulating and provocative rather than banal" (p. 8). Several conditions are outlined by Lesley Painter to reach this goal: make it fun, make it relevant, and match students' learning preferences. Nobody can argue with that. She proposes a questionnaire that seems of little use, though (p. 10).
The important questions are not addressed: copying, marking time (especially for individual work), compulsory or optional homework. It is as if we lived in a rosy world where no such nasty things and preoccupations existed, where teachers are devoted hermits who live only for and through their students and students do willingly and enthusiastically all that we ask them to do. Only towards the end does Lesley Painter acknowledge the difficulty of getting students to do the homework set by the teacher (p. 121).
The book presents several "focuses": getting started, homework itself, lexis, writing, language, communication, pronunciation and receptive skills.
In the first section, "Getting started" some suggestions, while good in theory, are just not realistic. For example, sending homework individually to each student (1.4, 1.6) would indeed be pleasant and motivating but is time-consuming beyond reason for classes with an average of 20 to 30 students or more. Who can spend that much time coddling reluctant students? Or hiding instructions or bits of paper around the class (1.5)? I am all for fun and games but this is taking it too far.
In the "Homework" section, the idea is to make students design their own tasks for the class. Good as a principle. I do it myself—with a mark—and it works wonderfully. Otherwise, why should students do it?
"My favourite task" (2.2) is a wonderful idea: getting students to prepare a procedure for a reading or writing task. The trouble, I know, with my students, is that not half of them would do it, partly because of their weekly workload which pushes English to the bottom of their to-do list (if not actually out of it) and partly because thinking about the way they are taught is not in their habits and puzzles them. Most of them have no clue about the way they learn, what they would like to do, what would work best for them. If they were that aware, they would not be in trouble to start with. They feel their failure but beyond that little help can be expected from them. Some may even feel put upon, doing the teacher's work for him/her. Furthermore, I often find that the tasks that they present are fairly inefficient from a pedagogical point of view because they are things they master, are able to do and thus offer little difficulty, little challenge. I must qualify that statement though: funnily enough, I have experienced it many times, the tasks presented by the students work better than if they are presented by the teacher. Solidarity, I suppose, and less fear of judgment. I do a form of this that works very well because it gives them a mark that is part of their continuous assessment (10 to 20%). If this was not the case, only the most motivated would do it and they are not the problem: they are happy doing whatever you present them. [-2-]
There are many nice activities and suggestions in this section. For example, the 2.1 questionnaire aims at finding out what students like to do outside the class and proposes to do so in a pair work activity likely to get better results than doing it on one's own. If we encourage students to question their partners in depth, they are more likely to get answers beyond "yes" and "no". They wouldn't question themselves in depth. But the exploitation of the questionnaire, while perfectly logical, leaves me dubious as to its feasibility and monitoring.
In this chapter, I like the exercise about homework excuses (2.7).
The third section deals with "vocabulary". The activities are good, if not new. The problem again is that the aim of the homework seems to be to prepare the class. In order to check that the homework is done, class time has to be spent reviewing the work done outside. This may even become a very boring part when students do not really care about what the others have done.
Children up to twelve might find the necessary enthusiasm for most of the homework activities proposed. But I feel that many of these would work better simply as class activities, forgetting the homework phase such as collocations (3.9) or false friends (3.9); finding doubles (3.12), like "enough is enough", "go on and on" seems not only a waste of effort (when such lists already exist) but a waste of time: how on earth do we set about find them? Is the time spent worth it? Is there enough return on investment?
In the next sections I have found some new, stimulating activities, "Scrapbookî (4.8) for example. Others, especially in the "communication" section can only be done in an-English-speaking country and have little value for EFL situations. The whole of chapter 7 is very good; all the activities on pronunciation and phonetics are inspiring. The preparation is done at home, the real oral work in class. This is, to me, the best part of the book which ends with a list of websites, a bibliography and an index.
Homework seems mainly to propose activities to prepare work in class and that is why I found it of limited value. I found it disappointing from a theoretical point of view. There is very little thinking behind the exercises proposed. Lesley Painter repeats hackneyed catch phrases and slogans, mantras of the modern English teacher. She has not told me how to motivate students to do homework.
Université Toulouse 3
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