Guest Blog by Crista Hazell (Head of Department and ALL Council member)

  • How to get more from the homework you set?
  • What specific activities can be given as homework which will be effective?

Homework or out of school learning, gets a bad reputation. I’ve always seen homework as an extension and reinforcement of the learning that has taken place in the classroom; chance indeed for students to independently practise their language skills or revisit the learning in class to see if their knowledge can be applied. In February in the Guardian newspaper, there was an article entitled ‘Homework: is it worth the hassle?’  I’ll be honest I think it absolutely is, and not just because I set it for my learners and completed lots of it throughout my own school years!

Homework, like the learning journeys carefully crafted for each lesson, needs to be appropriate for learners and most definitely differentiated.  Setting homework because it’s policy or because you have to, is of course ineffective, but choosing purposeful homework tasks that are appropriate for the stage of learning can pay dividends. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) states this is dependent upon stage. The EEF is clear that setting homework for primary learners has minimal impact. This has been gleaned from numerous studies, reviews and meta-analysis across a range of schools.

However at secondary, the impact of homework, set appropriately, has an increasing impact for students and beyond and can add between five and eight months’ progress!  See the following report from the EEF.

I’m not sure that anyone will argue that this is negligible so we have to ascertain what type of homework will reap the biggest rewards.  Which type of homework will  enable  the maximum gains, so that our language learners truly benefit and can evidence the impact in the language classroom?

According to EEF, short and focused intervention such as a short project task based upon a very specific learning target or closing the assessment loop and learning specific vocabulary, can have up to eight months’  positive impact on attainment. So what type of tasks are we talking about? The following are some of my absolute favourites which have had superb impact:

  • Grammar knowledge organisers
  • Vocabulary learning
  • Reading
  • Surprise me homework
  • DIRT

Grammar knowledge organisers

These made an appearance across our department from Year 9 to Year 11 two years ago and feature key grammatical structures, the non-negotiables that we want students to know, use and build upon.  They are presented and translated, and upon first glance do not look exciting, but they are clear and students take the time to learn 10 structures at a time, rather like vocabulary. Students are quizzed on this key grammatical knowledge repeatedly, just like vocabulary, and funnily enough their grammatical usage has become increasingly accurate and more complex. Application of these phrases is increasingly precise and students confidence in using them in spoken and written activities has risen sharply.  They are able to use a wide and varied range of grammatical structures which pleases both themselves and their language teachers.

Vocabulary learning

Language teachers have always set this homework, yet this fell from grace some time ago because it was deemed ‘old hat’, with teachers preferring to ask students to work at sentence rather than word level. Understandable, with the increased demands of GCSE and A level.  However, a short focused homework will prove highly effective if the vocabulary is remixed and repeatedly recalled across contexts, supporting good and wide understanding. Vocab tests are very much in vogue again and always have visible impact.

Reading

We teach phonics to allow students to decode the language and make connections rather than read in anglicised target language. Often students like to practice reading in the privacy of their own space so they can apply the graphemes to the phonemes.  Flipping reading will allow students to read and practice at home, so when reading takes place in class there is less anxiety about meeting the text for the first time. High participation and high impact is evident.

Surprise me homework

The success of ‘surprise me homework’ has been incredible with 100% uptake in our department and across the school transcending subjects and key stages- and no, I’m not kidding!  Allowing students to apply their learning in a homework project of their choosing allows creative passions to come to the fore and cross-curricular links to be formed, deepening the learning experience. Surprise me homework has been around for a few years now and many excellent ideas have been showcased on Twitter and at TeachMeets. You never know what you are going to get and that is just so exciting!  It’s wonderful to see the awesome ingenuity of students and the connections they have made to their hobbies, passions and free time activities linking this with MFL.  We have had games, comic strips, grammar trees, music videos, dance routines, plays, songs, models (including a small working guillotine!), mini-books, banners, word walls, poems, tongue twisters and edible treats including lots and lots of cake! ‘Surprise me homework’ is a triumph and allows students to share with you and their peers their most creative selves. Be gone boring worksheet, hello creativity! Please see a colleague’s experience of setting ‘surprise me homework’ here.

DIRT

DIRT for homework? Why not? Departmentally we set DIRT (Dedicated Improvement Reflective Time) where students reflect upon their work using key criteria, seeking out errors or indeed correcting highlighted errors following the feedback and assessment process, before redrafting their work. Students can work at their own pace and apply their knowledge to improve the task, but be aware that for less able students this may prove extremely challenging and DIRT should be a positive confidence building activity.

How long should homework be you might be asking?  One to two hours is the optimum time for maximum engagement and efficacy. Too long and students struggle to start, feeling it’s an unsurmountable task, yet too short and the task could be completed half-heartedly.

Ultimately most learners will complete homework if it is valued and is not a one off activity to tick a box, so despite pressures on classroom time, please do not discard students’ work. Do make time to go through the task set; it adds kudos and importance.  Doing this acknowledges the time, effort and hard work that students have put in to complete your homework task.  It provides another opportunity for learning and reinforcement through retrieval of key aspects in their learning through ABC (Add, Build or Challenge starter tasks) and challenging misconceptions.

I hope this gives you food for thought and ‘happy homeworking’!

Further reading:

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

Mark Creasy – Unhomework Crown House Publishing

Jackie Beere – DIRT

The Learning Scientists

 

 

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