Do Your Homework! (with Penny Ur)

I've never met a teacher who doesn't have to give homework to their students. But advice on giving homework is as uncommon in teacher education as homework is common in classrooms. Penny Ur tells us why, how to give useful homework and what to do with homework after students have done it.

Subscribe on Android

Do Your Homework! (with Penny Ur) - Transcript

 Why Homework gets Forgotten

Ross Thorburn:  Hi, Penny. Thank you for joining us. I saw you give a talk about homework at IATEFL in Glasgow back in 2017. You mentioned that the reason that you talked about homework or that you did a presentation on homework is that no one else talks about it, really. Why don't teachers and teacher trainers talk more about homework?

Penny Ur:  Why does nobody talk about it? It's one of these topics like classroom management, and teaching mixed ability classes, and dealing with slow learners, the kinds of topics which are not directly and specifically concerned with language teaching but with teaching in general.

I gave a talk recently to teachers. I gave all sorts of topics, things which are problematic in the classroom. I asked them to say which of them were the most important, things like teaching grammar or teaching heterogeneous classes, or classroom management, or homework and so on and so on.

The topics they chose were all ‑‑ they chose as their top two or three ‑‑ linked to general teaching pedagogical issues, ones which teachers all over the world teaching all the subjects encounter and worry about.

In conferences in the ELT or language teaching literature in general, on the whole, the underlying research and thinking is very much oriented towards applied linguistics, towards language acquisition, specifically.

People just don't deal with the general topics like homework, but it is one which very much concerns teachers, which is why, very often, the topics I tackle at other conferences have to do with these things. I think they are neglected. Teachers need them and want them as well as the purely applied linguistics topics.

Ross:  That's why people don't talk about it. Just how important is homework in terms of helping students to learn a language?

Penny Ur:  It is extremely important, particularly for language teaching because the amount of language that people learn and the rate at which they progress is very, very much linked to the amount of exposure of the language they get, the sheer number of hours they're exposed to and engaging with the target language.

There's no way you can give them the amount of time they need of exposure to and engagement with the target language if you only have classroom time. You need the homework time. You need that time to accelerate their progress.

Otherwise, you'll hold them back. This is more important, perhaps, for language learning than for almost any other subject I can think of.

Best Homework Activities for Language Teachers

Ross:  Given then how important homework is, what kind of homework activities do you think are most useful? Is it write out the verb 20 times like I probably had in French class at school?

Penny Ur:  Did it help you?

Ross:  Well, I can still conjugate the verb "to be" in French, but I'm not sure how useful that actually is.

Penny Ur:  Conjugating French verbs comes into its own once you've got the fluency. It is quite useful.

Ross:  Maybe, if I had the fluency to go along with it, maybe it is useful to practice verbs. Do you think things like preparing for the next class as in flipped classroom or...?

Penny Ur:  Yes, by all means, anything which has them engaging with a language, basically, and doing things with a language on condition that it's something they can do successfully without a teacher at their elbow.

In other words, homework assignments need to be slightly easier than the kind of assignments you're giving them in the classroom. In the classroom, you're there to help. When they're doing homework, you're not there.

They need, therefore, to be doing things which are slightly easier, which are what I call success‑oriented. They're likely to be able to complete them and which have them engaging with a language.

Reading certainly, extensive reading, writing assignments, preparing, you say, flipped classroom, preparing vocabulary or a text for the next lesson, vocabulary assignments. All these things, I think, are valid.

Ross:  The standard thing that tends to happen with homework is it gets given out as the bell's ringing, and the students are walking out the door. What do you think's a better way of assigning homework? When is a good time to do it? How is a good way to do it?

Penny Ur:  A year or two ago, I published a book called, "Penny Ur's Teaching Tips." One of the tips I had there is don't give homework at the end of the lesson. Again, like everything else, never say never. There are sometimes when you do, but in principle, it's not a good idea to give it at the end of the lesson.

Not only because giving it at the end of the lesson implies that it's not so important as a sort of afterthought but also because at the end of the lesson, the bell's about to ring or has already rung, and the students are beginning to pack up. Their attention is at a low level. You really want them to pay attention to what you want to tell them.

In principle, give the homework immediately after the classroom activity that it is related to. If it's doing comprehension, work on reading text immediately after you've done the reading text or even before.

The advantage of giving the homework in the middle of the lesson rather than at the end is not only that you're saying, "Right, this is important. I'm going to spend class time on it," but also you have time to answer questions. You have time to explain things more clearly, time to write it up on the board.

Then all you need to do at the end of the lesson is say, "OK, students, it's been a good lesson. Well done. Just remember there's a homework that you have to do. I've already written it up on the board. I've already explained it to you."

They're more likely then to remember to do it, although your next question is going to be, how do you get them to remember to do it, right?

Ross:  Exactly. How do you do that?

Penny Ur:  The question is, how do I get students to do their homework? You hear teachers complaining all the time, "My students simply do not do the homework. Do you have any tips on how to get the students actually to do their homework?" There's no perfect way to do this. It's really difficult.

I was teaching a seminar recently to master's students in a university. They don't do their homework either, at least not as much as you would like them to, so let alone kids in school. Probably, it's very difficult to solve this completely, but things that can help would be fine.

Firstly, make sure it is doable in the time that they have. Doable, success‑oriented. I've already said, easy to do. One very useful tip is to tell them, not, "You have to do exercises two, three, and four," but, "Of the exercises two, three, and four, do as much as you can in half an hour."

It helps to agree with them in advance that homework will take so much time, half an hour, an hour, whatever the particular framework you're working within sees as reasonable. It's going to take you so long.

You do as much as you can in the time and then stop. Your success is according to the amount of time you've spent rather than doing a certain amount of work. Success orientation is one really important thing, easy enough to do in the time allotted without your assistance.

Two other things. One is that they clearly see it as relevant to what they're learning. They understand why it's important to do. You may need to spend a few minutes explaining, "I'm asking you to do this because this is what it's going to do for you. This is how it's going to contribute."

Lastly, that it's interesting and fun to do, things which they all enjoy doing and find motivating and stimulating to do on their own.

Ross:  That's how to get students, maybe, to do the homework. After they've done it, is it important to go over it in class, or to mark it, or to do something with it?

Penny Ur:  Yes. You've reminded me of something I didn't say in response to the previous question, making sure students give homework. That is, it's so, so important to give feedback on the homework.

I remember students telling me when I asked them about homework they remember doing as children in school. They said, "When the teacher didn't bother to look at our homework, we just stopped doing it."

It's important if the students are going to do their homework that the teacher relates to it, gives feedback on it. Another useful tip about this incidentally, which also I forgot to say in response to the previous question, is that it's healthy. Doing homework is part of their final grade.

In other words, 15 percent, say, of the final grade goes on, "Did you do your homework, or didn't you do your homework?" which, of course, obliges the teacher to keep careful records who has and has not done it.

Your question was how to check it in class afterwards. What do I do about going over or giving feedback on the homework? One thing I've also seen from observing teachers is that in more than one case, I see half the lesson being wasted or being spent on going over yesterday's homework before the teacher has even got to what they planned to do in today's lesson.

We've got to think about ways to check students' homework without taking up too much lesson time which I want to use for proactive teaching. One tip is try to avoid the ping‑pong teacher‑student interaction which consists of, "Who can do number one? Raise your hand. Yes, Jack, what's the answer? Yes, no," and then so on.

One has to run through the questions because that takes up an awful lot of time and does not produce very much learning. Alternatives to that are just dictate the answers and tell the students to self‑check. Ask students to check each other. Ask if there are any which they had problems with and relate to the ones they had problems with. Otherwise, just move on.

The best possible way of checking homework from the point of view of good learning by the students is to take in their notebooks and check them at home. The problem with this, of course, is it's very time consuming.

If you have large classes and lots of lessons during the week, there's no way you can do it every time. Do it as much as possible because there's no substitute for it. It gives the personalized feedback. It's the caring, and it ensures learning. It ensures that students do do their homework better than any other strategy I know.

Homework in Teacher Education

Ross:  We've mainly been talking about how to make homework successful with students up to this point, but what about getting this more into teacher training and teacher education? What do you think we need to do to make teachers more aware of the importance of homework?

I was a teacher trainer for a long time. I don't think I ever saw this being part of any teacher training course. Certainly none of the practicums that I worked on was homework, maybe part of any assess lessons.

I've never seen it be part of any continual professional development anywhere I've worked. What do you think we can do to make teachers more aware of the importance of homework?

Penny Ur:  Not much I can add to what you said. I agree with what you said. It's a topic which is unjustifiably neglected in teacher training courses all over the place and something we need to devote time to.

There's also not that much research on it. There is research, but not as much as I would have expected and hoped. It is so important, as I said before, so important for language learning.

Ross:  Presumably, homework should be something that's part of the planning process just as much as planning tasks, activities, and anything else in your lesson. I guess it shouldn't be something that you think about as you're walking into the classroom, should it?

Penny Ur:  Absolutely. It's part of your lesson plan. Also, as I hinted before, part of assessment. It should be part of the way you assess students, how they've done their homework and how much of their homework they've done.