Why your students need a homework holiday

As I lie on my sunbed with my toes covered in sand and nothing but my two small children to disturb my daydreams, I can truly understand the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance. While this would appear obvious to most, it’s something that as teachers we tend to forget as the lines between personal and professional life blur frequently.

As far as professions go we definitely tend to have rather a lot of, well, extracurricular activities, from planning to marking, we’re never far from our next lessons and I’m sure that I’m not alone in having developed a tendency to consume films, stories, and songs with an eye to their teaching potential.  Teacher burnout is a problem with teachers trying to squash as many lessons as they can into their busy schedules and teaching hours becoming ever more extended.  A prime example of never being too far from the classroom is this very article, instead of switching off and enjoying the sunshine I’m already thinking of how I want to challenge myself in the next academic year.

But there comes a time when we do have to force ourselves to stop.  And just as our summer breaks are so coveted, in order to give us time to refresh, recharge and reenergise, it’s also important to remember that our students frequently need the same opportunities to do the same.  After devising the perfect lesson plan, selecting engaging activities and contemplating the best homework for our students to consolidate their learning, it’s easy for us to forget that most language learners are already juggling learning English with their studies, a busy job or the demands of their home life.  Those fantastic exercises that we are certain will give ample practice and eliminate any possible confusion over the target language can end up being that last proverbial straw, and instead of motivating our students can leave them resembling demotivated,  flat er… camels.

This is why I think it’s a great idea to empathise with our learners and regularly give them homework holidays.  There are many studies that challenge the true value of homework and while I’m inclined to believe that practice makes perfect and regular input sessions are important for establishing long term synapses, I think it’s fundamental that we are aware to our learners’ needs, pressures and levels of motivation.

Let me give an example, one of my students, let’s call her Maria, was what most people would describe as a typical teenager. Interested in fashion, hanging out with her friends and a quiet desire to succeed at everything while trying to make it look effortless through that well-practiced apathy that only teenagers can get away with.  Starting the year, I was impressed with the quality of her homework, but as the year went on I noticed that it started to slip. Excuses starting coming out as to why she didn’t have her homework and I realised that she was getting further and further behind.  So, after the umpteenth lesson of arriving without homework, I spoke to her quietly to see what was going on. Totally frazzled she explained that being in her final year of school, she was drowning under the pressure of trying to get everything done.  I told her to stop. Breathe, concentrate and I erased all her homework “debt”.  There was no way that she would possibly be able to catch up with the homework she had missed and still keep her head above water so I told her instead to start again from that day and try to do whatever she was able to when she was able to.

And what I saw was an instant transformation.  Without the pressure of knowing she was behind on her homework the goalposts had shifted and had immediately become achievable goals.  By eliminating the backlog, I had eliminated the problem, which was the stress of procrastination rather than the actual task of doing the homework.  Even more incredibly, she started to catch up on her backlog without me even asking, because by breaking the task down into bite-size chunks, suddenly the task was no longer so daunting.  Maria’s case is a typical example of how as a teacher, it would, and probably did in many cases, have been easy to oversee the other pressures in her life and instead just consider her to be a lazy student, which actually couldn’t have been further from the truth.

By giving our students homework holidays every now and then, we are showing that we are human, we understand their pressures and we are actually probably giving them more incentive to work harder on the next homework tasks that we set.  Language acquisition is not linear, it peaks and troughs, hurtles ahead and stalls and stumbles.  One activity is not an indication that our students will never be able to ‘get’ or effectively ‘use’ whatever the target language of that lesson may be.  It’s our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students encounter language multiple times and in a meaningful manner, and while I don’t want my students to hear me admit it, I’m sure there are a number of homework activities that though may be well thought out and clearly set up, do nothing to further challenge our students or make the language more memorable.  The isolation of a bedroom, or bus journey where many a student will scribble their homework, is after all not the best environment for learning.

We also have a responsibility to show our students that language learning is a process and one which takes time.  It also needs to be an enjoyable experience because while we obviously want our students to acquire L2, it needs to be a positive journey which inspires and engages them to actually want to continue learning.

Just as we deserve to put our feet up, soak up the rays and put our brains on pause, so do our students, and I feel that by doing so, we will nurture an environment that is much more conducive to learning.

Where do you stand on the subject of homework?



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