Step Four: Go Over Homework!
Once you’ve warmed your students up, done your organizational work and have successfully presented a new grammatical concept, now you must do something with the homework you assigned last night. If that homework had been a composition, you already have collected it, so you can skip Step Four altogether.
Let’s assume you have assigned some exercises out of your grammar text (the Breaking the Barrier series is full of great exercises!). I think a format of fill-in-the blank sentences and paragraphs is good for practicing grammatical points because such sentences provide living context for the grammar you are studying. A translation here and there can also be helpful, as well as identifying and correcting errors. Here are three examples of good homework assignments:
I) Fill in the spaces with the correct form of the present tense:
II) Fill in the paragraph choosing either the preterit or imperfect tense:
“La mujer misteriosa”
_____________________ (Ser) las tres de la tarde cuando la mujer
misteriosa _____________________ (bajar) del autobús en la Plaza Central. Alta, morena y elegante, la mujer _____________________ (caminar) despacio por la plaza — arriba, abajo, a la izquierda, a la derecha . . . “¿Qué busca?” _______________ (yo). (pensar) Por fin yo lo _______________ (saber) porque un hombre vestido de blanco la _______________ (saludar) dos veces desde un café al lado del hotel. Los dos _______________ (hablar) sólo unos segundos. El hombre le _______________ (dar) una cajita y de pronto un taxi _______________ (detenerse) enfrente de ellos. Mientras el hombre le _______________ (abrir) la puerta, la mujer_______________ (sacar) su teléfono celular y entró en el taxi. Inmediatamente el taxi________________ (irse). El hombre se_______________ (quedar) allí un momento con la cara roja y lágrimas en los ojos.
III) There are seven errors in this letter. Underline and correct them:
Ayer Ud. volvió a Nashville. Cantó muy bien en Opryland. Yo soy la chica con la blusa roja y la guitarra eléctrica que Ud. vio cerca de su coche. Ud. pedió mi guitarra, pero no le escuchí. No duermí bien después. Me sientí horrible. ¿Duermió Ud. bien? Mañana voy a poner mi guitarra en su coche.
This last exercise incites great discussion. Often at conferences someone will tell me that a find-the-error type of drill is harmful to students. The argument inevitably goes like this: Students should NEVER see errors. If they see an error, they will remember it. It will become a part of them. They will begin to make that error.
I would argue that the logic behind NOT having students do find-the-error exercises should also prohibit them from writing their own compositions until AFTER they are fluent in Spanish or French. After all, all language students will make errors when they write. Language is a system of trial and error. And if they read their own errors, won’t they be more likely to make those errors?
Nonsense, I say! Just listen to little children speaking their native language. They say and write down TONS of errors, but, in time, they learn what is correct. It is truly a system of trial and error.
In any case, Step Four of a well-organized class is addressing the homework you have assigned. Homework should not be ignored! You can’t assign homework and then do nothing with it. It just isn’t fair! Going over homework sounds so simple………..and as many teachers the world over know all too well, you can go over homework one sentence at a time. You ask for a volunteer. That student reads the correct answer aloud. You repeat, praise the student, and ask for a volunteer for question number two. This student also gets it right. You praise her, and ask for a new volunteer. He makes a mistake. You ask for another volunteer, and that student gets it right. You praise her, ask the student who made an error if he understands, and then onto question four. This student gets it right, etc., etc., etc. All set.
Wait a minute! You know where this will end up. You are going to go over twenty or twenty-five or thirty fill-in-the-blank answers. Time is ticking away as you move to the bottom of last night’s assignment. You finish and are ready to move on to Step Five. Right?
Well, no. I believe that, in general, this is the worst way to go over homework. After ten minutes, how much Spanish has been heard? How often has each student spoken? If you, in fact, had presented the new material well and your textbook explained the grammar thoroughly, these exercises generally should have been quite simple for your students. You had set them up to succeed even BEFORE they did the assignment.
Why spend so many minutes going over these sentences one-by-one? Perhaps you haven’t prepared your lesson plan well. Maybe you need to kill time. I confess that this has happened to me MANY times. I can EASILY go over the homework for ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes. I ask for volunteers to write their answers on the blackboard (just as my old high school Spanish teacher did!). That takes extra time! I crack jokes. I ask the student to read the FULL sentence instead of just the answer. I repeat the FULL sentence as well as the answer. I walk to the blackboard. I walk back to my desk. I pull out colored pieces of chalk. Does this sound familiar?
Well it works at the time. But when class ends, I feel guilty. I look in the mirror and say to myself: “I will NEVER do that again!” Until, of course, I am not well-prepared for class and need to KILL time (and everyone’s interest in Spanish) by going over the homework this way.
Look, most of your students already have the right answers. Certainly the ones who put in a little effort do. If students know you are going to go over each and every sentence slowly, they don’t need to spend time doing the exercises carefully on their own. You are doing their work for them!
What should you do instead?
I recommend handing out the answers and having students correct their own exercises in class. Put the answers up on the blackboard or on an overhead. It’s fast. It’s more effective.
Now pick four, five or six of the most challenging questions and go over them in great detail. When you’ve finished, ask your students if they still have questions. This is the perfect moment to encourage a shy student, asking him or her for a suggestion.
But, in fact, I think the best solution may be to give your students all the answers BEFORE they do the assignment. Give them an answer key or e-mail it to them. Let them check their work as they go along. If they get stuck, having the correct answers helps them understand.
What can I say, though, to those teachers who worry that students will just copy the correct answers? I honestly feel that this is not a legitimate worry because students need to be ready for the tests and quizzes anyway. If they haven’t done the practice all along the way, they will have difficulties with tests. It’s as simple as that. If a few students choose to take shortcuts, it doesn’t bother me. They better be ready, however, for the tests and quizzes. If they can ace the tests and quizzes, three cheers for them.
Occasionally a topic will arise that is problematic for students, such as if clauses, the imperfect subjunctive or relative clauses. For those assignments, you may just want to go over every single sentence in class. You may want to do this even if the students all know what the correct answers are. Seeing the answers again, and having the teacher explain the underlying logic of each answer, may help students cement their new knowledge.
But PLEASE do this judiciously. I truly believe that WAY too much time is spent in language classrooms going over homework. Dedicate only a few minutes to……..and mark in your grade book who hasn’t done the homework. If students run into trouble, your record of their homework will help set the record straight!
But now it’s time to move on.
Step Four: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
What to Do:
- Give homework assignments in varied formats: fill-in-the-blank, translation, find-the-error.
- Limit the class time you spend going over last night’s homework.
- Rather than spending too much time going over homework, have students correct their own work by handing out the answers or projecting them on the wall or a blackboard.
- Consider giving your students the correct answers before they even do the assignment.
- Go over only the most challenging questions in class (4 – 6 questions is a rough guideline).
- Once you have covered the challenging questions, ask if questions remain.
- This is a good time to draw out shy students and ask for their input.
- Be aware that spending too much time on homework is an easy way to kill class time if and when you are unprepared (Not good pedagogy!!!!).
- It’s important to move on!
Why It Works:
- Limited class time spent on homework serves as a strong reminder that students must prepare on a regular basis.
- Spending too much time going over homework rewards students who have not done their homework because you are doing it for them in class.
- Too much class time devoted to homework takes away from stimulating and participatory activities where students will learn far more.
- By giving students the answers ahead of time, they are able to answer questions that arise while they are doing their homework.
- By having students search for errors and correct their own work, they become better writers and editors.
The Big Picture
- It’s unfair to students to ask them to do homework that you ignore the next day in class.
- But limit the class time you devote to going over homework.
- A well-organized syllabus and a good textbook lay the groundwork for homework assignments that are manageable and largely self-explanatory.
- It’s tempting to spend too much time going over homework when you are unprepared for class, but resist falling into this trap.
- There are far more effective way to use precious classroom time than re-hashing material that well-prepared students have already mastered.