Say the word homework to most people and they normally screw up their face into the same kind of expression. The same expression they have if you say “tax return” or “train strike” or in my case, “sugar-free”. Yuck! It’s the same when you type the word into Google and click on images. Up come a range of pictures, mostly of kids, with mountains of books and their little heads in their hands in utter despair. The only person looking happy is an owl with a hat on. And while I love Hedwig, we all know that owls are the ultimate nerds of the forest.
So, the question is, when it comes to learning a language, or anything else for that matter, is homework useful? Can anything that makes me feel so “oh go away” really be good for me? Well anyone involved in education or who has kids in school will know the debate on this is huge. A lot of research has been done into homework and the negative effect it can have. A lot of children are overloaded with work leading to anxiety and to them getting less involved in extra-curricular activities. Not good at all.
However, I’m not being graded and I’m not trying to get into university. I don’t have parents breathing down my neck. I’m not learning multiple subjects. So, this post is more aimed at the adult learner like me. Someone who takes a regular language class and would like to see progress. As a teacher and a learner, I honestly think homework can be a good thing, and this is why:
Most of us need a push
Let’s be honest, very few of us have endless amounts of motivation. Whether it’s the gym or work or learning Japanese, motivation fluctuates. Over the years I have found that most of my clients respond well to being given homework. They often admit that given the choice of self-determined homework (choosing an activity to do themselves) and being given something specific by me, they are much more likely to complete it if it is “prescribed”. I know that feeling too. The slight shame when you have to tell your teacher that you haven’t done it. That can sometimes be enough to push people. It’s like having a buddy who you go to the gym with. You don’t want to let them down.
Research into the way we learn has shown that learning information in different environments helps us retain information. We often associate information with a situation or place. For example, maybe you run into someone from work in the supermarket. You don’t know them that well but you know their name. But now you’re in a totally different environment and that person is out of context and you forget their name or maybe even where you know them from. According to Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, research shows that “the more environments in which we rehearse, the sharper and more lasting the memory of that material becomes.” Doing homework takes you away from your language class situation. You could be at home, on the bus or sitting in a cafe. Every time you are being exposed to different outside influences and as a result your memory of that material becomes strengthened.
It needs to be relevant and manageable
Of course, not all homework is made the same. As a teacher it is important to set homework that is relevant and that the learner will be able to complete. There’s nothing worse than being given homework you simply don’t understand. Or even more frustrating, spending your precious time learning random vocabulary you will NEVER need. Following coursebooks can often cause this problem. You might think that in the early chapters of a beginners Japanese textbook we would be learning basic skills such as buying things or ordering food. I, on the other hand, found myself learning the special word for the little office at the train station in Japan that deals with lost and found items on the shinkansen (yes only the bullet trains, not the regional trains) so I could call and tell them I had lost my sweater on the train and that sweater had a picture of a horse on it! Because these things happen on a daily basis and my wardrobe is full of equestrian prints. I’ll say it again. Make. It. Relevant.
To me, this is the most important factor. When it comes to learning, accountability is essential. Any serious (rather than, I can make you fluent through hypnosis in 24 hours) kind of teacher will tell you, the moment you take responsibility for your learning is the moment you really start to see improvement. A teacher is there to inform, guide and coach but they can’t do the work for you. Nobody can give you a language, you have to take it.
Some of the most effective homework I have done for my Japanese learning was creating my own sentences. Looking at vocabulary and grammar structures we had covered and then making up my own sentences. Thinking of scenarios I might find myself in when in Tokyo and writing out dialogues. More white wine and karaoke, less horse sweaters! Of course, this takes real motivation and it won’t happen every week but combined with exercises given by your teacher or from a textbook, it can massively improve your skills.
So, what are your thoughts? Homework good, yes or no?
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