February 2016

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

Let’s get this out of the way first: there is little correlation between homework and school performance.

Students in America and elsewhere are receiving more and more homework every night, too much homework. In charter and magnet schools, it’s not uncommon for students to be expected to two, three, five hours of homework a night, and more on the weekend, while students in Finland, one of the finest school systems in the world, only average 30 minutes. But why?

Photo R. Nial Bradshaw

One reason is initiatives like No Child Left Behind and ever greater reliance on standardized tests for funding, teacher reviews, and everything else. Teachers are expected to cover vast numbers of objectives in order to meet the state-mandated curriculum. If they have any hope of checking off each objective, they have to give a lot of it as homework. There’s little time left in the school day to do practice and drilling, so that goes into the homework pile, too.


Parents aren’t blameless either, no matter how much they may be railing against the strain of homework now. For decades, helicopter parents viewed idle time as wasted time and viewed teachers who understood the value of free time as mediocre. Charter schools, magnets and the like often view mass amounts of homework as a badge of honor, a sign of the effectiveness of their curriculum. When I taught young learners in Korea, the parents would often call the school and complain if we didn’t give their kindergartners or first graders an hour or two of homework a night. They didn’t care if it was just busy work; they insisted that their kids study at all times.

This article in The Atlantic paints a pretty clear picture of just how much homework kids are getting these days. After seeing how much homework his daughter was getting, he decided to try to do her homework every day for a week. In the author’s own words, it nearly killed him. He raises a number of great points about homework. It’s worth reading.

How much homework do children need? From a Washington Post article:

Harris Cooper, professor of education and psychology at Duke University, who is probably the best known researcher on the subject, has concluded that:

• Up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited.

• Middle-school students should not spend more than 90 minutes a day on homework

• Two hours should be the limit in high school.

Beyond those time limits, he has said, research shows that homework has no impact on student performance.

Homework can be beneficial in some cases, but only if it is well thought-out and meaningful. A teacher should very, very carefully think about whether an assignment is actually needed, or if they’re just assigning it to be assigning something. And, teachers need to have a good handle on what other teachers are assigning as well. Letting students have free time to play, hang out, and do things that are interesting to them is valuable. More valuable than another worksheet on irregular verbs.

The ICELT Diaries: What Has Come Before

Part of my professional development plan for this school year is, for the first time, to learn how to teach.

I kid, I kid. When I first arrived in Korea in 2004, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the tender age of 27, I attended a specialized training program at a university, which was actually pretty useful for me. Up to that point, I had been teaching web scripting, database design, and software like Office and Photoshop for several years, and although I got good student and client evaluations, I had just cobbled together a theory of pedagogy. Luckily, between those university-sponsored workshops and a very good, highly experienced supervisor at my first hakwon, I learned how to teach more systematically. By the time I left my joyous, wonderful, so-so-awesome university gig in 2012, I felt pretty confident in my teaching acumen.

Jump to 2014. I’m a newbie in a university English prep program in Istanbul. Nearly all of my coworkers have, at the least, a CELTA. A good number sport DELTAs or MAs in related fields. I’d never been around so many eminently qualified professionals. While I never doubted that I could teach, and teach effectively, I realized that I could benefit from more education on education. Plus, having more qualifications would enhance my résumé. Never neglect your résumé.

Initially, I considered working on a CELTA. As chance would have it, though, our director of development offered a few of us the chance to do the ICELT – Cambridge’s In-Service Certificate of English Language Teaching – at my university, for a pleasantly reduced cost. Did I consider the various pros and cons, weighed the alternatives, investigated the curriculum, evaluated the training providers, or any sort of due diligence?


The ICELT is not nearly as well-known as its siblings, the CELTA and the DELTA. It’s purpose is a little different, naturally. The underlying idea is that teachers who are currently established in their career will take the course to learn new skills and practices, and gain deeper understanding of the theories underpinning their pedagogy. It places a heavy focus on self-reflection and peer observation. CELTA, by contrast, is aimed more at new language teachers, while DELTA is for experienced teachers who will assume roles of greater responsibility within their department, teacher trainers, or those who want more prestigious positions without getting an MA.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will share some of the insights I glean from the program. Next week, I’ll talk a little about task-based learning and presentatio-practice-production. Later, we’ll look at lesson planning, the role of observations, and much more. Stay tuned!


Worksheet Wednesday: Taboo

For this week’s Worksheet Wednesday, I’m not sharing a worksheet. See you later, folks.

taboocardI kid, I kid. But really, there’s no worksheet. Rather, I want to talk about a fun technique I use periodically to review vocabulary. Maybe you’ve played the excellent party game Taboo, the fast-paced word guessing game. A quick primer on the rules: two teams compete to guess the most number of words from the game cards. Each round, one member of a team has 90 seconds to describe the target word at the top of a Taboo card to her team while avoiding the ‘taboo’ words on the card. If the team guesses the word, they get a point. If the current ‘it’ member passes on a card or says one of the taboo words, then the other team gets a point. All the while, a member of the other team watches the ‘it’ to make sure they don’t say one of the taboo words. Hilarity ensues.

One of my vocabulary Taboo sheets for an intermediate class.

For my classes, I typically make a Word doc. with 9 text bordered text boxes aligned on it. In each, I’ll put the target vocabulary in a smaller box (or just underlined) at the top, then 4 forbidden taboo words under it. I’ll also include a number of fun words, like Gandalf or banana.

For struggling classes, I’ll change the rules a bit a let them use the taboo words as suggested clues. This lets the teams get more points from actually guessing the words instead of from the other team passing.

When I have large classes, I like to make 4 teams, pair 2 teams together, and give each of the 2 pairs a set of my Taboo cards. I’ll let them keep track of the time and points and float between the games, chiding them for L1 use or maybe whispering clues to a team that is falling far behind.

If you don’t feel like making your own cards, you can easily use the real game. You’ll need to weed out irrelevant cards; Taboo always has a lot of pop culture references that won’t resonate internationally.


On Writing Academically

God bless you, Mr. Watterson.


Bookmark This! #1

From time to time (i.e. when I’m too busy or lazy to write a longer post), I’ll share with you a few sites that are well worth your time and attention.


Some current Edutopia articles.

You know about this site, right? I feel like I was late to the party in discovering this wonderful, thoughtful collective. Frequently updated with insightful essays and reviews written by educators for educators, Edutopia is probably the education site I read more often than any other. Not everything applies to the ESL world, but even topics that aren’t so relevant almost always contain something interesting for any teacher.


What? The site where bored hipster women with way too much time on their hands show how much better they are at turning expensive junk into even better looking, more expensive junk? Yes! But it’s not just for hipster with cases of ModPodge and glue guns in quick-draw holsters anymore. Pinterest has neat stuff for educators coming out the elegantly ruffled, vintage doily-covered wazoo. I’ve found useful infographics for printing, great warmers and activities, and helpful app reviews every time I’ve visited the site. Just do a search for something like ‘Edtech’ or ‘apps for teachers’ or ‘ESL grammar’ and you’ll be swarmed with useful pins. You can even follow my teaching board if you are so inclined, though I don’t update it all that frequently.

Purdue OWL

owl_headerThis one is a bit more specific. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab is an academic resource of high caliber. You won’t find present continuous worksheets for your kindergarten ESL class here. What you will find are serious explanations of important writing and grammar topics that students in an EAP environment will greatly benefit from. And if you yourself are a little hazy on the finer points of essay writing, OWL could be just the ticket.


Worksheet Wednesday: Kahoot!

For this week’s worksheets, I’m sharing my Kahoot quizzes with you. Do you know Kahoot? If not, it’s worth learning to use. The quizzes are easy to make and even easier to use with your classes. And best of all, the students love it, partly because it’s a fun game, and partly because it lets them use their phones. I think you’ll quickly find that Kahoot quizzes are a great way to assess vocabulary, grammar, and content quickly in class.

If you don’t have time to make a KahootTeachKahoot quiz, you can often find a good one to use for many topics, especially for grammar (much less so for writing, I’ve noticed). Sometimes you will find someone else’s quiz that would be great except for a few errors, or some in-jokes, or L1 stuff from a language unrelated to your learners. In such a case, you can click the ‘duplicate’ button and edit a copy of the quiz to your heart’s content.

Feel free to use or duplicate any of my Kahoots. Most of mine are vocabulary-focused, aimed at target words from our program’s coursebooks. If you find a typo in any of them, please let me know. Thanks, and enjoy!


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