Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, students in grades K-12 should have homework on a regular basis, probably every night. The reason for this is simple. Learning new things is difficult and it takes a lot of practice to master content regardless of grade level. Well-planned and thoughtful homework can be incredibly useful in giving students more opportunities to practice the concepts they are learning in school. Also, a classic study I had to read for professional development a few years ago on academic behaviors put out by the University of Chicago (daaa Bears) made a clear case for homework by citing previous studies on the utility of doing homework to improve grades:
“…spending time on homework is another academic behavior shown to have a positive effect on students’ grades in both middle school and high school (Cooper, 1989; Keith et al., 1993; Peng & Wright, 1994). Using a large, nationally representative sample of over 20,000 high school seniors from the High School and Beyond study, Keith (1982) conducted a path analysis and found that time spent on homework had a significant positive effect on grades across achievement levels, controlling for race, background, ability, and field of study (college preparatory versus vocational). Furthermore, Keith demonstrated a compensatory effect of homework; students who scored in the bottom third on achievement tests and spent one to three hours per week on homework were able to raise their grades to Bs and Cs, equivalent to students with test scores in the middle one-third who did not do homework. If the students with test scores in the bottom third spent over 10 hours per week on homework, they could raise their grades to mostly Bs, which was equivalent to the grades of top-scoring students who did not do homework.”
So I would argue that the debate on homework should be centered on its quality rather than its existence.
Amount, Frequency, and Variety
In the early elementary grades I can see the argument that a five year old doesn’t need homework every night – they are barely past playing with blocks in school, why should they have to start sitting down at the counter every night with a thick stack of work? I would push back on this by rhetorically asking: when is the right time to start building a homework habit? 1st grade? 2nd grade? If not now, when? It’s not a disservice to young students to require them to do some practice at home each night. What’s the right, reasonable amount? I have heard the rule of thumb about adding 10 minutes a night for each year in school after first grade (see, I link to some NEA stuff!).
I think a teacher/grade level team needs to have a deep understanding and clear vision of what they are hoping their students are going to get out of homework each night and a school needs to trust that teacher. I don’t have much curriculum experience with 1st grade, so why would I mandate a firm “20 minutes a night” approach? I wouldn’t.
Basically in K-5 there should be a reasonable amount of homework each night in math and reading where students have the opportunity to practice the skills they are learning currently or a review of what they have experienced previously. Particularly in upper elementary there should be some nights where the reading homework is simply to read (more on that later). As kids continue to advance into middle and high school teachers need to coordinate the amount and frequency of homework by subject. This requires humble communication where no one teacher sees their subject as the be-all-end-all of education.
Useful and non-useful assignments
“Useful” often does not mean “easiest to grade” or “easiest to plan” so recognize that, teachers.
- ELA: they should read…something each night! This can be a short magazine article, poem, article from NewsELA, etc. Then answer questions (some multiple choice, some short answer) about the text that require evidence or write about their reading with evidence. There should also be some focus on vocabulary practice. Here’s an example of a homework vocabulary cycle that could repeated each week (ideas courtesy of my dear wife Kristin, a rock star ELL teacher):
-Monday: Learn a new vocabulary set in school, practice spelling each word for homework
-Tuesday: Match the vocabulary word with its definition
-Wednesday: Write two synonyms for each vocabulary word
-Thursday: fill in the blank sentences with the vocabulary words and/or multiple choice practice with the word in a sentence and students needing to pick the correct word or definition
-Friday: Focused sentence writing with the vocabulary words (example: “use the word ‘profit’ in a sentence about penguins)
- Math: Should be a mixed review with a balance of word problems and straight up calculations. Ideally some of those questions should be related to what they learned that day.
- ELA: word searches, crossword puzzles, simple writing prompts that are completely unrelated to anything they are working on in school like “if you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live? explain your answer in complete sentences”
- Math: needlessly wordy or complicated problems, questions that end up with massive calculations, questions more rigorous than what was worked on in class
My thoughts on reading logs might be better served in the “Classroom Hot Takes” section of this site but for sake of simplicity I’ll share them here. Reading logs are stupid. Yes kids need to be reading independently for 30+ minutes a day but ideally that time should be woven into their school day so you as their teacher can ensure they are actually reading. All reading logs do is offer an opportunity for your students to be dishonest with you. A nightly reading log will give some of your students practice reading and other students practice lying. Don’t give them that chance! Just don’t do it.
This is all dependent on the amount of time you have built in your day to grade. As a math/science teacher I had more prep time so I tended to grade every single problem. As a self-contained teacher there were days where I barely had time to make my tea. As purposeful planners, ideally every question on the homework is worthy of your students’ best efforts and your time to grade it. More realistically you’re going to need to fly through the grading most of the time. So pick a section of reading that you are going to grade everyone on and one or two math problems to focus on. If planned well, students will still get the benefit of solid and engaging practice even if you can’t grade every single question and they will get feedback on the most essential components of that night’s homework. Also, once in awhile you might not have time to grade everyone’s work or any of the work. THAT’S OKAY. They will survive and you will too.
Also, get a key made each week for all the homework. I suggest a weekly or monthly rotation between you and the other teachers on your team. That way everybody takes on some ownership and gets an opportunity to check in on the quality and rigor of the homework that is being planned.
Keep some kind of grade book (I used google sheets on google drive). I would then grade based on effort and completion and not on the amount of correct answers (more on that in a second). I arbitrarily gave 2 points for math and 2 points for ELA each day pretty much because that was what everybody else was doing. Those points felt manageable and I was quickly able to distinguish in my own mind what a 1.5 looked like versus a 1.75 and that was easy to communicate with my students.
Completion and non-completion
The expectation should be that you are assigning a reasonable amount of homework each night for your students. You need to have a clear vision for that from the beginning of the year and be upfront about it with your students and especially families. Don’t leave families hanging or unable to know what to expect with homework each night.
If you have students completing all of their homework each night, good for them. Don’t give them stickers or extra privileges for meeting the expectation though. They are just doing their job and the reward is that they are getting smarter and mastering their grade level standards. In upper elementary and beyond, definitely keep track of a homework percentage so students can get practicing associating their work with a value (which is kind of how their salary will work in their future careers!).
The trickier part is what to do with students who choose not to complete all of their homework each night. Like all negative behavior choices, the cause can be extremely variable depending on the kid. Is it not having a designated space to work at home? Is there a routine for what happens when the student gets home from school? Does the student not see the value of doing the practice and how it connects to their grades and content mastery? Was this an issue the previous year? What are their other academic habits like? Is this part of a larger issue around attendance, focus, etc? How hard is the student working IN CLASS to ensure they are ready to access the material and practice at school?
Get your detective hat on and get answers to these questions before you ask the following:
QUESTIONS OF ABSOLUTE LAST RESORT SO YOU DON’T LOWER EXPECTATIONS FOR YOUR STUDENT TO CONSIDER:
Is the work too hard right now? Is it too much? Does it need to be modified?
Now, what should the consequences be for a student not getting all or part of their work done? Coming to school without the homework done means that a student did not take care of their business at home so two things need to happen if you really believe in the purpose and power of the practice.
1. All of the work needs to be completed. Period.
2. The work needs to be done at a time of day that feels like a little pinch for that student. In general I have tried to make a distinction between some questions being skipped or done with low effort and entire sections of work that didn’t get done. If it’s one or two problems the student “skipped” then I would have them do that during a break time before they can chat with friends and play. If an entire section or all of the work isn’t done, then it’s going to get done during lunch and recess (caveat! Let them go outside once the work is done, give them the chance to get done what needs to get done and let them go, seriously).
Don’t feel like using your prep/lunch time to make kids complete their homework that they didn’t do the previous night? Three options:
1. Suck it up and do it because you believe in the power and purpose of homework and want to teach your students that success requires hard work.
2. Find a different social time to take away
3. Stop giving homework if you’re not going to hold kids accountable for it then, jeeze.
Any work that doesn’t get done at home should negatively affect their homework average and depending on how nice you want to be, the make up work could make up for all or part of that average drop. Personally, I don’t give credit even for make up work – the purpose is in the practice not the percentage.
Some schools do homework support after school if a student doesn’t get their homework done on a consistent basis. I have always had mixed feelings about it because I tended to see the same students in homework support all year and keeping them after school would stretch thin our teacher time resource for low habit-changing results. I would stick to taking away social or fun times during the day for the previous night’s homework to get done and work on family and student communication and problem-solving for habit improvement.
Correctness vs. Effort
Effort is a better barometer than correctness. A lucky student who guesses “C” on an ELA multiple choice question should not be getting more credit than a student annotating the text who just picked the wrong piece of evidence to support her answer. This all goes back to the twofold purpose of homework: it gives the student an opportunity to practice and it gives the teacher an opportunity to see what a student has down and what a student still needs help on.
If a math student just writes 64 as an incorrect answer to a tricky word problem this brings up a lot of questions for both student and teacher. Did the student guess? Did the student try mental math and got the work wrong? Was the student making a lazy choice and actually knows what to do? More often then not in a situation like this I would just tell the student to try again using a strategy without any further support from me. More often than not the student would come back having used a strategy we had talked about in class and solved the problem. If still incorrect, them putting work down on the paper would allow me an opportunity to see where their thinking went off the rails and I could then tutor them on that question and do follow-up practice.
Putting in work and making that effort clear on the page is much more helpful than just throwing down an answer. If you as the teacher communicate this to the whole class and families from the beginning of the year and stay consistent with it throughout, the quality of completed homework will be pretty strong and students will get the benefit of more targeted help from their teachers. Yay effort!
Quality effort on math and reading work
ELA: clearly following directions (if the question says to underline the quoted text, that text better be underline or the student is losing points), annotating texts, answering questions in complete sentences, etc. NOT FILLING IN ALL THE LINES.
Math: Some sort of strategy shown on the paper. An answer to a question is not work. Students need to show how they worked through the problem in some way (I’m being intentionally vague here because there are loads of ways to show conceptually how you work on a math problem! Hooray math!).
Do they need to underline the important information in a math or ELA question? Sure, it can’t hurt. I wouldn’t make that a requirement for kids unless an individual is consistently struggling with understanding what a question is actually asking them to figure out. Otherwise this “strategy” will end up feeling rote and robotic and unhelpful over time for most students.
Packets or Individual Sheets? (sub category: how should kids turn in homework?)
When I co-taught 5th grade as a math and science teacher I strongly preferred subject-specific sheets just because it was easier not to get work mixed up. So when students came in the room they would drop off their homework in two different bins and my co-teacher and I would grade them separately.
Once I did self-contained, I preferred a weekly packet with both math and ELA because I didn’t have as much time to grade or sort through a big pile of papers. So students would turn in their entire homework folder in a big bin on my desk when they came in the room, and I would flip through to the day, grade that sucker and get it turned back to them with corrections or feedback.
Like everything with school, getting parents bought in and involved helps but it can’t be a crutch for us as educators. Every parent on the planet wants their child to thrive. All parents are able to help in whatever way they can. Sometimes that help can’t come in the realm of homework and that needs to be okay with you!
I would suggest in your beginning of the year meetings with parents (you’re planning on having those right? Because they are really great and helpful!) lay out your vision for the purpose of homework:
- it’s practice on what is being learned in school
- a way to show your teacher what you know and what you still help with
- a big indicator of success in school and college.
Let them know what your expectations are with grading, what will happen if a student chooses not to do all of their work. Ask about habits and work space at home and offer polite suggestions for creating a routine where getting homework done is just part of what happens at home each night. Let parents know that you will communicate with them when homework isn’t getting done AND when homework is looking great. Follow through on that!
Just don’t forget that you and families are on the same team and want the same thing for the child: success! So be upfront with your families and help them understand the purpose and the process. You may need to remind them of this a few times throughout the year, and that’s okay too!
Can students earn a night off from homework?
No. You undermine yourself and the concept of hard work creating success by telling students that sometimes homework isn’t important when they earn some arbitrary amount of points or can “buy” a night off. Don’t. Do. It.