Homework Strategies: What Works in Your Classroom?

If you struggle when deciding how much homework to assign, you're not alone.

As teachers, we all have mixed feelings when it comes to homework. Am I giving enough? Am I giving too little? Is this work beneficial for my students? Can they access the material without help from an adult? How long should they be spending on their work?

Depending on your mentality, homework can encompass a variety of different aspects, including worksheets, reading, "skill and drill," project work, and more. Here's how I approach homework in my classroom.

boy doing homework

As a fourth-grade public school teacher, the one absolutely consistent, daily piece of homework I assign is to read for 30 minutes each night.

I recently came across a graphic on Facebook called “Why Can’t I Skip My 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight?” (Nagy and Herman, 1987). The graphic outlines the reading habits of Students A, B, and C during the 180-day school year, with Student A reading for 20 minutes each day, Student B reading for 5 minutes, and Student C reading for 1 minute. Student A ends up reading for 3,600 minutes per school year, equivalent to almost two million words! Student B reads for 900 minutes, or almost 300,000 words. Student C ultimately reads for just 180 minutes, or a mere 8,000 words.

As noted in Lucy Calkins’s A Guide to the Reading Workshop for Intermediate Grades, “The NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation (U.S. Department of Education 1999) shows that at every level, reading more pages at home and at school was associated with higher reading scores. Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) also researched the relationship between the amount of reading done and reading achievement. They found that the amount of time spent reading was the best predictor of reading achievement.”

In addition to acting as a predictor of reading achievement, more reading forces students to encounter varied vocabulary and build background knowledge across many concepts. Clearly, at a bare minimum, reading is important.

This is such an easy piece of homework to assign, and the best part about it is that ANY type of reading helps reading achievement. Students can be reading online articles, books, magazines, newspapers — anything they want! This flexibility and choice allows for student engagement and enjoyment, something that can dissipate over the course of a student’s education.

I find myself toggling between wanting to assign work that repeats familiar concepts and wanting to challenge kids to work on harder problems. The problem with this, however, lies in the fact that some students may receive help with their homework, and some may not.

Aside from reading, I often struggle in thinking of what homework is appropriate to assign to my fourth graders.

I find myself toggling between wanting to assign work that repeats familiar concepts and wanting to challenge kids to work on harder problems. The issue with this, however, is the fact that some students may receive help with their homework, and some may not.

While this may sound like a trivial concern, it impacts a child’s relationship with homework.

When a student receives help, there are pros and cons. Pros include the ability to tackle the majority of the material and an increased likelihood of completing the assigned work in a shorter amount of time. The cons then lie in the question of if they can actually do the work on their own. For kids who do not receive help, the work is authentically their own, but it can lead to a lot of stress, tears, and anxiety if a student does not understand the material they were assigned.

One way to combat the difficulty of meeting the needs of students of varying abilities and outside resources is to differentiate work depending on the student.

For example, the ideal amount of homework for a student who may only be able to do one or two problems of a math worksheet is very different than the right amount for a child who can handle the challenge of something harder. While differentiation in this instance sounds great in theory, let’s be honest — do teachers have time to do that? Not so much.

What I usually end up doing is assigning homework in the moment, after a lesson has completed. Rather than telling students first thing in the morning that they will be doing a worksheet on multiplication at home that evening, I pick and choose problems appropriate to the work they completed in class right after I teach the lesson. This lets me know that students SHOULD be able to access the material independently, and if there are a few struggling students, I differentiate their homework on the spot.

While my "on-the-spot" assignment style may work for some, it may not work for you. In that case, you may want to assign "spiral work," or work from units prior to the one you are currently teaching. This type of homework lets students practice and reinforce skills from the past, instead of neglecting them in favor of concepts they aren't ready to tackle on their own.

When in doubt, focus on the basics.

Don’t look at homework as the end all, be all — focus more on the work students put in in the classroom.

While the debate over how much homework is appropriate clearly still stands (and will never fully go away), I have found that you can’t go wrong with a reading assignment and some math practice!

One final piece of advice in relation to homework — don’t look at homework as the end all, be all — focus more on the work students put in in the classroom. Because you don’t truly know all of the factors that relate to students work at home, it’s a safer bet to assess skills in the classroom. Use homework as one small portion of many to expand your view of the whole child, and always, always make sure that they’re reading!

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Author Bio:

Lisa Koplik is currently completing her third year as a fourth-grade teacher at the Greenwood School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. She loves teaching math, reading intense read-aloud books that promote complaints when she has to stop reading, and figuring out educational games to play with her students.

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