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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Does Homework Improve Reading Achievement?

November 29, 2016
Letter to Shanahan:
Our school is in review which means that we have to improve reading test performance — or else. We are doing some crazy things with test preparation (that I know you disagree with), but we have also been ordered to put a big emphasis on reading homework. I’ve never been a big fan of homework because not all the kids do it and that doesn’t seem fair. What do you think about this strategy?
Shanahan's response:
Studies of homework have been thoroughly analyzed by Harris Cooper. This is an area where I can provide the researcher’s well-honed answer: Does homework improve achievement? That depends …
I wish you had included your grade levels, because the effectiveness of homework in improving reading achievement depends a lot on that. For instance, generally studies have not been especially kind to homework in the primary grades. If the goal is better reading achievement, then a big emphasis on reading homework in K-2 might not be such a great choice (more on this later).
That starts to change as one transitions into the upper grades, presumably because students are more able to apply their reading skills independently. In grades 3-8, homework has a fairly consistent impact on achievement — and the payoff tends to increase as students advance through the grades (but so does the amount of homework time needed — more on that later, too).
In high school, the payoffs get even bigger, but not until students are doing more than an hour of homework per night; up to that amount, there seems to be little learning benefit.
It is clear that homework for young children is unlikely to payoff in greater learning. However, many teachers that I work with argue for homework in the early grades as a way of socializing kids into schooling. Their idea is that the students should get used to homework since at some point it really does have learning value.
Having watched my own kids with their early homework, I think this makes great sense. Young kids love homework — it seems so grown up to them. I like the idea of getting them into a routine of taking care of their homework when they get home. In other words, the idea with those assignments is to teach responsibility rather than reading. That might not show up on your school’s tests right away, but it may pay some real long-term benefits.
Some of the biggest arguments over homework tend to be linked to how much homework is appropriate. Here I rely on Cooper as well. He has suggested that the old school saw that ten minutes of homework per grade level is sound is in good alignment with research. That means in grade 1, kids would do 10 minutes of homework per night, in second grade it would be 20, third grade 30 and so on. That sounds good to me, both pedagogically and from a busy parent’s point of view.
When I entered teaching, the concern you expressed about kids who don’t do homework was widely held. (One of my colleagues, who had taken homework assignments to a truant child was ordered off the property at gunpoint: “He can do your school stuff at school and his home stuff at home.")
Despite that, over time, I have changed my mind about homework. Homework is beneficial to kids, at least at some ages. Holding back something beneficial just because not everyone will or can take advantage of it seems wrongheaded to me now. (Grading homework is another issue. It would be unfair to grade kids based upon how well-organized and supportive their homes are.)
To increase your hit rate, keep parents and guardians informed about the importance of homework (and how much of it there will be and when it will come home). Telling the parents this directly can pay real dividends, as their children will not necessarily let them in on the secret.
Level with parents. Let them know that you understand that there are nights that get out of hand and homework just can’t get done, and that you won’t punish their child for that. Tell them you’d appreciate a note from home when that happens. However, also stress the learning benefits to their kids.
Having someone else do the homework also happens when a child can’t figure out how to do an assignment. Some kids are terrified in such situations. Encourage parents that instead of having someone else do the work, encourage their children to come to you at the very beginning of the school day — before you are even collecting homework — to show you what they had trouble with. Great teaching opportunities arise from less.
Homework can becomes a terrible system of communication, sort of like an unreliable pony express for parents and teachers. The teacher sends homework. For some reason, the homework isn’t going to be done that night. Mom doesn’t want the teacher to think she doesn’t care, so she does it herself or has an older sister do it. Voilà, homework completed! The teacher looks at the homework that obviously wasn’t done by her student and from this assumes mom doesn’t care. Yikes.
Try to break out of that vicious circle with parents. If everyone is on the same page about what is going on, you’ll see more homework completion.
What if mom and dad aren’t so great with English? That might mean they can’t get overly involved in homework assignments. If you can’t read the passages, you can’t tell if your child has answered the questions correctly. But they can tell if the homework has been completed and I would encourage parents in that situation to do what they can. Even that kind of involvement and support can make a difference in their kids’ enthusiasm and effort.
I would also suggest trying to make sure homework assignments are worthwhile. That means keeping them clear and easy enough that they can be completed at home, and demanding enough that they can lead to learning.
For instance, in the primary grades I don’t accept the research finding that homework doesn’t improve reading. That certainly is usually true, but there have been exceptions. For example, Keith Topping’s work on sending home reading books for nightly fluency practice with 7-year-olds suggests one possibility. Set it up so kids have someone at home to read aloud to nightly.
Or, a suburban principal I know had the parents of first-graders focused on practicing sight vocabulary for about 10 minutes per night. Amazing how that sped up these young children’s reading development — freeing up teacher time to focus on more complex aspects of reading.
As kids move up the grades, this gets easier, of course, because kids can read and write more independently. Increasing the amount of accountable reading students do — reading and answering questions, reading and preparing discussion notes, reading and writing — can really expand opportunity to learn.
Final word: I was working with a middle school last year where the textbook-based math homework was often incomplete because neither students nor parents knew what to do! I’m not complaining about the lack of home math knowledge here, but about unclear assignments. That kind of confusion often happens in the primary grades with reading worksheets, too. I’ve seen mothers cry over that one — they just want to help their kids and they feel stupid and embarrassed when they can’t. The lack of written directions, since the little ones can’t read yet, can be a real problem with moms. Please look hard at your assignments and make sure someone who is not a teacher can figure out what is required. It matters.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943