June 22, 2022

Need more instruction time? Let your students read at home

As an eighth grade English language arts teacher with 45 minute periods, my time with students always felt way too short. When my district moved to 90-minute blocks for language classes a few years ago, I thought I would finally have the time I needed to teach and make sure my students finished their work. However, after much reflection and discussion with colleagues, I realized that my long-standing practice of not giving much reading assignments was undermining my teaching time, even with the longer block.

When we moved to longer blocks, alongside moving to a new language arts curriculum, it seemed logical for students to do the reading assignments in class. This is common practice, and it made sense because the complexity of the new curriculum text was a big change for my students. But the result was not what I expected. My rhythm suffered terribly.

Let them do at home what they can handle on their own

Good reading instruction encourages students to revisit text for multiple purposes, and I did. But asking students to read the text first during class and then do a thorough analysis of the reading material in class was repetitive and, frankly, a bit boring.

My colleagues and I realized that we needed to assign the reading material as homework to improve our pace and convey high expectations. Our eighth graders were able to struggle with the text independently for a first reading. They could wonder about a text while doing their homework, and then, as a class, we could all move to deeper levels of understanding through a variety of classroom activities.

For example, one of the basic texts we read is In the west, nothing is new, and homework for one lesson includes reading a dozen pages while noting the emotional responses (or lack thereof) of the men in the second company. In class, students share what they find, then deliberately re-read the text to answer additional text-dependent questions. This proofreading promotes deeper learning and ensures that all students have access to the text, even if they missed the assignments.

When first reading a book or other text on their own, I ask students to write down what they notice and wonder, which serves as an entry point for our lesson in class. This helps them read longer and more complex documents with better comprehension.

It is important to help students, especially middle school students, to become more independent and take ownership of their work. This will help them get through high school and college. By asking students to do more work outside of class, I support my students, I don’t let them down.

This approach makes especially sense with reading, which doesn’t involve lab supplies or computer programs — just a quiet corner and a book, which they can hopefully find at home.

Four strategies to support and motivate students in their reading homework

Switching to assigning reading at home instead of in class can be difficult, but it’s worth it. Good reading instruction gives students multiple opportunities to engage with the content, so if a student does not complete their homework, they will still have the opportunity to engage with the text. Over time, students will be more intrinsically motivated to complete assignments so they can engage with their peers during class. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Assign homework, especially reading homework, that is closely tied to what students are doing in class.
  • Have students, through homework prompts, engage in reading by noticing and wondering about it. In the classroom, use practices to encourage even deeper levels of analysis with your support and the support of your peers.
  • Give parents an entry point for discussions with their children by providing a question related to reading assignments. Send the question by e-mail or posted in a virtual space.
  • Use tools like Equity Sticks to randomize student selection during class discussion. Write down the names of your students and place them in a jar. During class, select a stick from the jar to check for understanding, ask for reflections, and ask that student to share their thoughts on a reading. Making the process random removes any teacher bias, but you also need to make sure your students know they can pass at any time without consequences or exams.

I know homework seems outdated in some teacher circles. Kids are busy and they need downtime, not busy work. But giving students rich reading assignments to engage with from home isn’t a busy job. Rather, it is a teaching approach that can help improve their literacy skills and free up time during the school day for more solid teaching and learning. I found it difficult to argue with this.

Krystle Gleason, an educator with 16 years of experience, taught high school English and eighth grade language arts. She is currently an eighth grade teacher at Mad River Local Schools in Dayton, OH. She also works part-time as a professional development facilitator for Great Minds, the developer of the English language arts program Wit & Wisdom. She is passionate about helping each of her students reach their potential.