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Need More Instructional Time? Let Your Students Read at Home

By Krystle Gleason
 | Mar 18, 2022

As an eighth-grade English language arts teacher with 45-minute periods, my time with students has always seemed far too short. When my district switched to 90-minute blocks for language arts classes a few years ago, I thought I would finally have the time I needed to teach and ensure my students completed their work. However, after a lot of reflection and discussions with colleagues, I realized my long-standing practice of not assigning much reading homework was undermining my instructional time—even with the longer block.

When we moved to the longer blocks, along with a switch to a new language arts curriculum, it seemed logical to have students do the reading assignments in class. It’s a common practice, and it made sense because the text complexity of the new program was a big change for my students. But the result wasn’t what I expected. My pacing suffered terribly.

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

Good reading instruction encourages students to revisit a text for multiple purposes, and I was doing that. But having students read the text first during class and then also do a deep analysis of the reading material in class was repetitive and, frankly, a little boring.

My colleagues and I realized we needed to assign the reading material as homework to improve our pacing and convey high expectations. Our eighth-grade students were capable of wrestling with the text independently for a first read. They could wonder about a text while doing 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 core texts we read is All Quiet on the Western Frontand the homework for one lesson includes reading a dozen pages while annotating for emotional responses (or lack thereof) of the men in the Second Company. In class, students share what they find and then purposefully reread the text to answer additional text-dependent questions. That rereading promotes deeper learning and ensures all students are accessing the text, even if they missed the homework.

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

It’s important to help students, especially middle school students, become more self-directed and take ownership of their work. That will help them as they move up into high school and college. By asking students to complete more work outside of class, I’m supporting my students, not letting them down.

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

Four strategies to support and motivate students with reading homework

Making the shift to assigning reading at home rather than in class can be challenging, but it is worth the effort. Good reading instruction gives students multiple opportunities to engage with the content, so if a student doesn’t complete the homework, they will still have a chance to engage with the text. Over time, students will be more intrinsically motivated to complete the homework so that 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.
  • Ask students, through homework prompts, to engage with reading by noticing and wondering about it. In class, use practices to encourage even deeper levels of analysis with your support and peer support.
  • Give parents an entry point for discussions with their kids by providing a question related to the reading homework. Send the question through email or posted in a virtual space.
  • Use tools like Equity Sticks to randomize student selection during class discussion. Write 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 have that student share thoughts on a reading. Making the process random removes any teacher bias, but you should also ensure your students know that they can pass at any time free of consequence or scrutiny.

I know homework seems out of date in some teaching circles. Kids are busy, and they need downtime, not busy work. But giving students rich reading assignments to engage with from home is hardly busy work. Rather, it’s an instructional approach that can help improve their literacy skills and free up time during the school day for more robust teaching and learning. I’ve found it’s hard to argue with that.

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

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