If It Can Be Done At Home, Don’t Do It In Class

Alex Case
How to stop wasting class time.

The title of this piece is the main rule that I keep in mind when planning lessons and writing online teaching materials. As well as the obvious advantages of leaving class-time free for more productive things, this policy can also foster student independence. If you get into a cycle of leading into the thing to do at home in one class and then using what they have learnt at home in the next class, it also naturally leads to more recycling of the language covered, making sure it isn’t just taught in one class and then forgotten.

Examples of things that can be just as usefully done at home include:

  • Checking the answers to their homework
  • Most detailed reading of a text (for example vocabulary questions and detailed comprehension questions)
  • Almost all written practice activities (gapfills, matching sentence halves, etc etc)
  • Much actual reading (after doing the lead-in during the lesson)
  • Memorisation of a dialogue to prepare for controlled and then freer speaking
  • Choosing which language is worth learning (for example selecting five words from a text)
  • Preparation for speaking tasks
  • Most brainstorming

I should emphasise here that something that students could do at home doesn’t automatically become something worth doing in class just by putting them into pairs. Such activities are still better done at home unless they would really benefit from hearing each other’s ideas.

There are very occasionally times when you do need to do parts of the lesson that could be done at home, like making sure students understand the grammar to be ready for the next activity.

Moving things to homework can be taken much further by taking what I call a PPPP (Presentation Practice Pause Production) approach. For a language point such as grammar, the lesson is planned so that students finish a discovery approach presentation of the new language at the end of class and so are perfectly set up to do written exercises on the same language for homework. After checking their homework in the next class (or even better asking questions after checking their own answers with the answer key at home), students do controlled and then less controlled speaking practice on the same language point, which is then tied cleverly in to a discovery approach presentation of the next language point if they are ready to move on to it.

The same PPPP approach can also be  taken with texts, with detailed comprehension questions being done for homework. Discussion questions based on the text are then talked about in the next class. Less confident classes can also prepare answers for the discussion questions at home, though they shouldn’t be allowed to look at what they’ve written while they are speaking in class and there should also be a few new discussion questions that they haven’t prepared for. With listening texts, students will obviously need tapescripts and/or recordings to make this possible.

Nowadays and for many students I’d even include pure free conversation in the “If it can be done at home…” rule, seeing how cheap and easy it is for most students to find conversational English teachers on the internet. They could also easily start an English conversation club where they could do the exact same thing as during pairwork and groupwork in class for free.

Things that they are unlikely to be able to do outside class include:

  • Lead-ins to listening and reading texts such as prediction tasks
  • Being led through discovery tasks to help them work out language patterns and rules for themselves
  • Communication games and other controlled spoken practice tasks
  • Feedback on their speaking
  • Getting useful self-study tips tailored to their own needs and interests
  • Most pronunciation work
  • Analysing listenings for what it is that makes things difficult to understand
  • Most other skills training, e.g. scanning and reading for gist

The other main exception to the “If it can be done at home, don’t do it in class” rule is vitally important things that students could do at home but can’t be trusted to. With most of my students, those times include:

  • The first couple of times they check their own answers to the homework and prepare questions to ask you
  • At least the first couple of times of correcting their own written work using a simple marking scheme and then asking about any corrections they aren’t sure about
  • Timed practice of exam tasks
  • Learning how to use a dictionary properly
  • The first couple of times of brainstorming and planning writing
  • The first couple of times reading quickly for general understanding, scanning for specific information, etc

I should emphasise that all of these things can be left for the students to do after class after the first two or three times being done in the classroom. However, you should always do some kind of feedback session in future lessons to check what they are doing at home and how well they think it is going, in order to get useful feedback for you and to motivate them. These Q&A sessions can also train students to prepare questions for the teacher, including eventually things unrelated to the syllabus of the class.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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