Seven principles of setting effective primary homework

Written by: Andrew Jones | Published:
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What is the secret to effective homework at primary level? Drawing upon the research, author of a new book on the topic Andrew Jones offers seven key principles for setting good homework


In September 2019, the hugely successful television presenter Simon Cowell stated: “I didn’t have that major stress about homework, because I would just throw it away.”

Similarly, in 2018, Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker tweeted that, “Homework is a waste of time.” In the same thread comedian Jason Munford complained: “I spent three hours on a Sunday with my lot doing homework, cutting s**t out of magazines and researching animal teeth!”

Tellingly, Lineker’s tweet got more than 21,000 “likes”, but are these celebrity polymaths right in their assumptive hammering of homework?


Cognitive development and independent learning

An easy answer to the above is yes. Various studies suggest that the impact of homework at primary level is negligible whereas it is moderately effective at secondary level (Cooper 1989; Hattie 2009).

It is clear from the research that the main reasons for this are first and foremost about cognitive development and the ability to complete work independently.

For instance, Cooper and Valentine (2001) and Hallam and Rogers (2018), suggest primary pupils find it harder to stay focused and are easily distracted, do not have the independent study skills or habits that older pupils do, do not always have the prior knowledge needed to complete homework tasks, and are harder for parents to control in terms of completing homework.

However, these researchers go on to suggest that the tasks set by primary teachers involve basic skills in literacy and numeracy as well as the development of other key skills, which are harder to measure in terms of attainment in younger year groups. This means that the link between homework and attainment is arguably a misleading one and that the idea of setting homework at primary is not totally redundant.

The academic-cum-homework guru Harris Cooper still recommends setting primary pupils homework because – in later schooling – a lot of learning needs to take place beyond the classroom, which means pupils must develop good homework study habits and routines (1989; 2007).

Moreover, Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006) also identified a number of studies at grades 2, 3, and 4 in the US (years 3, 4 and 5 in the UK) demonstrating that homework can have a positive effect on learning and attainment.

Subsequently, Cooper argues that setting manageable homework tasks in lower years encourages positive attitudes, habits and character traits as well as reinforcing the practice of basic skills taught in class.

Therefore, a more accurate answer to the concerns recounted above would be somewhat nuanced – perhaps advocating the setting of evidence-informed homework tasks that all pupils can perform easily at home.


So, what does best practice look like?

If homework is to benefit primary pupils, it is worth bearing the in mind the following:

Focus on the practice of literacy and numeracy skills: This might seem obvious, but younger pupils need to master the key skills needed in later years. Plenty of research suggests rehearsal and retrieval of skills and knowledge benefit learning and, importantly, attainment (Rosenshine, 2012). This is also evident in studies of homework, particularly at primary level (Cooper, 2007).

Set short and focused chunk-sized tasks: Overall evidence suggests setting short focused tasks, which relate directly to what has already been taught in class. Importantly, various studies find that pupils learn more when allowed to practise fewer skills or concepts (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001); this is also suggested in the reviews of primary homework by the Educational Endowment Fund (EEF, 2014). Therefore, homework should be set in small chunks in terms of content – or be focused on particular skills – in order to be properly understood by younger pupils.

Limit how much is set: In the US, the National Education Association and the Parent Teacher Association recommend the “10-minute rule”, which suggests that children should be given no more then 10 minutes of homework per-night, per-grade level (Blazer, 2009). So, a year 4 pupil in the UK should have no more than 30 minutes (as we are a year ahead in terms of schooling) and a year 6 pupil should have no more than 50 minutes. This latter amount of time might sound excessive, but it would count spellings, times tables and, importantly, reading.

Back in the early 1980s, the Department for Education and Employment as it was then used to suggest 30 minutes a day (up to two hours 30 minutes per week) for year 5 and 6 pupils. Of course, these timings are suggested and would not be ideal for all pupils or contexts. What is important, though, is that time spent on homework does not exceed these limits – otherwise the impact becomes negligible.

Space and interleave previously taught content: If feasible, homework activities can follow a spaced rotation where one short task is set on the current topic and another set on a previous topic. My son’s year 6 teacher, for example, regularly repeats at spaced intervals previous key spellings as well as mathematical methods. We have also found, in previous years, that interleaving (mixing up) times tables – once learned – improved recall (see Jones, 2020).

Informing parents of homework: Epstein and Van Voorhis (2001) suggest that effective communication of the purpose and content of homework can allow parents to understand what is being taught in class and facilitate parent–child conversations, which may reinforce the importance of school work. All of this – ideally – needs to be underpinned by a crystal-clear homework policy that is regularly shared with parents.

Supporting parents with homework: Cooper and Valentine (2001) found that pupils’ attitudes to homework were largely unrelated to ability, community and classroom norms, but impacted by parental attitudes to homework. This suggests that parents have an important function in facilitating learning at home. Furthermore, the academics found that parents improving the home learning environment, especially eliminating distractions, had an impact on pupils’ attainment in school. Cooper (2007) also points out that sessions supporting parents with teaching these basic skills can also improve homework completion.

Be wary of setting compulsory project-based learning as homework: Although these longer term tasks can be enriching, some pupils may be able to visit libraries, museums, etc whereas others may not. Judging pupils on these projects is arguably unfair. Moreover, while enriching, they do not effectively embed key skills or knowledge, especially if they are standalone projects. Also, creative tasks often involve resources, which could adversely impact pupils from a more disadvantaged background. Yes, these homework tasks can be beneficial and rewarding, but they do have clear limitations. These activities should not, therefore, be set in place of those advocated above.


In conclusion

Despite research clearly suggesting that the impact of homework on learning and attainment is more evident at secondary level, it does not rule out the potential benefits of well set and manageable homework tasks at primary level. Essentially, small bite-sized homework tasks can embed the knowledge and skills already taught in class. This means parents do not necessarily need to spend “three hours on a Sunday ... cutting s**t out of magazines and researching animal teeth!”. However, I can think of worst things children could be doing.

  • Andrew Jones is assistant headteacher at The Reach Free School in Hertfordshire. He is the author of Homework With Impact: Why what you set and how you set it matters (Routledge, 2021). Visit https://bit.ly/3C6cvk5


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