Does Homework Improve Reading Achievement?

  • 22 November, 2016

Blast from the Past: This entry was originally posted on November 22, 2016 and is being reposted on October 21, 2018. The reason for this repost? Recently the New York Times published a letter from a middle-school student complaining about loss of sleep due to too many hours of homework. This blog entry is definitely pro-homework, but if followed eighth-graders would have a less burdensome experience with such assignments than is described in the Times. No homework is a bad idea in terms of kids' learning, but so is too much homework. Sometimes teachers/principals go off the deep end, wanting to seem rigorous; and there is a need for some coordiation of homework requirements across classes in these upper grades. 

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?

           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 benefits 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 pay off 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 that. Homework can be 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 still another issue. I think 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 become 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. Voila, 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 surrender to the research finding that homework doesn’t improve reading. That is usually true, but there are 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 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 a lack of parental math knowledge here, but about unclear assignments. The same kind of confusion often happens in the primary grades with homework worksheets, too. I’ve seen mothers cry over that one—they just want to help their kids and feel stupid and embarrassed when they can’t. The lack of written directions on homework can be a real problem for moms and dads. There might not be directions because it is supposed that the little ones can't read them, or that the older ones will remember how to do the task later when they are home. But lack of homework directions often means the homework cannot get done. Please look hard at your assignments and make sure someone who is not a teacher can figure out what is required. It matters.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Susan K Gittinger Jun 29, 2020 11:07 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
Homework is a topic that continue to be debated as is obvious since this was posted in 2016, reposted in 2018, and it caught my eye in 2020. Your practical, common sense approach on the subject validated my general views on homework and left me breathing a bit easier. The school at which I teach has followed the 10 minute per grade level general guideline for years. In recent years, however, homework completion has become more of an issue both because families are just busier and the anti-homework sentiment has increased.

In the early primary grades I think the primary purpose of homework is to establish academic routines and responsibility. Taking the 10 minutes per night to read or practice sight words that you suggested is purposeful, reasonable, and parent doable as it requires nothing more than a signature on a log sheet.

In an attempt to meet that same criteria of purposeful, reasonable and doable for both English and Spanish speaking parents, I developed a homework routine that has worked well. One of our standards for Religion is reading scripture. Each week I select one of the readings the students will hear at the upcoming Sunday liturgy. Because the USCCB site has the liturgy readings available in English and Spanish, I am able to copy it in both languages. We read and discuss the passage in class. I preselect vocabulary to directly teach and have a place for students to select their own troublesome vocabulary. Students are asked to read the passage 3 different nights with a parent/guardian. Only requiring 3 nights allows for that crazy schedule night every family seems to have and students learn to manage their time and plan around sports practices and lessons. There are discussion questions and vocabulary activities. These Home Reading assignments are given each Monday and due each Friday. Although the scripture is different each week and the activities vary, parents and students know what to expect. I have had positive feedback from parents who have said it has led to good family discussion and engagement in Sunday Mass. Students are also asked to highlight any Spanish vocabulary they recognize and fluent students may practice and read the Spanish translation to the class. This has been a source of pride for some students as they come to embrace being bilingual. I would appreciate any suggestions you would have on how to include non-English speaking parents. Not only is vocabulary important for reading success, it is a way to build respect in diverse settings.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Does Homework Improve Reading Achievement?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.