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Elementary Homework Is More Than Busywork

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

Writers have expressed the opinion that homework in elementary school might be unnecessary ["Forced to Choose Between Loves," April 17]. I have a different opinion. My children are in grades four and six at Brookfield Elementary in Chantilly, and I have generally been very pleased with the homework they've had, for several reasons.

· Their homework has reinforced concepts they learned in class that day. Sometimes, my children have not fully ingrained the concepts taught in class; they've benefited from the reinforcement of working with the concepts at home.

· Their homework has given me an opportunity to see what they're learning. Asking them every night at the dinner table reveals only so much. Seeing the worksheet on types of clouds or calculating percentages gives me a prompt to get a conversation started.

· Their homework gives me opportunities to teach and reinforce learning strategies and study habits. We've worked on strategies to learn and recall material, and I see my children using them on their own. Examples include double-checking math problems and saying vocabulary definitions out loud to help with learning and recall.

Although there has been the occasional busywork, that has been the exception. My children's homework has been constructive and worthwhile, and they seem better for it.

Sandra Slappey

Chantilly

Your good observations carry great weight with me and other parents who have had the same experience. But the data show no significant difference in achievement between elementary school students who have homework and those who don't.

The research also suggests that students with conscientious parents such as you achieve more than those whose parents are not so attentive to learning, whether homework is involved or not.

Dear Extra Credit:

As a former high school teacher, activity adviser and director of college counseling at a private school (not in the Washington area), I have a slightly different opinion from Barbara Steakley, who wrote about the choice one of her children was forced to make between hockey and band.

Wearing my counselor's hat, I deplore the level of overscheduling that young people have to endure, pushed by helicopter parents made frantic by the pressures of getting their child into a "good" college. I also think that learning how to make choices and to live with the results is an important life skill that many of the overindulged students with whom I have worked have failed to accomplish.

Wearing my activity adviser hat, I am concerned about students who are pulled in many different directions and are thus unable to commit to an activity. Missing rehearsals or performances for games or practices (or vice versa, and conflicts are inevitable) has a deleterious effect on the band or team performance and negatively affects the morale of team members for whom success in the one thing they excel at is important.

As a coach and journalism adviser, I was always less happy with the over-committed and unreliable star than with the dedicated second team player. This coaching ethic and the message it sends are particularly important when working with middle and high school students.

Albert Goetz

Annandale

You make a good point, although it did not seem to me that Steakley's children were overscheduled. They had just two activities on top of their list, band and ice hockey. She wondered why a large public school would not allow them to do both, but a smaller private school would.

The problem of helicopter parents seems to me far less than what it is often made out to be. We now have a major study by the National Survey of Student Engagement showing that the children of very involved parents get more from their college years than children of less involved ones.

I wonder what other involved parents have to say about that.

Dear Extra Credit:

I might have written the letter from Adeline Wilcox ["Emphasizing Phonics, Even if the Teacher Isn't," March 20] 11 years ago when my older daughter was in kindergarten. The difference is that I spoke with the teacher, the principal, the head of the reading department in Fairfax County and at countless School Board meetings. I also served on the Textbook Adoption Committee for Reading and the Spelling Committee.

I witnessed politics in action, and I even played a little dirty myself. As a result, Fairfax County adopted four reading programs, one of which is Open Court, the only truly phonics-based program on the adoption list. Unfortunately, schools are not using this program the way developers intended.

The nature of the beginning reading texts remains the most controversial issue. Should the texts be decodable based on phonics already taught (and a few "sight" words) or should the text be predictable, with many picture clues giving the words away. In the first instance, children are taught that "sounding out" words is the preferable strategy, which will work for many words in our language.

With predictable text, children learn to "read" by looking at pictures or the first letter in words and guessing from the context. Research has shown that only poor readers rely mostly on context. The National Right to Read Foundation has information about current research and information for parents at http://www.nrrf.org.

Margo Kujat

Fairfax County

Thanks for this good explanation, and source of information.

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