There have been a few queries recently about setting homework for EFL students, so this week we are going to look at why homework is important for language learners, how to go about setting homework tasks, and some ways of encouraging completion of homework assignments. We all have a limited amount of contact time with students, so homework is key to helping them make good progress. If students are expected to do a couple of hours of homework a week - this represents a significant proportion of their learning time.
Of course, there is no sure way of ensuring students do the work that you set for them. If you work with children or teenagers, it’s hardly surprising that, for many of them, homework is not top of their list. Even for adult learners, busy lives, work commitments and social engagements may push homework down their list of priorities.
The following sections cover different things to consider when setting homework assignments. Choose the approach(es) based on the age and personalities of those involved, and on your teaching context.
APPROACH ONE: Focus on making sure the homework assignments are up to scratch
Make it interesting
When we set homework, we sometimes think of it as an add-on, or we set the boring stuff that we don’t want to do in class. It becomes a drudge for the students rather than a positive learning experience. The nature of the work that you set is the one thing you do have some control over.
The easiest first step is to ensure that the work is manageable, interesting and productive. Set short, regular learning tasks and try to vary the kind of work you set them. If your latest homework has been a writing task, for the next piece of homework provide them with a link to a podcast or video and set them some comprehension questions - or have them prepare a summary of the content. Remember that not all homework needs to be a marked assignment. To help you manage your own workload, a combination of the two types is the best way to go.
Free EFL Resources
Luckily for us as teachers, there are some great free resources available to us. And don’t think just in terms of handouts or traditional tasks. Make use of the vast array of learning materials available online. Podcasts and videos are particularly useful and there is loads of stuff out there on online news channels, TED, YouTube, Vimeo and other platforms. Here are a few of our favourite sources for podcast and video materials:
Of course, you can always use video and podcast materials that are not specifically designed for use in education, or with EFL students in mind. The big news channels, for example, are great for this.
There are also lots of language learning and EFL videos out there on YouTube that explain or demonstrate certain points of grammar. It’s worth doing a quick search for an up-and-coming grammar point to see what’s available. Some are produced by language-teaching organisations, and some are just individual teachers, and they vary a lot in terms of quality. Some are terrible, but some are excellent! If you find a good one, why not have your students watch it for homework. You can then briefly review it at the start of the lesson and move immediately into practice activities – more fun for everyone involved!
As with classroom work, try to focus any homework on topics that are likely to be of interest to your learners. Or allow them some personal choice. For example, if you want them to practise presentation skills, the content is not so important – it is merely a vehicle for the skills development work, so give them some options:
- Pitch an idea for a great new TV show or
- Choose your favourite charity and present a novel money-raising idea or
- Prepare a short talk about a book you have read recently, or a film you have seen.
You can even provide some choice as to how they submit a particular piece of work. So, if you are doing work on, let’s say ‘first love’, you could give them the option of submitting their work as a podcast, or as an article for web or print, or a series of video interviews.
Try to structure homework tasks in the same way as you would a lesson activity. For example, you might break down an essay task into stages, with each stage a separate piece of homework:
- Research and list 5 facts about...
- Plan a ‘compare and contrast’ essay using the structure provided.
- Title each paragraph and bullet-point the content you would like to include.
- Write the opening paragraph.
- Complete the essay using appropriate linking phrases.
A final option you might want to try is to set a minimum level of work. For example, you might say the following:
- Exercises 1 and 2 are relatively quick and easy, so I want everyone to do these
- If you have time, it would be great if you could do the final exercise as well
The advantage of this approach is that you are more likely to get something from everyone, whilst those who want to put in the extra effort will be able to advance their studies. You may also find that more students than you expect to end up doing the extra work. Having overcome the initial inertia, they may decide they might as well complete the assignment.
APPROACH TWO: Appeal to learner self-interest
Agreements and explanations
Your contract with your class should include a commitment to them doing work when it is set. As part of this contract, you should also agree to mark and return work promptly. We know that, as teachers, we all work under an enormous amount of pressure, but there is nothing more disheartening for a student than to have spent significant time and effort on some work, only to find that your teacher either hasn’t read it or marked it. Of course, you don’t always need to set work that requires marking – but, when you do, return it promptly, with useful comments and suggestions.
Give reasons why homework is important for their success:
- You have limited contact time with them
- You can help them learn and try to make the experience fun, but you can’t do the learning for them
- Setting them work to do at home will free up more classroom time to be spent on practising their language, getting feedback and interacting in the target language – something that is more difficult for them to do at home
- Homework leaves more time for games and fun activities in class too
EFL Learner Autonomy
Work on making your students more autonomous as learners. Stress the importance of motivation, have them think about why they are learning the language and of the short-term and long-term benefits for them.
With adult EFL learners, and students who have exams coming up (or who need grades for university or college) have them focus on this as a form of external motivation. It is also good practice to have students share learning strategies that work for them. Encouraging learner autonomy helps students see the value of homework and how that fits into the learning partnership between teacher and student.
APPROACH THREE: Applying rules, sanctions and pressure
If approaches one and two are the carrot, then approach three is the stick. This is probably the default mode in many schools but, in my experience should be kept as a last resort, simply because it may be counter-productive and can negatively impact your relationship with the students. Also, if we are trying to produce mature and responsible learners, sanctions mitigate against this, since they rely on power relationships.
That is not to say there is no place for students feeling pressure to hand in work. For EFL students who are younger or who are repeat offenders, some pressure can be useful. If there are no consequences, particularly for younger students, then you may struggle to ever get work submitted. Pressure can come from the school, from parents, or even from peers.
There are different types of sanctions. They may be things you have agreed on in advance with your students or maybe wider school policy. Traditional sanctions typically include things like detention, additional work, letters or calls to parents. Other sanctions may include withdrawal of certain privileges such as preferred activity time. However, never sanction a whole class – limit the sanction to the person involved. To do otherwise is not only unfair but can lead to resentment and disharmony in class.
Also, if imposing sanctions, make them impersonal. Don’t get cross or exasperated. Simply, ‘if x then y’ (sometimes referred to as the law of logical consequences). “You know the rules: if you don’t hand in your homework, then...(fill in your own consequence!). It’s down to you.” This allows you to maintain a good working relationship with the student and encourages them to take more responsibility for their learning.
That’s it for now. We hope you find the suggestions useful. Please feel free to post any thoughts or comments below.
Written by Mike Turner