Homework from workbooks or grammar worksheets serve as good resources to review the contents of the day's lesson. Typically consisting of fill-in-the-blanks or matching exercises, these controlled, right-or-wrong exercises try to get students to remember the lesson and target language.
Unfortunately, this sort of homework has many drawbacks. A few negatives include:
- The homework fails to engage and interest the students.
- It doesn't push students to analyze, evaluate, or create new ideas.
- If the teacher checks the answers in a lesson, valuable time gets wasted.
- If the lesson begins with the workbook assigned, then this sort of homework doesn't engage students during warm up.
- Many students choose not to complete the assignment and worry less about mistakes when the teacher provides the answers and/or elicits answers from students.
The best homework expands on the lesson, and even prepares students for the next lesson. More specifically:
- Effective homework allows students to use real, relevant, and meaningful language.
- It requires students to use the lesson content in a more flexible manner.
- It lets everyone reuse previously studied language and skills, and thereby make new connections.
- It gives students the chance to incorporate pre-existing knowledge, ideas, and interests.
- This sort of homework challenges students creatively.
- It is engaging and interesting.
What follows are seven ideas I regularly use in my lessons with students of all levels. These same ideas are also ones I encourage my teaching staff to use too.
1: Assign reading materials with discussion questions. The article should connect with and extend the contents of the lesson.
This sort of assignment allows students to work on material which may be above their level; contains a lot of specialized vocabulary; is longer and more detailed than what would normally be usable in a lesson; etc. In an intermediate class, content from Wikipedia or an article written for native speakers serve as only two examples which, although are excellent resources, may be impractical in a lesson with limited time.
...effective homework allows students to use real, relevant, and meaningful language
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When students arrive to the next lesson, little to no time should be spent on the actual reading assignment. This means the teacher shouldn't clarify passages or words, check comprehension, and so on. The teacher instead begins with a warm up based on the article, and then segues into the theme or topic. In other words, the article expands on the previous lesson, perhaps showing real use of the target language; an alternative point of view on a topic, more detail on a topic, etc. It serves as the foundation on which to use the target language, discuss, or debate.
2: Assign reading materials for students to write a short summary, answer a critical thinking question, etc. Explicit guidelines should be provided, such as write one page or use three key vocabulary words from today's lesson. When students come to the next class, they exchange papers with a partner, correct any language previously studied, and/or provide one positive comment and one piece of advice.
Again, the teacher can easily incorporate material which extends the lesson topic. The content may be slightly too long and time consuming, contain too many new words to sufficiently teach and use in a regular lesson, and so on. This sort of activity with students providing peer feedback also creates a collaborative learning environment; students help students make progress. What's more, when students listen critically for mistakes, they are thinking, reviewing, and analyzing information, even if they don't catch some of the mistakes.
3: Students look up a person, place, or thing and prepare a short presentation. It doesn't matter much if students research in their L1 or L2 because they will need to write, practice, and present in English.
At the start of the next lesson, students exchange their notes with a partner for correction and feedback, and the teacher can restrict the feedback to information from the last lesson(s). As a next step, students practice reading aloud in front of the partner, who again provides feedback and encouragement. Finally, students give the presentation to the class, answering one or two additional questions from students.
This third idea allows students to use vocabulary and grammar which was studied in the previous lesson, as well as connect the target language to new ideas, words, phrases, etc. Students also practice fluency skills, structure, discourse markers, and so on.
4: Students prepare for a role play. Materials or tasks may be assigned to read and understand at home, which might be necessary with a less familiar topic. When students next meet for a lesson, each person provides a mini-presentation on their topic. Students then conduct the role play with language previously learned. For example:
In a travel-related unit, partner A wants to travel to Thailand and partner B wants to visit Spain. Partner A independently does some research at home about Spain (and partner B, vice versa). In class, students alternate between a travel agent recommending Spain and Thailand, and use the phrases from the board, book, or previously practiced.
5: Assign additional listening homework. This proves especially helpful for students or classes that need to focus on listening skills. The students should listen to an audio file from the textbook or website, answer questions, and come to the next class prepared to discuss, summarize, etc.
...providing peer feedback creates a collaborative learning environment
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This activity works very well to prepare students on a topic. If students don't know much about the topic, as might be the case with a famous person, preparation allows everyone to more actively and deeply engage with the content in the next lesson.
Students might also shadow the contents, provided the audio is about one minute in length. Shadowing refers to reading the script while the audio plays to mimic intonation, focus on speaking fluency, etc.
6: Vocabulary exchange has students keep a vocabulary notebook each week, and then share two or three words at the start of a lesson. In short, student A teaches his/her words to student B, and vice versa. The vocabulary should include the word form (i.e, noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.), a definition, and a sample sentence.
7: Assign material from TED Talks, or have students find a topic of interest. With thousands of videos, students can find a topic to watch, take notes, write a summary, and discuss. Again, like some of the above suggestions, students can peer edit any writing, provide feedback to a mini-presentation, prepare discussion questions for debate and role plays in the following lesson, and so on. And similarly, new grammar, vocabulary, and communication skills and strategies can also be practiced.
The above ideas require students to prepare in advance of the lesson. Because the activities are interactive, engagement and interest tend to be higher. In addition, if students don't do the homework, they are unable to participate in activities, which thus also serves as a final motivator.