Effective Homework Strategies in ESL & EFL Classes

Effective Homework Strategies in ESL & EFL Classes

How would your students react if you ended the lessons by saying, “No homework for next class”? 

When I was a middle and high school student, the average reaction I witnessed was nothing less than the whole class rejoicing and cheering. I’ve seen the same thing happen as a teacher. It’s more likely that I get a “thank you!” when I don’t assign homework than otherwise.

Why do some students feel happy and grateful if they don’t get any homework?

Why did *I* feel like that as a student? 

Research tells us there are several reasons why some students may have negative attitudes towards homework. In my experience, learners dislike it because they see it as work. And when something feels like work, it becomes a chore – it’s not fun. 

Research, however, also tells us that there is a connection between homework and learning outcomes. Homework is indeed a useful formative tool that extends learning beyond the class. It helps learners practise what they focussed on in the lesson and prepares them for the next one. Also, whether we like it or not, parents and students expect us to assign some homework.

The question then is: How can we assign meaningful homework tasks that students look forward to completing?

Here are some suggested effective homework strategies to do that.

Effective Homework Strategies: Ask students what homework is for

“What’s homework for?” In over a decade spent in school, none of my teachers ever asked me that question. None. I did my homework simply because I was told to do it. I did it because, I thought, “That’s simply how school works.” I wouldn’t have minded having a better reason for doing my homework.

According to American psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of the bestselling book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, “A well-known principle of human behaviour says that when we ask someone to do us a favour we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

When we’re assigning homework, we’re not asking students to do us a favour (although as a student I often felt that was the case). However, making them aware of the reasons why we’re asking them to complete a homework task might be the first step to help them “see the point” of homework. This, in turn, might raise their motivation for doing it.

Another effective homework strategy is to gradually

train our students to set their own homework goals.

Effective homework strategies: let students decide

A study by two researchers from the University of Bielsko-Biala, Poland,  found that “learners who set themselves learning goals according to their personal needs and their own interests are more likely to develop positive motivation to engage in learning because they find it intrinsically rewarding.” 

One of the potential homework alternatives could then be to let the students choose what to work on outside classroom time. So, instead of saying, “For next time, read page 12 and do exercises 4 and 5,” we could say, “Today we focused on XYZ topic. What can you do for homework to make sure you review and practise what you learned today?” 

This may be a conversation worth having with the students. However, if they’ve always been told what to do, students may just reply, “Erm…we don’t know. You’re the teacher.” It then becomes important to introduce the idea of autonomously selected homework gradually and slowly. 

We could start by offering binary options. “For next time, you could do X or you could do Y. Which one do you prefer?” 

Another approach to homework is to implement the use of learning diaries. 

Effective homework strategies: using diaries

Inspired by the work of Irina Wing, an EFL teacher who investigated language learning diaries as a means of autonomy development and their impact on student motivation, I did a 6-week experiment using diaries with a small group of young adults. I trained my students to use a diary to set weekly goals and helped them decide what to study or practise outside of class. They also used the diary to record the materials and resources they engaged with and reflect on their usefulness, too.

The results? Increased out-of-class motivation and higher levels of engagement with the learning process. 

Could the use of diaries be a suitable approach to

homework setting in your context?

A final thought on effective homework strategies

Sir Ken Robinson, a global authority on creativity and education who’s famous for, among other things, the most-watched  TED Talk of all time, wrote the following in his book titled Imagine If: Creating a Future for US All

“Students do not come in standard physical shapes, nor do their abilities and personalities. They all have their own aptitudes and dispositions and different ways of understanding things. Education is therefore deeply personal. It is about cultivating the minds and hearts of living people. Engaging them as individuals is at the heart of raising achievement.”

Guiding and involving our learners in making decisions about their homework can be one of several effective homework strategies we can adopt to acknowledge the differences Robinson talks about. Doing this may help us treat students as individuals, make them feel heard and, hopefully, help them see homework as interesting, engaging, motivating, and, most importantly, meaningful to them.

Homework may no longer feel like work as a result.


About the author:

Fabio Cerpelloni is a non-native English teacher and a writer. His credentials include a Cambridge CELTA and a Delta, and he is currently working on his MA thesis in Language Education.

Beyond the classroom, Fabio is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and podcaster. Currently based in Cogliate, Italy, Fabio is also the author of the book 'Any Language You Want,' which is heading towards a second edition.

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