Homework. A dreaded concept for school children, a source of confusion for language teachers. Whether, and if so what type of homework, to give is a question also heatedly debated in the wider teaching profession, as a growing number of people argue for moving away from the entire concept. However, when it comes to private language teaching, things are a bit different. As we know, acquiring a language requires constant practice, unlike, for example, learning to solve a novel maths problem. So it would seem that the more homework you give your students, the more benefit they will reap. However, things are rarely that simple.
Is homework in language lessons even necessary?
As the anti-homework side will tell you, most (if not all) learning activity should take place in class. And there is merit to that claim, even when it comes to language classes. As a professional educator, it is your job to make sure students benefit as much as possible from the classes you provide. This is where meticulous and purposeful planning for each lesson comes into play.
However, it’s also important to remember the importance of consistency in language learning. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to fully acquire a language if they only spend an hour or two each week to the process. Hence, it’s vital to help students immerse themselves in their target language. And this is something homework can certainly help to do. But, before you start assigning exercises to be finished, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Know your student(s)
In a general school setting, the purpose of homework is for students to practise the material learned in class and refine their skills. Sadly, this has also been the case in foreign language classrooms. However, this approach shows little evidence of efficacy.
All good language teachers tailor their lessons to meet the goals and expectations of their students. This is, of course, much more easily achievable in private lessons than in school classrooms, but should always remain a teaching objective. The same needs to apply to how you assign homework, as the “one size fits all” approach to language teaching is finally getting dumped in the dustbin of history.
Not all students need to practise the same aspects of their target language, nor are all aspects equally important. When assigning homework, you need to always be thinking about your students’ goals and direct your efforts to achieving them. Endless grammar exercises will help almost no one. Instead, come up with interesting tasks that put your students’ language skills to active use.
The best type of homework
Of course, there is no “best” type of homework because it all depends on the individual needs of your students. However, there are general pointers you should keep in mind to create homework to benefit your students.
First, you should never assign homework just for homework’s sake. It needs to be a carefully considered part of the lesson, not simply something you do because that’s simply how things work.
Generally, homework needs to be interesting, of obvious use for students, and focus on macro (not micro) language skills. Often, teachers will focus on written tasks, which can easily be collected, checked, and graded. Not only does this approach increase the fear of making mistakes in students, it also fails to see language as a fundamentally spoken cultural phenomenon.
Instead, focus on creating assignments that allow students to actively and creatively use all of their language skills. As an example, get students to watch a film of their choosing in the target language and talk about in class. Prompt others to ask them questions or get them to produce a short review. Have them design a poster for the film if they’re artistic or, for more advanced students, compare films to find similarities and differences.
Allow for types of exercises where students can express their individuality while incorporating vocabulary important to them, mix-and-match their language skills to get a point across, and simply interact with people to the best of their ability. Because that is exactly how they’ll be using their target language out in the real world.
The importance of homework has long been a debated issue. Research into its efficacy has not produced clear results, yet we still continue to be heavily focused on providing homework assignments. Of course, much of the question comes down to the type of homework we’re talking about.
So, in your foreign language classes, make sure you carefully craft homework assignments to help your students achieve their language goals. The tasks should also focus on real-life language skills and allow for student experimentation. Go for oral over written exercises and don’t forget to make the assignments interesting.
All of this will help to make sure the homework you give will actually benefit your students.