Are your students reluctant to do homework? Do they think that doing it is time-consuming and not worth the effort? If that is the case, it’s not because the idea of homework itself is boring or useless, but because students often spend too much time doing meaningless activities and at some point realize that they prefer to manage their free time differently. Let’s face it: they are probably right. But there are ways to make students like homework again. Why? Because the role of an English teacher is not only to teach English, but also to teach how to learn English, to equip students with the necessary tools to become independent English users. You can tell your students how to use grammar, or explain what words mean, but it’s up to them to actually ‘make language [their] own, … assert [themselves] through it’, as the linguist Henry Widdowson puts it.1 So instead of giving your students pages of exercises and getting irritated because they don’t do them, use some of the ESL homework ideas below. They will help your students make English their own.
Students choose what they need
Start with a question for your students: In what situations do you use English outside the classroom? Then ask them to choose two or three words covered in the lesson which they think will be of use to them. Give them a minute to think what words might come in handy in the everyday situations THEY often find themselves in. The words might be different for a student who uses English at work, or who has friends they chat with in English, or who lives in an English-speaking country, or who doesn’t speak or write in English outside the classroom, but watches American series or reads celebrities’ posts on Instagram. Once they have chosen the words, ask them to use each of them at least once before the next lesson. They can use them in a conversation, an email or a message. They should simply be on the lookout for situations where the words might be used, e.g. while watching a film, they might want to respond to what an actor says using the word ‘hilarious’.
In the following lesson, ask your students to report how the task went: Did they achieve it (partly or fully)? What situations did they use them in?
Students use and listen for grammar in context
The same goes for grammatical structures. For instance, after introducing and practising Present Perfect Continuous, ask your students to think of out-of-the-classroom situations in which they are likely to use it. Thinking about a new tense for a couple of days might prompt students to say (if only to themselves): ‘I have been cleaning for an hour’, or ‘I’ve been waiting here for too long’.
If you think this might be too challenging to start with, make the structure more approachable first by asking your students to notice the new language while they hear people talk (at work, in films) or when they read something in English (a post, a blog entry, the news). When they’re back in the lesson, ask them to tell you what they were listening to or reading when they recognized the structure. They could take notes on it before the lesson, but they might also talk about it on the spot. As it doesn’t require much preparation, it is probably the easiest of the ESL homework ideas presented here, so you might choose to try it first.
Students use functional language
Lower-level students often struggle to start speaking English, first in the classroom, then outside of it. To help them open up and get accustomed to using the language in different situations, their homework could be going to a café and ordering something. They could also ask someone for directions, or have a chat with an English-speaking colleague. Back in the classroom, ask them to report how it went, what they ordered, etc. Give your students a couple of weeks to do the task – some may not get the immediate opportunity to do it, others might need time to pluck up the courage.
This idea works especially well when students either live in an English-speaking country, or are going on holiday abroad. If the latter is the case, make the task more demanding, as they will probably be forced to speak English anyway. They could ask detailed questions about a menu in a restaurant or haggle over a price.
Students predict and plan
The flipped classroom approach will give your students plenty of opportunities to ‘own’ English. Tell them what the topic of the next lesson will be (e.g. recycling) and give them the following homework: look up five words that they think will be useful to talk about recycling. They will then have to use them in the next lesson. This task will make students research the topic and plan what they might say, which is a great step on the way to becoming an independent learner.
For this to work, students need to be honest with themselves and choose words that are actually new for them, not just come up with some they are already using. But if they truly want to learn, tasks like this one will provide strong motivation.
Once the lesson has finished, ask your students what words they had prepared and whether they were able to use them all.
You can also use one of our Flipped Classroom lesson plans and ask students to use the tasks as a guide to get ready for the conversation you are going to have in the lesson.
Students read, listen and watch to create their own ESL homework ideas
If your students are not used to reading online articles in English or watching authentic videos, you should definitely encourage them to do so. A simple idea to start with would be to ask them to find an article, a video or a podcast (in English) on a topic they are interested in, and report to you what they found out about the topic. You and the rest of the group could then ask some follow-up questions, or it could be the student who prepares some talking points for the group. Nothing motivates a student more than talking about what they like, and not what the course book dictates.
You could also choose one of our Critical Reading Club lesson plans. Ask your students to read an online article at home and have a discussion about it in the lesson. This will help them become independent readers and will maximise the student speaking time.
If you study a foreign language yourself, try to use some of the ideas first, in order to better understand what they are about and to pick those which your students would benefit from most. And don’t forget to let us know what you think about these outside-the-box ESL homework ideas in the comments below!
1This idea is nicely exemplified by the author and teacher trainer Scott Thornbury in his blog entry about motivation in language learning.