In other classrooms, students run out the first chance they get.
But not in your class.
You’re just wrapping up class when you hear someone call out from the back of the room, “Please, please, teacher, you forgot to give us some homework!”
Under normal circumstances, that might seem highly unusual, but not when you make homework fun and engaging.
In fact, it’s possible to assign homework to your ESL students that will have them begging for more. How? The first step is to assign homework that works.
What Makes Homework Work?
Assigning homework that works isn’t as hard as you might think, especially if you focus on the following points.
- Put your homework in writing. It can be tempting to just announce homework assignments to students at the end of class, but language learners benefit when you reinforce what you say with what they can see. So take a minute to write any homework assignment on the board so students can read it as well as listen to it.
- Keep your homework practical. Your students may not find themselves planning out a menu for Thanksgiving when they leave your ESL classroom, but odds are they’ll have to order food at a restaurant or write a memo. Think about realistic ways students will have to use English in the real world and try to make your homework practical.
- Let your students be creative. Give your students choices on how they express themselves or present information. It’s okay for students to make a home movie, put on a one man play or paint a picture to present to the class. Just because you prefer a particular type of creative expression doesn’t mean your students do, so give them choices and let them express themselves.
- Make homework fun! Every class has its own personality, so what’s fun for one might not be fun for another. Tailor your assignments to the personality of your class. Think about what they would think is fun, and go with that.
So how do you include those elements in homework assignments for your ESL students? I’m so glad you asked.
9 ESL Homework Ideas That Will Have Students Begging for More
1. Start some gossip
Gossip? Isn’t that something mature people avoid? Not when the stories are all fabricated for the sake of language learning.
Talking over the phone is a real challenge for second language learners, so this fun activity will give them some practice.
Make up a story and write it out for one student, or simply tell one student before class lets out for the day. For homework, that student will call another student and relay the story to him or her. The second student calls someone else and does the same and so on and so on until every student in class has heard the gossip for homework. (Write out a list of student names and phone numbers and hand it out to each student. Then each person can simply call the next person down on the list.)
The following day, give students a questionnaire to see how much correct information was passed along.
2. Assign a latte homework
Not everyone thinks coffee makes the world go round, but even coffee haters will love this homework assignment.
Send your students to a coffee shop or a restaurant to practice their speaking or listening skills. Depending on the level of your students and what skills you want them to practice, you might ask them to do any of the following while they’re at the restaurant.
- Practice a conversation with the server or cashier.
- Listen to others in the restaurant and note interesting phrases or slang usage.
- Write a restaurant review or menu review for a class foodie magazine.
3. Encourage your know-it-alls
What do your students really care about? Give them a chance to talk about it in front of the class. Here’s how.
Have each person choose something they’re passionate about, something they might consider themselves an expert on.
Challenge students to think of a creative way to present five must-know facts about that subject. They might make a movie, create a poster or brochure, write a song, put on a skit, etc.
Have each person present their creative project to the class, and then give the class five minutes to ask questions of the presenter.
Set certain parameters like students must speak in complete sentences or require that every student ask at least two questions at some point during the presentations.
Students will love sharing about their passions, and they’ll get some great speaking, listening and discourse information in the process, as well as teach the rest of the class some interesting vocabulary.
4. Observe in the interest of humanity
Do you like to people watch? There are so many fun and interesting things you can learn from simply watching the people around you, and there are plenty of places for good people-watching: a restaurant, a park, a mall, public transportation, sporting event.
I’m sure you can think of a dozen more. And there are plenty of ways to tie language use to people watching.
- Have students write descriptions of the people they see.
- Challenge students to listen to dialogue and note unfamiliar vocabulary they hear.
- Students can put their writing skills to work by writing out a scene starring someone they observed. Let them practice speaking by asking students to tell a classmate about a person they saw.
- Send students out to do a little people-watching and then bring what they learn back to class.
5. Shop without cash
Students don’t have to spend lots of money to have fun with this homework assignment. Send students out to the store of their choice or the local mall for these fun assignments.
- Have students practice telling a salesperson what they’re looking for and then getting directions to that item in the store.
- Have students take pictures of items they see and then use them to create a faux catalog about the products. Then copy and distribute the catalogs to your students.
Give each person one hundred classroom bucks to spend on items from all the catalogs (except their own) and see who in class has the best sales.
6. Catch a block-buster
Can you legitimately send students to the movies for homework? You can when you’re teaching ESL.
There are plenty of ways to use a movie for language development. And whether students watch a new release or catch an old Elvis flick on TV, they can do any of the following activities.
- Summarize the movie plot.
- Note new and/or interesting vocabulary (particularly slang) they hear while watching.
- Write an interview with one of the characters in the movie or role play a character while a classmate interviews them.
- Call a friend (telephone conversations are more challenging for language learners than those that are face-to-face) and discuss what they liked and disliked about the movie.
- Write a movie review on a sticky note and display it in a designated area of your classroom.
I’m sure you also have your favorite movie-related language activities and many work as homework assignments. So get creative with how you have students share about what they watched.
7. Meet new people
For the most part, people are willing to help someone in need, and that is doubly true for someone who needs to complete an assignment for school.
That’s why sending students out to interview native speakers is such a fun homework assignment.
Start by helping your students write a survey they’ll use for their interviews. Students can choose a topic or you can assign one, like leisure activities or celebrity news.
Tell students to list five to ten questions they might ask on that topic that will elicit specific answers. For example, if students chose celebrity news, they might ask how many celebrities a person follows on Twitter or if they watch an entertainment news program and, if so, how often.
Once students have their list, have them work with two other students to choose the three to five best questions to include on their survey.
Students should type up their questions and make one copy for each person they intend to interview. Ten is usually a good number.
As a class, discuss how students might introduce themselves to a person they encounter and would like to interview. You can write out an introduction based on your discussion and have students practice it with each other in class.
Then send students out to their interviews. Rather than having their interviewees write answers on the survey, students should ask their questions and then write down the responses they get. (It’s a language activity, after all.)
Back in class, have students assimilate and represent their data and present it to the class.
8. Put on some headphones
Music can do anything from relax us to invigorate us to help us fall in love. Who doesn’t love to listen to music?
Music is good for English learners, too, since it stresses many aspects of language that can otherwise be hard to isolate.
Have students choose some English songs to listen to for homework and then do the following:
- Practice the lyrics to learn intonation and rhythm.
- Note slang and cultural references in the songs.
- Draw a picture of how the music makes them feel, share with the class and explain why they created what they did.
- Have students share their favorite lyrics and what a particular song means to them.
9. Picture this scavenger hunt
Have you played the game Apples to Apples? If you have, you know part of the fun is in just how subjective the game is. And sending students on a photo scavenger hunt can encompass the same type of fun.
Give individual students or groups of up to three students a list of items to find on their scavenger hunt. But instead of being specific in your list (for example, including items such as cat), be descriptive in your list.
You might include items such as something frightening, something beautiful, something quiet, etc.
Students find items they think fit the description. For example, someone who is claustrophobic might choose an elevator for something frightening. They then take a picture of it.
The next day, have each person get with a partner and show them the pictures they took for each item on the list.
If the connection is not obvious, students should ask their partner to explain why they chose a particular item, such as the elevator.
As long as students can explain the connections between their pictures and the scavenger hunt items, they score a point for each one.
If a student thinks an item is too much of a stretch, have another pair of students cast votes and go with two out of three opinions.
No matter what you believed in your student days, homework doesn’t have to be boring. With a little creativity when assigning homework, you might find that the activities you assign for outside of class become the highlights of your students’ days.
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But ESL students, on the other hand, may disagree. Adult learners will argue that they have busy schedules and a life outside the classroom, which translates into “no time for homework”. Young learners and teens may come to terms with the fact that they have to do homework, but do we want them to do it because they are compelled to do it... or do we want them to do it because they are excited to do it? Which would you prefer?
The only way to get young students excited about doing homework, and get adults to set aside some time for it, is through highly creative and thoroughly engaging homework assignments. And here are 5 examples:
Homework Assignments That Work
A Word Book
A Word Book or Vocabulary Journal is a classic among teachers of very young learners who are not adept at using dictionaries; here they have a chance to make their own. Help them design their very own Word Book from scratch, out of construction paper, cardboard, or any materials you have on hand. At the end of a reading task or activity, make a list of the words they have learned for the day. Their homework assignment is to enter each of the new words in their Word Book. The littlest ones simply copy the word and draw a picture of it; older students can use the word in a sentence that illustrates its meaning. There is no need to copy “dictionary” definitions. They may also cut out pictures from magazines or newspapers and get as creative as they like. But one thing is certain… these will be words they won’t easily forget!
Do My Research!
This is an extremely engaging way to provide extended practice of any grammar point. Say you want your students to practice comparatives and superlatives. Tell them you need information on this year's Oscar nominations. Tell them to go to Oscar.go.com and give them a list of questions they must answer:
- Which of the nominees for Best Picture is the longest film? Which is the shortest? The most popular? Earned the most money at the box office?
- Which film has the most nominations?
- Which in your opinion is the best film?
- Compare two of the actresses nominated for Best Actress. Who is older? Younger? Taller? Prettier?
You may assign any number of research tasks: ideal places for a family vacation (LonelyPlanet.com), best restaurants in the city (Zagat.com), or anything based on local information. Just make sure you give them a website to go to, a set of questions to answer or a task to complete, and above all don't forget to plan the assignment with a grammar point or learning objective in mind.
In the News
This is an ideal assignment for adult students. Most read the newspaper anyway, right? Or watch the evening news. Ask them to choose a news story that has piqued their interest, and have them:
- Write a report on the news story
- Write a dialogue in which a journalist interviews someone involved in the story.
- Answer a question like, “What could have gone differently?”, thus prompting them to use conditionals, for example (If the truck driver had not answered his cell phone, he would not have caused the accident.)
This is clearly one of the homework assignments that works best with adult learners or those who specifically study Business English. Give them an email to read and ask them to write an appropriate reply. Or give them a situation that would require them to compose a message, like a complaint over a bad service experience or an inquiry into vacation rentals.
Choose a TV series that is shown in English, either with or without subtitles (you may ask students to cover the subtitles). Choose a show that is suitable to your students’ ages. Tell your students that their homework for that night will be to watch an episode of Modern Family, whether they usually watch the show or not. Give them a task to complete after viewing the episode: a synopsis of the episode, a character description, or a questionnaire (Do you usually watch this show? If not, would you start watching it? Why/why not?)
Another great way to get students actively engaged in their homework assignments is to ask them to come up with some ideas for creative assignments on their own and share them with the class. They may surprise you!
And if you’re still stumped as to which worksheets to assign to practice grammar, vocabulary, or reading, BusyTeacher.org is always available to help, 24/7, with wonderful ideas for activities and great ready-to-print worksheets.
If you have any ideas for other wonderfully creative homework assignments, share them below!
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