Homework for Beginning ESL Students: 8 Tips for Success
Homework can be a controversial subject. Some schools and teachers are strongly in favor of it, others are strongly against it, and many fall somewhere in the middle. But, when it comes to ESL students and other English learners, homework can offer ways to extend learning outside of the classroom and encourage independent English reading, speaking, writing, and listening at home. Here are our tips for making homework for beginning ESL students a positive and productive experience.
1. Keep it Brief
One of the keys to ESL homework success is to keep it as short and simple as possible. The goal should not be for students to spend hours on an assignment that may confuse and frustrate them. Instead, the main goal should simply be to practice and reinforce classroom learning.
There is also no rule stating that you have to assign homework for English language learners every day. Consider homework on an ad hoc basis, and only assign it on days when you have truly meaningful assignments, rather than as a given every single day. You can also send home a folder of fun English activities for students to complete for extra credit at any point in the year. This encourages learning at home while offering flexible options for families.
Whatever you choose to assign for homework, make sure that you are providing adequate scaffolding so that your ELLs will succeed. For newcomers, you may want to modify the assignment by giving them extra visuals, adapting the text to their language level, or writing directions in bullet points rather than paragraphs. Consider using writing prompts or sentence frames to support and guide your students in their writing.
2. Get to Know Your Students’ Families
The more you know about your students’ lives at home, the easier assigning reasonable and relevant homework for English language learners will be. Some students may have access to a computer and English-speaking relatives, while others may have neither.
As much as possible, have homework directions and explanations translated into the native language of the ESL student. Keep in mind that parents of ELLs likely speak another language, so it may be difficult for them to help their child with a homework assignment in English.
Once you get to know your students’ families, you can often offer better advice to help parents and their students succeed with homework. Reinforce that:
- Using their native language is important for their child’s second language development and should be encouraged.
- They can help their child, but shouldn’t do the homework for them. There is no benefit to homework being completed unless the child is learning by doing it themselves.
- Homework is an important part of learning and a responsibility of their child.
- They should feel comfortable coming to you at any time if they are struggling to help their child with homework or have any concerns relating to their child’s assignments.
3. Offer Flexibility
As you’re getting to know your students and their families, creating flexible homework assignments is essential. Here are some simple tips for making homework success more accessible:
- Provide several days (or the entire week) to complete an assignment.
- Allow students to choose between several readings or assignments to cater to their interests and help them build confidence.
- Send home bilingual books so children can read in English and parents can follow along or read in their native language.
- Send home supplies like markers or glue sticks that students may need for their assignments.
- Provide open-ended homework assignments, like listening to something on StorylineOnline.net.
4. Assess for Completion, Not Accuracy
The goal in assigning homework for beginning ESL students should not be total comprehension or mastery. That means that for many classes, assessing or monitoring for accuracy isn’t the best use of your time and can be discouraging to new students who are trying their best to grasp a whole new language.
Assessing for completion is the best option for most newcomer ESL students. It allows you to keep track of how students are doing and gauge their progress and parental involvement at home. And you can always have students turn in assignments and take your own private notes on their accuracy, even while assessing for completion publicly.
5. Make Homework Hard to Forget
Oftentimes, homework for English language learners may be incomplete because the student wasn’t clear on what exactly needed to be done. In addition to verbally assigning homework, write down any assignments and consider using a brightly colored stamp to denote homework assignments.
You can also opt to send home a “homework packet” full of ESL homework ideas every week that contains all of the assignments that need to be completed during the week. While it will take some additional preparation, this provides a flexible option that allows time for questions and may result in a higher completion rate when parents have time to help students with their assignments.
6. Create Meaningful Assignments
Colorin Colorado shares that “Recent meta-analyses have shown that educational programs that systematically incorporate use of ELLs’ home language result in levels of academic success, including achievement in literacy and other academic subjects, that are as high as and often better than that of ELLs in English-only programs (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, in press).” When assigning homework for beginning ESL students, make sure you support students in using their native language. Encourage parents to read aloud to their children in their home language— research shows that strong native language literacy supports second language development.
Another part of providing flexibility with homework for beginning ESL students is allowing them to discover the subjects and topics they enjoy. Especially in the early days of learning a new language, learning vocabulary and choosing reading and writing assignments related to your students’ personal interests can be a big motivator.
If you assign at-home reading for ESL students, allow students to choose from several high-interest books that are on their language level. Consider sharing audio books or other resources for students to listen to stories, if possible.
7. Use Homework as Preparation for Class
Because of the individuality of language learning and the differences in parental involvement, homework for beginning ESL students typically isn’t a valuable tool for developing mastery. The best homework for ESL practice is typically an assignment that prepares students for in-class activities and maximizes your effectiveness in the classroom.
Try some of these ESL homework ideas to make the most of your time in the classroom:
- Preview a text for the next day’s class.
- Review a vocabulary sheet for a text for the next day’s class.
- Practice pronunciation and reading aloud in preparation for oral reading fluency.
- Review a rough draft and make edits in preparation for finalizing a writing piece in class.
- Add unknown words identified in class to your vocabulary notebook.
8. Encourage a Homework Routine
Part of assigning homework for beginning ESL students is helping them build good homework habits as they progress and as homework may become more intensive or time-consuming.
Here are some tips to pass along to parents to help students find their focus at home:
- Create a schedule and do homework at the same time every day. Attaching it to an existing habit can help create consistency (e.g. having a snack and then doing homework).
- Provide a space for students to do their homework that has the supplies they’ll need. This can be anything from a desk in their room to a spot in the kitchen.
- Put screens and distractions away—consider them a reward for when homework is finished.
- Develop an order to create a routine. If the child needs motivation, start with their favorite subject. If they’re naturally driven to complete homework, start with the hardest assignment to get it over with.
If you notice that students are repeatedly forgetting or not completing homework assignments, talk to them and their parents about their homework habits. Sometimes, the issue may be due to a lack of an established homework routine. Other times, a parent might not be available to help their child with homework because of their work schedule. There may not be anyone in the home who speaks English, so the child may not be able to get help with their homework. If the homework is too difficult for the student to complete independently, they might just give up. By taking time to dig a little deeper, you’ll be able to determine how to best support your ESL student.
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Thank you to Melissa Miller, an ESOL teacher in Howard County, Maryland for consulting on this blog post.
This blog was originally published on October 1, 2021. It was updated on February 3, 2023.