Homework for ELLs: Help or Hindrance?

Homework and school have gone hand-in-hand for so long that it’s mostly assumed, if not ingrained, that studying outside of the classroom is an essential part of any schooling experience. Like any other part of education, homework trends have come and gone, and currently some pushback against homework is emerging in the United States, possibly in response to cultures of high-stakes assessment and worksheet packets of test preparation that leave students uninspired at best and marginalized by the system at worst.

Recently, a post about a North Texas teacher went viral, in which she stated her “homework policy” for the school year would actually be a NO Homework policy, and that she would instead encourage learners to eat dinner with their families, exercise outside, and go to bed on time—factors which she argued (and much research agrees) can be greater predictors of student success than completing homework.

Time magazine also published a recent article on whether or not homework was helpful, in which it too looked at the North Texas teacher’s policy to see if there was something to it.  Key points from this article were that, although some research supports a relationship between homework completion and high achievement in schools, that relationship is not necessarily a causal one.  This means that it’s hard to tell if homework creates high achievers, or if students who are high achievers are just better at doing their homework. Also, it seems that homework might benefit older learners, but its benefit to younger learners remains ambiguous19.

Issues With Homework

Homework in the traditional sense can be problematic for both K–12 English learners and adults, for some similar and distinct reasons.  For school age ELLs, homework is rarely differentiated for students with different levels of proficiency, meaning that beginning-level ELLs might be given homework designed for fluent peers.  Some teachers might skirt this issue by giving ELLs no homework at all, but then ELLs who might benefit from some independent practice that matches their proficiency level are denied that opportunity.  Larger issues for school-age ELLs that can interfere with homework completion are the roles and responsibilities they might have in their own families, how familiar with the type of homework given in U.S. schools they and their families are, whether the homework allows the learners to draw on their L1 culture and language, and how well that homework is matched to the learner’s abilities in terms of both linguistic and content knowledge.  Older ELLs might also have after school jobs that last late into the evening, making hours of homework completion impossible.

Another issue with homework is that language itself is a communicative social act, but homework assignments are often done in isolation, and center around discrete skill reinforcement or rote memorization of words, numerical processes, or facts/dates. Some discrete skill practice in language can be helpful, but tasks that are largely unrelated to anything the student is interested in, or unconnected to larger content concepts, may be counterproductive. Also, many homework assignments that come from workbooks or textbooks may be seriously lacking in any type of cultural relevance to today’s diverse school-age population, making them even less motivating for students who can’t relate to the content. Finally, if teachers give or take away points for homework completion, they may be creating grading “black holes,” in which students have lost so many points for not completing their homework that it becomes nearly impossible to earn a high grade in a course, even when the student has good attendance and participates effectively during regular class time.

Creating Meaningful Homework Assignments

I think homework can be a useful way to extend learning, but I encourage teachers to craft it as carefully and thoughtfully as they would other types of assessments.  Some questions I would pose to teachers as they develop homework for their  ELLs, or any students for that matter, are the following:

  • What is the goal of the homework assignment?  What will students TRULY gain from completing it? (Being able to pass a test is not an intrinsically motivating reason, so this might be something like developing problem-solving skills.)
  • Does the homework assignment match what you have been doing in class with the learners?  (I.e., If you have been doing engaging collaborative exercises in class, but you give a packet of worksheets as homework, how authentic is the practice compared to the skills you are developing in class?) Does the homework assignment provide any kind of match to your learners’ interests, cultural backgrounds, or first languages spoken?
  • How much time do you think the assignment will take the different learners in your class?  (I.e., One assignment might take some learners 5 minutes and others 90 minutes.)
  • How can you differentiate homework assignments by content, process, or product for the diverse learners in your classroom?
  • How can you scaffold large projects into small, intermittent steps to help students manage their time?  How can you help them track their progress to completion?
  • How does this homework assignment connect with other assignments that they have either recently completed or will complete soon?
  • Can you focus students’ attention on “assignments” that have more to do with language use rather than discrete skill reinforcement, such as noticing English in their environments, watching movies or listening to music in English, noting  conversations they have using English, or allowing them to read entertaining texts in English?


About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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2 Responses to Homework for ELLs: Help or Hindrance?

  1. Valerie S Jakar says:

    Geography, physics, astronomy, design, calculations, poetry, art work, song, traditions, religious practice, and language, will all come up if you brainstorm about The Moon.
    The best piece of ‘homework’ I witnessed was a project called “Watching the Moon”. Each ELL – in a sheltered program for primary (Grade 6) level beginner learners – was given a plain notebook in which they were to record for a month the position of the moon at 8 p.m. (or thereabout) each night. The students were diligent – as were many of their parents. According to their proficiency levels, they noted details, contexts, weather conditions, unusual phenomena, and feelings, by means of drawings, words and terms, charts or narratives (the teacher ran a curriculum where she was constantly increasing the input and review of the vocabulary and writing strategies that were useful for the developing writers). An impressive display of the Moon Logs, with the proud ‘loggers’ standing by their products, celebrated the end of the project, the end of the month, just in time for the beginning of Ramadan!
    The language learning and practice was meaningful, the content was powerful. Some students worked in pairs, collaborating and negotiating before completing their individual daily logs. The resources were few – and available (except when it rained!) – and the demands on the students were variable, according to their abilities. It was a thrilling homework venture! So let’s not throw out the homework with the bathwater; let’s nurture some motivating projects and involve the home environment as much as possible. VSJ

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