Homework: The Final EFL Frontier

They say to practice what you preach, and as I’ve been banging on for a couple years now about introducing web 2.0 approaches and social networking into the language learning process, I’ve decided to try partially crowd-sourcing my upcoming talk at the IATEFL conference in Brighton in April. Having started that process with a few ESL and EFL groups on LinkedIn, I’m now widening out my scope by inviting my Twitter PLN to weigh in (via comments to this blog post) on the subject of homework with their thoughts, experiences and ideas. All contributions welcome!

The last few years have witnessed an explosion of interest in how “edtech” technology – from interactive whiteboards to video to games to e-learning platforms like Moodle — can be used to enhance the classroom experience for learners of English. The ensuing debate has seen some teachers embrace the technology; others take up a refusenik stance; and yet others tempted by the new tools but unable to fully adopt them for budgetary or practical reasons.

Much less attention, however, has been paid to how technology can be used outside the classroom — where learners spend 99% of their time — to accelerate, enhance or otherwise improve the learning of English. As learners – particularly teen and young adult “digital natives” who have grown up with digital devices and the internet – increasingly use these tools and resources for home assignments in their other school subjects, the teaching of English risks being left behind in the shift towards greater learner autonomy, self-motivation, and self-learning unless the new opportunities on the “home front” are addressed just as seriously as those in the classroom.

We need first to think hard about the appropriate role for homework in EFL teaching. Is it just there to consolidate what has been taught in class, or should it be used to help develop a pattern of self-learning? Can the homework experience be enriching, can it add another dimension to what is learned in class? Can it be used to increase and enhance input and intake of English, so that class time can be better dedicated to interactive discussion and constructive error correction? And how can homework spill over into classroom work, creating new opportunities for dialogue, rather than just the other way around?

Next, what are the available platforms and tools for out-of-classroom English language learning? Is a shift of format something to be seeking, e.g. if they use workbooks in class, will they want to do more of the same outside of it? Should teachers track homework compliance, or not? And if they do, should they correct it all, and is there time to do that? Can e-Learning platforms be a solution, or are they too cumbersome to be used in this regard?

Finally, how do we solve what Paula Swenson, in her excellent guest post on Alex Case’s blog, calls the Homework Conundrum? How can we get learners to see homework as a genuine learning opportunity rather than simply a chore? And why do some forms of homework assignment seem to fall flat with learners, while others actually manage to motivate them? (Alex Case himself provides some excellent answers to those questions here).

I call homework the “Final Frontier” of EFL because it is perhaps the area of EFL which has been least studied, and where pedagogical practices have been the least revisited, at least officially (there is clearly lots of clever experimentation and personalized approaches being applied by EFL teachers on their own initiative). So don’t be shy: share what works for you and we can perhaps start to codify our assembled insights into a useful Guide to Homework for EFL teachers everywhere.

9 Responses to Homework: The Final EFL Frontier

  1. Hi there Paul,

    I guess you said it all when you said that we need to make sure homework becomes yet another learning opportunity, and not mere repetition of mind-numbing tasks that will lead nowhere but the realms of boredom. However, this doesn’t mean we should only assign homework when it’s engaging and interesting – as someone recently said on twitter, lessons can’t possibly always be fun or interesting. Life isn’t always like that, and learners have to learn how to handle things they might not find as interesting. What we need to worry about is the learning value of any activity we assign to our students. “How are my students going to benefit from this?” is a question that needs answering not only for classroom activities, but also for homework chores.

    I’m still a tad unsure whether web 2.0 is the answer to all that. I still think the tools are there and may be useful, but not in an intrusive way. I don’t think anyone enjoyed when parents or teachers came to our playgrounds when we were younger, and this hasn’t changed, IMHO. What’s changed is the playground. We won’t be reaching out for students by asking them to do things on facebook or other social media websites on their own. What should be done is take advantage of the tools they are using and make them have easy access to educational resources. I guess this is the rationale behind English Attack!, isn’t it?

    Finally, e-learning platforms can be a solution, but it all depends on how teachers use them. If we don’t change our idea of what we expect from homework, it’s just a change of media, but this won’t help much. Homework can be effective and meaningful in a 2.0 world or in a paper-based world. It all depends on how we deal with it.

    About a year ago, I wrote something on the matter that may be useful to explain my views a bit further, or at least my views then: http://hoprea.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/homework_yes_homework/



  2. Adam says:

    Firstly, I assign homework that’s clearly related to specific objectives, so the students know why they’re doing it and that it isn’t just for the sake of it.

    Secondly, and this is absolutely vital, I follow it up in class at the time I’ve agreed (negotiated) with the students that I’ll follow it up. They know exactly when they need to do it by. This should hopefully tie in with the things you’re doing in class around that time, rather than being totally separate.

    Finally, I don’t demand that students do it. Steps one and two help to reinforce the fact that it’s beneficial for them to do it. If students want to give it to me, I collect it and comment. If not, that’s OK.

  3. Marisa Pavan says:

    Hello Paul!

    You’ve raised controversial issues here. Homework is really debatable. As most things in life, it’s got its pros and cons. As Henrick expressed above, one of the main concerns should be the benefit of the assigned activity. In my case, I meet my group classes twice a week and my 1:1 students once a week. For that reason, homework is essential for students to keep in touch with the language. I do my best to set relevant tasks and those in which my students have to be creative and imaginative. I also upload extra activities in the wiki space I share with my students for them to go on practising at home.
    Regards from Argentina!
    Marisa (@Mtranslator)

  4. Hi Paul,

    I know I’ll be echoing much of what Henrick, Adam and Marisa have said here, and I’ll try to be brief. I see homework as a chance to increase the students’contact/exposure to the language (especially in the context where I teach, teaching English to Brazilians, in Brazil, twice a week for 1h15m each time), as well as to reinforce what is being studied in the classes. However I make an effort to most of all assign tasks and activities that foster learner autonomy, to make them (hopefully) want to take the assignments a step further, do similar activities without having to be prompted/requested by the teacher.

    I believe this can be done in a number of ways: by having students do their homework using tools found in the web that the student can go back and use again, find other uses (maybe personal) – podcasts, blogs, watching videos, etc; by giving them feedback than provokes replies from the student (suggesting another reading on the topic, asking the student to reseacrh on the topic he’s written about, asking why, establishing a feedback “conversation”); creating assignments that connect students to other students – and maybe this way creating an opportunity for further exchanges in the laguage. I think the possibilities are endless.

    I do believe assigning homework has to be a regular practice (every class) but also taking in consideration the students’ availability/time for accomplishing the tasks and being sensible about the size/effort and time needed and the deadline for the assignment. It is essential that the teachers go over (be it correcting as a class, collecting, having students do peer correction…) the homework on the deadline. But if a student doesn’t do the homework I usually give them an open deadline to do it and bring to me.

    I hope I was able to help you with my views on homework. Look forward to seeing the result of your work in Brighton🙂



  5. Hi Paul,

    I mainly work with teacher training and development now and it´s a while since I had a group of my own, but I think I would like to add some points.

    I think homework makes a great deal of sense in contexts in which we have limited hours of contact with students (my case with most of our students here in Brazil, just like Cecilia and Henrick), perhaps no more than 3 hours per week of lesson time. It´s an opportunity to extend a learning situtation.

    I think at times homework can be designed so that it is meaningful and relevant and even enjoyable. But there will also be those moments when the task at hand might not be so interesting, but it will make the learning far more profitable later on. If we think of playing an instrument, there is no way you can master piano playing without necessarily doing hours of scale practice. But I need the technique in order to give voice to my interpretation abilities. In a way, I see some homework exercises as fulfilling the same sort of role as scale practice. The thing is, how do we present this to students so they don´t lose interest? I think we need to present tasks to learners so that they actually challenge them to think, to build up on their hypothesis and step ahead in their language learning.

    I think that web 2.0 may actually offer us with a number of different possibilities which may allow us to set up these challenges, but then I agree with Henrick, teachers need to think differently about the objectives of homework vis a vis the resources / media used for the tasks themselves.

    A few years ago, when teachers began experimenting with blogging I saw a number of teachers using this as a resource to encourage learners to write. Which was great. But then they wanted to include corrections in the blog posts. For me, this sort of defeated the task itself – this didn´t make sense. A familiar process writing approach was being forced onto this new format of expression, which is so closely associated with the idea of freer expression and so on. I frequently argued against this, but I know not everyone agreed with me. (Process writing is fine, but as steps before actually blogging and not using the media itself for correction.)

    So, hope my thoughts were of some use. Hope to see you at Brighton, looking forward to your conclusions on all this homework issue.


  6. ALiCe__M says:

    Bonsoir Paul,

    I often use *my blog* when giving homework : ask my students to go to such and such entry and write about a picture there or answer questions I’ve put on the blog or follow instructions or watch a video etc. When the homework is a written one I correct their work individually on paper (but they saw instructions and material on the blog).
    I use *the class blog* (not my blog, a different one, shared with the whole class) differently for homework : I give them a task and then correct online (no red, no crossing out, just simple invisible correction.)

  7. Bete Thess says:

    Hi there.

    I tend to to agree with Henrick when he says ‘e-learning platforms can be a solution, but it all depends on how teachers use them’. There’s absolutely no use in resorting to a tool just for the sake of change, regardless of its usefulness or practicality. Besides, teachers shouldn’t choose this tool for students – they should choose it themselves, just like they select a toy to play with, and in having the final say, fully enjoy the time they have to play with it. I’ve seen teachers devising intricate projects involving digital tools which came to nothing, just because they didn’t bother to ask the client (students) a simple question: “Would you like to do this?”. On the other hand, I’ve seen wonderful results come out of projects done cooperatively between teachers and students, where the final production was the consequence of group work. Everyone took part in the decision-making, so they all ‘gave birth’ to a collective idea, enjoyed it, and practised their English, which was the top goal.

    In my view, homework IS necessary and welcome, it is learning that should be done on a regular basis and away from the classroom, when students have to ask themselves the crucial question: “Did i get it?”. The issue then is one of what kind of homework to assign, and when, and how. Different classes have different needs and teachers have to be aware of those needs in order to make homework and enjoyable/meaningful/challenging experience, rather than a boring repetitive chore.

    See you at IATEFL!


  8. Sean says:

    I thought this TED talk was particularly fascinating, where web 2.0 had enabled teachers to reverse what they did in class, and what they did for homework. Not sure how it would apply to TEFL, but I’m sure we could work on something…


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