I know you probably hate the word “depends” by now. But in answer to the above question, giving homework does depend on the teacher, the student or the combination of teacher and student.
Remember school (some of you are in school now) and how you felt about homework? This was a time when your main job was going to school, besides, perhaps, holding a part-time job. Imagine some of our adult students who work, take care of their family, take care of elders, clean the house and talk to and meet with friends--and also study a language. How do they feel like getting homework from their italki teacher? Again, it all depends.
Read on to find out if homework is an essential to learning a language:
For fun or future
One thing to consider as a language student is why you are taking the language. Is it for fun, just to know the language, for tourism, just to communicate? If so, then you may not want or require homework. (Remember, there are exceptions to everything.)
Or do you need the language for work? Is there a serious reason to learn the language? Then asking for or getting homework may make sense to more quickly improve your progress.
Real teachers give homework*
*A play on words, based on the satirical book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche by Bruce Fierst, published in 1982.
The last thing I want to do is put pressure on language students when I know how busy they are. One of the worst things I can hear from a student is “I didn’t have time to do it,” sounding ashamed. So I don’t give homework unless the student requests it.
What should homework be like
Real homework conjures up memories of what students call busy work (doing exercises in books to get the right answers, but usually doesn’t promote real learning). Some examples of busy work are: fill-in-the-blanks for the correct vocabulary or multiple choice tests for selecting the right grammar structure in a sentence. Busy work also involves memorizing lists, such as idioms out of a textbook.
Some language teachers worry that they give too much homework. “It should be limited more to assignments that provide real value to the students,” says an ESL teacher in Calico Spanish. “Other [teachers] questioned whether homework is necessary when students can adequately demonstrate learning inside class.”
There is a way I can help students learn outside the class (which I prefer to say than homework) without calling it homework. When a student wants to continue learning in between italki classes, I offer the following:
- Watch a TV show that has helped other students learn the language. (In English, many students have taught themselves English by watching the sitcom “Friends.)
- Put on the news or a podcast in the background while you do other things. (Easy multitasking!)
- Walk down the streets and translate the signs you see into your new language. (Everyday activity with a language learning twist)
- Do the same with buying groceries. (How do you say apple in your target language?)
- Go to a movie in your new language and read the subtitles in your own language. (Recommended for a movie you know very well!)
- Sit down with friends (maybe those who are also learning the same target language) and play a word game like “Scrabble.” (This game comes in many languages.)
You see, instead of calling these activities homework, you could really call them worldwork because you are practicing your new language in the real world.
The best kind of homework
Choice. The most successful students who want homework outside of class choose what they want to do and then get guidance from their italki teachers. For example, to improve his/her speaking and reading skills, a student might want to read an article and discuss it for the next class.
Some students are too shy at first to suggest a topic. So I send them an article and then we talk about in class the next time. Or I suggest a topic to them to talk about. But the after that, I ask them to send me an article or a topic to speak about. Once they get over the fear of picking their own articles or topics, they really begin to enjoy it because they are controlling their own learning.
“Once you start to take control of your own learning, you won’t need to have exercises [tailored] to your needs,” says Andrew Weiler of Strategies for Language Learning. “You will be able to discern (decide) whether you can transform an activity...into something useful, or maybe it’s best to not use it at all, for now.”
Several students don’t wait to ask for homework but come to class having done some. This is really exciting for a teacher because you know you really have a motivated student. At that point, the first thing we do is go over the homework, and I adjust the lesson to the subject the student has chosen.
Of course, there are some students who want more of a traditional approach to homework. Often they specifically want to practice grammar. For these students I recommend many options on the internet which are very good in teaching and testing grammar--for free. One for learning English is LearnEnglish.de. This is a British site, so the spellings will be different than American English sites.
If you’re a student, remember, that everything you do outside the class--speaking to a native speaker, listening to people in a cafe, watching a movie or TV, even practicing in front of the mirror increases your language skills. It doesn’t have to be tedious exercises out of a book--because the best learning is outside the class.
So, don’t forget to do your homework--but only if you want to.
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu