Homework is a staple of core classes in universities. In the ESL classroom, it can be a valuable motivational tool. Here is how one English teacher used homework to elicit more enthusiasm and participation from his students. You can do this in your classroom, too.

Your first week as an ESL teacher at a university in China is a honeymoon packed with fun stuff like ice-breaking games, get-to-know-you activities, and plenty of eruptions of laughter over your inability to pronounce some (or maybe all!) of your students’ names. Based on that first week, you imagine the term will be easy — like skipping down the happy yellow brick road that is your tidy little syllabus all the way to the Emerald… err, the final exam. Then a cold, nasty pit known as reality greets you in the cold, hard PRESENT tense and snuffs out all that happiness.

Conduct oral English like a class that matters, and your students — even the sophomores — will believe it does.

To sophomore university students, the novelty of the new teacher wears off fast. Their internal discipline starts to sag in a hurry. They have entered the new term under the impression that oral English class is an auto-pass taught by a laid-back foreign teacher. They went through the routine last year. Finally free of the draconian restraints that characterised their high school and freshman years, these 19-year-olds are ready to relax and party.

Several students don’t show up for your class in week two, followed by more in week three. Soon, between the half-empty seats and downward gazes fixed on smartphone screens, you realize you are more like a parent than a cool outsider in their eyes. Ouch! But don’t take it personally. Trying hard in an oral English class is not a priority for them; to many, English class is a study, snooze, or social (in Mandarin, of course) session. English simply doesn’t matter.

But you are older. You have some perspective. We live in a time of globalism when the whole world is connected! English is an uber-important skill! The thing is, you have to convince them that is true. And you can. To quickly swing the class effort pendulum from low to high, try assigning homework a little bit of homework.

Why would an ESL teacher ever assign homework?

  1. To cultivate more class participation.

Assignments like oral presentations followed by a Q and A allow students to take the lead in the classroom, which ensures the default format of teacher-to-class doesn’t grow stale. Since they are prepared on a given topic, students can speak with greater confidence.

  1. To make the class feel like their core classes.

Homework is always a part of core classes that affect students’ future employment. Assigning it lends an air of legitimacy to a non-core ESL class.

  1. To provide outside-class practice.

Students need to practice outside of the familiar confines of the classroom. The more they use English in real life or simulated situations, the better.

  1. To review of class material.

Like other subjects, ESL has to be reviewed and practised daily. The effort students put into presentations, dialogues, and interviews outside of the classroom reinforce the material taught in previous lessons.

Go the extra mile! “Assigning homework can lend an air of legitimacy to your oral English class.”

The universities you will work for in China generally require mid-term exams to count for at least 10% of final grades, and final exams for at least 60%. That leaves a whopping 30% to divide up however you wish! Make participation count as a significant chunk of this 30%. You are only required to grade midterm exams and final exams. Go the extra mile by grading homework — make it part of the participation grade. Give them some feedback — a thoughtful sentence or two is plenty. Just don’t be the teacher of an unimportant class. Make your class a class that matters, and your students — even the sophomores — will believe it does!

Below are some homework ideas to get you started.

Interview with a Foreigner: The aim is to practice asking someone about their life using Wh- (who, what, when, how, etc.) questions. This assignment will give your students confidence that they can use their English in real-life situations.

  1. Draft or download a basic interview form that has blanks for information like given name, occupation, hobbies, favourite colour, etc.
  2. Assign each student a partner.
  3. Have the student pairs go to a Starbucks or other well-known foreign coffee shop in a major shopping area. There they are to introduce themselves to a foreigner or foreigners in English and ask them for an interview.
  4. During the interview, one student will fill out the interview form.
  5. The pairs present some basic details about their new foreign friend to the class.

Snapshot of My Dormitory/Apartment: The aim is to reinforce the function of articulating observations of a scene using the past progressive tense.

  1. Hand out copies of a cartoon picture depicting a messy apartment next to a picture of the exact same apartment completely tidy.
  2. Tell the students to take a photo of their dormitory and be ready to share their observations in the next class.
  3. In class, have students tell everyone what they found lying on the floor, hanging on the closet door, sitting on top of the air conditioner, etc.

Student Teaching: The aim is to reinforce any previous lesson material by allowing a pair or group of students to conduct a 5- to 10-minute review session on the material.

  1. Assign a pair of students a linguistic function to review, i.e. expressing suggestion, preference, or uncertainty.
  2. Require them to prepare a PowerPoint for a quick review of the function(s) and either handouts or props for a class review activity or game.
  3. Require each student in the pair or group to have a speaking role. Make clear that if one does not speak, their grade will be much lower.

So, what are your thoughts on assigning homework?

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