Scott Thornbury

How important is homework? – Scott Thornbury

Scott ThornburyTwo or three hours of English is just not enough. Even studying in a classroom for several hours a day, you’re unlikely to achieve a high level if you do nothing in between.

As Leo van Lier put it, ‘The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen’.

Maybe what happens between lessons is as important – or more important – than what happens in them. Think of the classroom as a kind of ‘pit stop’ where learners come in to be re-fuelled and change their tyres. The real action is happening outside.

But I don’t like to call it ‘homework’. To me it’s more like ‘out-of-class work’. Or ‘between-class’ work.  Confining it to the home is to limit it unnecessarily (not to mention all the negative connotations that are associated with the term ‘homework’).  We need to take homework out into the street.

Literally. There is English everywhere and every learner have some means of collecting it, whether camera, cell phone or just pen and paper. Even if each student captures just one piece of English – that’s 20 potential topics for discussion (in a class of 20).

Here is some of the English I collected today in my ‘barrio’ in Barcelona, in just 20 minutes on the way to the gym.

OK, Barcelona is a fairly touristy town, but there’s English in the most unlikely places.

Some of it is just words, some phrases, and some whole sentences. Some is translated. Some is not. But it all sends a message. It’s part of the linguistic landscape, and it’s a great source of discussion and research, when your learners bring it back to the classroom.  Here are some questions you could have them discuss:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. Who wrote it? For whom?
  4. Why is (some of it) in English?
  5. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  6. Is it correct?
  7. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  8. Is there anything you would like to remember?


Published by

Scott Thornbury

Scott is a teacher and teacher educator, with over 30 years' experience in English language teaching. He is currently Associate Professor of English Language Studies at the New School in New York, teaching on an on-line MATESOL program. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and his native New Zealand. Scott’s writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology including The A-Z of ELT, How to Teach Grammar and Teaching Unplugged. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers (CUP) and was also the co-founder of the dogme ELT group, whose archived website, called Teaching Unplugged, can be found below. Scott currently leads a fascinating community at the popular and thought-provoking blog, A-Z of ELT blog. Scott is lead author in the iTDi Teacher Development program as well as being iTDi's Academic Director.

20 thoughts on “How important is homework? – Scott Thornbury”

  1. I, too, Scott, believe in homework but my class of adult teachers don’t. Or so it seems. The excuse is always the same. No time. Busy. I see them once a week, for 2 hours. And my homework basically consists in 3 questions:
    What have you learnt today?
    What part of the lesson did you like or dislike in the class today?
    What would you like to do in class next week?

    Simple questions, don’t you think? No more than 5 minutes would be all they need. I do wonder how they’d feel if their students don’t do the homework they set?


    1. Sometimes my adult students experience the same problem as yours, Chiew: will to attend the lesson, but total reluctance to devote a few minutes to reflect on it. Well, in that case, I think these people do not learn properly; the language they acquire in the lesson will fly with the wind in a few months UNLESS they do something about it.

      Hang in there, Chiew! 🙂


    2. Thank you, Chiew, for the wonderful idea of feedback questions! I’m going to employ them in my lessons too. As for homework, I don’t think that being busy is a serious problem for those who have found the time for English lessons. I teach a top manager in a big oil-gas company three times a week. And I should say that he is almost always ready with his homework though I know how busy he is all the time. However, he finds the time for doing homework (literally, homework with extra grammar and vocab execises etc) because he understands the value of extra language practice and that he does it for his own benefit. So, I think that what really matters is learners’ attitude towards their studies and their values concerning language learning.

        1. Hello Chiew!
          Finally, I did what I promised! 🙂 I posted the overview of the survey I did with my University students based on your homework questions.
          Here is the first post on the survey.
          A little later I’m going to write a more detailed post which will look into what actually my students answered and what potential each question of the survey has.
          Thank you for your idea of the questions! 🙂 I hope you’ll like the way I adjusted them! 🙂

          1. Fantastic, Alexandra! Great work! I’ll take a look shortly and I promise I’ll post a comment in your post!

  2. I agree Chiew…it’s always the same ‘excuse’. But the reality is that many adult learners are in fact very busy! One suggestion for you. I email my business English class, who I only see once a week for two hours, a standardized feedback form which can include all manner of things from links to clips on YouTube and elsewhere related to the lesson theme, language picked up in the lesson and sifted, to suggestions of all kinds to maximize contact with the language outside of lesson time. As Scott points out seeing it as, and actually calling it, ‘homework’ might be more than half the problem?

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Tony. Actually, I didn’t call it homework at the beginning, but it was the same. I treat it more as a feedback, too. I use Google Doc and they know it’s there for them. The sooner they answer the questions, the more likely they are to remember what they’ve learnt. But, I’m not too bothered. They’re the ones who decide what they wish to learn; I’m just their guide. If they’re happy, I’m happy 🙂

  3. Hi Scott, great point that a few hours a week of studying will not be enough to learn a language. I tell my students (usually in the first class) that learning English is just like learning the piano, or any sport; if you only do it once or twice a week for a few hours you will never improve. I like your collection of English around town idea, and in Japan, I would move your question 6 (Is it correct) to the first position, because most often it isn’t! Incidentally, that activity is straight out of the Dogme school, isn’t it?

    1. Hi, Chris,
      I use the same link with my students. I always tell my students that if they want to speak the language fluently, they have to “rehearse” a lot. Singers and players dedicate many hours to practicing before the “show” to succeed. 🙂

    2. Hi Chris (Crispy)
      Yes, well spotted – it’s a very dogme activity, albeit involving technology, but nothing the students don’t have on them anyway. Would it work in Japan – i.e. is there sufficient English in the ‘linguistic landscape’?

  4. Hi Scott,

    Lovely idea for out of class work. I teach in Istanbul and my school is in Beyoğlu, on Istiklal Street, a very touristy street which stars from Taksim. I am sure you know it as you come to Istanbul from time to time.

    I will take my students (11-13 y/o) for a walk and tell them to take photographs of the English messages they like, find interesting or funny and then to make a little power point show talking about them to the other classes at school!

    I am sure they will like it a lot … for many reasons. 🙂

    Thank you for the lovely idea again!
    Evridiki Dakos

  5. Well, having to do homework, in my teaching context, entails devotion , true dedication and genuine interest in the learning process……still, “Homework out into the street” as rightly as Scott puts it (Dogme approach) , (to me) is means of maintaining interest and developing receptive and productive language skills in a way..
    However, doing homework, I reckon, is students’ commitment to the learning process between teachers and students, should they wish to enhance their output and education…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.