Homework can be a controversial topic in education circles. Some — including parents and educators strongly believe homework is an important part of a student's education, and should be assigned to students on a nightly basis.

Others believe homework does not provide a benefit for many of the students they serve, and that school work should take place in school. They say some students lack the skills, home environment and support to adequately complete the homework, and that those students are unfairly punished and their grades are negatively impacted for something that is not their fault.

Whatever your own beliefs, when assigning homework to English learners, some considerations should be taken into account.

Research summary

Research shows homework positively impacts student achievement at certain grade levels, but not all. In a recent blog post, Dr. Timothy Shanahan shared research findings that indicate homework for students in grades 3-12 has a positive impact on reading achievement, if some conditions are in place.

For example, homework assignments need to be clear. Students should have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it. For younger students, written directions are helpful so an adult can assist.

He suggests homework may be assigned at about 10 minutes per grade level. In other words, for a student in third grade, about 30 minutes is appropriate, fourth grade 40 minutes, etc. For high school students, research indicates that students' learning benefits if they do an hour or more of homework, but less than that at the high school level does not provide as much benefit.

For students at the primary levels, research indicates that homework does not provide significant learning benefits. That said, all students can be provided opportunities to have discussions with family members, read to or with family members, and practice skills they are learning in school.

Considerations when assigning homework to ELLs

Language scaffolds Be sure the language of the homework assignment matches what you have been teaching and focusing on in school. General academic and domain-specific vocabulary should have been taught and practiced thoroughly in class so the vocabulary that appears in the homework is not unfamiliar to students.

For students at more beginning proficiency levels, consider providing an assignment with simplified language, bullet points rather than text or nonlinguistic representations for comprehensibility.

Homework material When assigning homework, be sure the material has been taught in a comprehensible way, and that students have a clear understanding of the content and language involved. Homework should involve material that students have already learned. Additional practice of previously learned material, further background reading and practice of previously learned skills that are required for future learning are all appropriate.

When considering homework, as yourself if it is really worthy of being completed and will lead to deeper knowledge or skill development.

Reading Having students read at home is a promising practice at all grade levels. Reading practice can be based on what students are learning or can be free reading. Reading to others, or being read to, is also helpful for all students.

For English learners, be sure the reading materials are accessible to the students based on their proficiency level. Reading materials should be provided to students, as not all students will have materials at home that appropriate for them to read.

Home-to-school connections Have students engage in conversations with their families about what they are learning about in school. Home-to-school connections serve as a way to bridge the divide that often occurs. Parents do not know what students are learning about, and children do not share freely with their families what they are studying about.

Home-to-school connections should be designed in such a way as to encourage conversation between family members about the content being studied. For example, if students are studying about Earth sciences, and how changes occur on the Earth's surface, a home-to-school connection might focus on a place the family has seen or is familiar with that has changed over time.

Parents may not have explicit knowledge about the particular content being studied at the moment, or may have long forgotten the content, but their experience in the world and how it relates to what is being studied will benefit the students and their learning. The conversations that occur also serve to strengthen the connection between the home and the school.

Native language Some homework assignments may be completed in students' home language rather than English. For example, reading practice is beneficial in any language, so long as the student has had instruction in how to read in their native language. For young students, having an adult or older sibling read to them, in English or their native language, will help familiarize them with the structure of text as well as reading fluency and prosody.

Brainstorming, writing about background knowledge or experiences, or discussing content concepts and skills can all be done in any language. While it may be more challenging for the teacher to read what has been written, a parent signature or quick discussion with the student to ensure the practice was on topic is appropriate.

Perhaps the first and last consideration is to be explicit about homework what it entails, what your expectations are, its purpose and how much of it there will be. This information should be shared with both students and parents.

Families should understand what your expectations are for completion and why you are assigning homework. Even if parents do not speak English, and are not able to read the homework assignment or their child's responses, they can check to see if the student completed the work, and can have conversations with their child about the homework.

Parents and students should also be informed about homework practices that will serve them well throughout their lives, such as completing homework as soon as possible and not waiting until late in the night, having a quiet, well-lit space to complete homework and taking short breaks as needed.

All students can benefit from homework that is well thought out. For English learners, with just a few additional considerations, they too can be successful and gain learning benefits from well-designed homework assignments.