November 3

Homework That Helps to Improve Your Language Learning

Over the years I have seen so many students waste countless hours on language learning homework which really has little likelihood of helping them to produce the results they are looking for. There are some people who could learn a language doing virtually anything but most people need to be more careful if they are going to end up speaking a new language, not just being good at filling in gaps, memorizing words or answering set questions.

The reason why a lot of homework does not help learners to be able to use the language is because they don’t call on the “whole” person. Instead, mostly, the homework asks learners to engage only a limited part of themselves, mainly their intellect or memory. Learning a language so you can use it takes a lot more than that. For some subjects this may work, but nor for language.

You may believe that you can build your language skills by doing homework (or study). However do consider, that most times the homework is determined by someone else (teacher, book, etc), not the learner. Sometimes learners will go through these exercises of their own accord, thinking, “If I do all of these exercises the teacher gave me or I found in this highly recommended book, I will learn the language”. And if it doesn’t “work”, then most students will only blame themselves, not the materials.

Language Learning HomeworkAs well as what I mentioned before, about not requiring you to engage fully, another problem with these kinds of exercises is that they are not calibrated to the learners’ needs. They are generic exercises designed to help you better understand XYZ. This doesn’t of course mean they will be of no use. They may help you to understand what you are doing better but many times I have seen even that doesn’t happen. There are different reasons for the limited value of these kinds of exercises. Here are two:

  • Smart learners figure out a pattern to answer the exercises, so they can answer the questions but real understanding does not happen. 
  • The learning that happens is not integrated in to who we are, so the learning can’t be used. It remains as knowledge or as a fact, much the same way we may know the capital of Japan.

Some students, the so called talented language learners or the ones who are driving their own learning, can transform this kind of exercise into something they can use to drive their language development forward. However most language learners can’t despite the belief that if they do these exercises they will learn. Then they are surprised they can’t. 

If you have been learning a language and believe that what I have been writing about fits you, namely, you have done a lot of exercises and work but your language does not seem to be improving, then the way to alter that dynamic is to put yourself back in charge of your learning. That means a lot more than choosing the kind of books you use. It means doing the kind of learning which requires you to fully engage yourself, in the way you would need to, for example, to learn a computer game.

Language is a skill, not just a subject defined by knowledge and memory. So as we progress, we need to keep consistently checking to see if our skills our improving. The main language skills I am here talking about are speaking, listening, reading and writing.  These of course can be broken down, but ultimately what ever we do needs to lead to an improvement in these skills. Grammar, memory, vocabulary, pronunciation etc are elements that make up the 4 main skills and they have a place in our learning BUT if we measure our skill by seeing whether we understand how to use “the past tense”, for example, then we are making a mistake. We need to assess what we do by seeing if we can use it appropriately and accurately whilst we are speaking (or writing). If what we do doesn’t lead to that, then it could be reasonably suggested that this way is not working. We need to look for another strategy which will result in the desired improvements.

In order to understand what kind of homework we need help us do that, we need to understand that language requires us to connect with reality at the level of awareness, perception, muscular control and feelings, amongst other things.

Homework to be inspired byOnce you start to take control of your own learning, you won’t need to have exercises calibrated to your needs. You will be able to discern whether you can transform an activity or input into something useful or maybe it is best to not use it at all, for now. If you aren’t at that stage of being able to distinguish, then go about finding materials, classes and people that will help you improve that connection.

Here are various kinds of activities and exercises that you could use to help you recontact that essential learning part of you, which each one of us has:

You could also read Language Learning Unlocked, which goes into far more detail understanding and showing what needs to happen for us to engage with our learning. Once you master that, nearly everything you do in using the language such as reading, chatting, doing exercises and even homework! 🙂 etc  can be used by you to help you to keep improving your language skills.




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  • Nice post Andrew – I always find that a lot of what you write is so in line with my own perceptions of language learning when it comes down to it, which is to reduce recall and boost understanding. I also agree with you on your homework ideas and see a real commitment to those essential four core language skills – for a new learner it’s most essential to just get down and start some exercises that make sense!

    (Read on only if you want to read a plug for something related with 25 exercises:)
    More exercises which Andrew would approve of (and some of which were inspired by this site) can be found in my little book btw: http://www.fluentlanguage.co.uk/languageskills

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