BMLs and the Homework Problem
For bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs), homework can be a major stressor. Many have a great deal of anxiety during the school day and having to bring additional schoolwork home can take away from their ‘rest and recharge’ time. As well, homework that’s assigned by teachers may take BMLs double the time to complete. You can imagine these factors don’t create optimal conditions to support student learning. That’s why teachers need to carefully consider whether the benefits of giving homework assignments out-weigh the costs for their BMLs.
If we imagine what the learning process is like for many BMLs, we can get a better look at the issue from their perspective:
BMLs frequently have an additional step to decipher the language of the concept and/or instructions. This is where they need to have more scaffolding and support to help them work independently. If the homework task is not fully comprehensible, the student will require help from their parents-who may also have difficulties understanding the task in English. This can add a great deal more time to the homework task. I’ve had parents tell me it’s normal for them to spend up to one hour on an assignment that should’ve taken 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes parents and students are reluctant to tell the teacher that it takes this long to complete the homework so you may not even be aware that it was such a struggle. If the student has multiple assignments from different subjects, then homework can become even more overwhelming.
What’s a Teacher to do?
According to research on homework, there is little value in terms of academic achievement on primary-aged learners as compared to middle and high school students (Cooper, 1989a). Considering this fact, teachers should first decide on the value of the homework they will assign. They should be able to justify this value in terms of the impact they’re likely to see on the students in regards to specific skills/achievement levels. They might then decide to:
- Assign work that is at an ‘easy’ (independent) level of difficulty so that students can build up their independent work habits and study skills.
- Send work that is already partially-completed by students and which has already been clearly explained and understood in class. This means the student will know exactly how to carry out the learning activity on their own once at home.
- With older students, there are often heavier workloads in terms of assignments and projects in addition to studying for tests and exams. Teachers should ensure BMLs have understood what to do and that they have access to resources that can help them complete the learning (e.g. translation tools, graphic organizers, homework planner, etc.).
Certainly BMLs at higher levels of English proficiency will be able to handle the homework load more independently but again, the teacher should still consider the purpose and whether the assignments have real value. Homework should be equitable for all students so an assignment that takes native English speakers 15 minutes to complete should take a similar amount of time for BMLs. There is no problem with a teacher differentiating homework-especially in terms of number of questions/items to complete or number of paragraphs to write, for example. Sometimes reducing the amount of work is all it takes to move the level of difficulty from ‘frustration level’ to an ‘instructional’ or do-able level.
Cooper, H. (1989a). Homework.White Plains, NY: Longman.
Schofield, A. & McGeary, F. (2016, p.183). Bilingual & Multilingual Learners from the Inside-Out: Elevating Expertise in Classrooms and Beyond. Self-published, CreateSpace.