Something private EFL/ESL tutors often worry about is how to set homework. What kind of activities, how much is realistic, and what to do if students don’t hand it in are all questions which don’t have a clear-cut answer. And should you set homework at all?

In this article, I’m going to explain my approach. I’ve been a private EFL/ESL tutor since 2016, and I’ve had my fair share of successes and failures when setting homework. From that experience, I’ve found some reliable tips for success.

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Students often see homework as a chore. And if you treat it as such, it’s inevitable your students will hand it in late, having put in the bare minimum amount of effort. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can make homework a powerful and engaging tool for progressing your students’ English to the next level.

This article is part of a large series on being the best EFL/ESL tutor possible.

1. Consider how much (if any) homework to give

People are busy. Adults, especially, struggle to find time during the week to do hours of homework. And lots of kids already have tons to do, let alone study for exams.

However, some students are highly motivated. They want you to give them lots of tasks between lessons so they can improve at a faster rate.

So how much should you give? The answer is, “it depends.”

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

It depends on a number of factors, but it all boils down to what your students are comfortable with. Ultimately, it’s their decision about how much to do. If you’re teaching kids, it’s more likely what their parents/guardians are happy with.

The way to figure it out is to perform a needs analysis. This is something you should do when you start any new class. It’s vital in understanding the abilities, aims and preferences of your students, and part of it is going to be establishing, together, how much homework should be expected.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of a needs analysis, or want to find out the best way to do one, read my guide: Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons.

The truth is, most of my private EFL/ESL students don’t want homework. Adults in conversation classes, or kids in dynamic game-based sessions, hire me to support the English they use at work or school. We established early on that homework isn’t necessary.

But in exam preparation classes and grammar lessons, some students expect regular tasks. And others have the time and energy to embrace homework.

Image by Felix Mendoza from Pixabay

Be careful not to take everything your students say at face value, though. There are three common patterns I’ve seen when agreeing on how much homework to give and how reality differs completely.

  1. Student says they want lots of homework at the start, but never actually complete any.
  2. Parents want you to give their children homework, but offer no support when kids don’t hand it in or do it to a poor standard.
  3. Highly motivated students ask for more homework than they (and you) can handle.

Fortunately, you can remedy these issues with a simple conversation and realignment of expectations. Be honest, open, and willing to adjust to your students’ needs.

2. Set the right type of homework

The type of homework you set will partly come down to the needs analysis mentioned in tip 1.

If I have an exam preparation class, homework is mostly going to be practicing exam-style questions and writing tasks. With grammar sessions, I’ll set something to consolidate what we learned in class.

To learn more about teaching exam preparation and grammar to private EFL/ESL students, read my articles: Getting EFL/ESL Exam Preparation Right and Teaching EFL/ESL Grammar: A guide for private tutors.

In many cases, though, it’s not always obvious what you should set. Worksheets? Reading and writing? What about listening?

There are lots of great ideas for homework that go above and beyond fill-in-the-blank exercises and other boring tasks. You have the opportunity to set some really interesting activities.

Some of these include:

  • Listening to music (with English lyrics) and discussing it in the next class.
  • Researching and preparing mini-presentations.
  • Writing a short journal about what happened in the week, or something that interests the student.
  • Playing narrative telephone.

Be creative. Get to know what your students are interested in, and base homework around that. If they really love sewing, get them to research vocabulary related to sewing, and maybe even give a tutorial on how to do some basic stitches in the next class.

Do your kids love superheroes? Get them to bring one of their favourite action figures to the next session, and describe them using English. Perhaps they can even write a short story about that hero.

The more you engage your students in their homework, letting them express themselves and talk about things they care about, the more work they’ll do. They’ll go above and beyond. Hand them a sheet full of grammar exercises, and you’ll be lucky to see any results.

For some homework inspiration, check out my list of 9 Engaging Homework Ideas for EFL/ESL: No worksheets!

3. Make instructions clear and accessible

One of the most common excuses for students not doing homework is “I didn’t understand what to do.”

Whether it’s a genuine lack of understanding, or just a cheap way out of admitting they couldn’t be bothered, you may never know. So make sure they know exactly what to do and eliminate this excuse.

How do you do this? Give simple, clear instructions in a step-by-step manner. Get students to say, in their own words, what they have to do, and iron out any potential issues.

Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels

And, most importantly, make the instructions accessible after class. Most students don’t do homework directly after your lesson when the instructions are fresh in their minds. More likely, they’ll do it at the very last minute.

During the week, they will forget the instructions. Ensure this doesn’t happen. You can do one or more of these things:

  • Have students write the homework down in a diary.
  • Print the instructions as a handout.
  • Write the instructions as a text message/WhatsApp chat/Google Classroom post.
  • Write instructions on the board and have students take a photo.

4. Give plenty of time for completion

With lots of my students, I’ve got into the routine of setting homework every two weeks (assuming one class every week).

The reasons for this are:

  • It allows me to set longer tasks.
  • Students have a little more agency – if they have a super busy week, they have a little more time to catch up.
  • It doesn’t overload students.
  • We don’t have to spend every single class going over homework.

I like setting extended activities and projects for my students, and as a result, they need plenty of time. A week often isn’t enough.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

On occasion, they hand in the homework a week early, because they know the following week they’ll be extremely busy. That’s great. I won’t punish them by setting more homework for that following week. They’ve earned their break.

On the other hand, if you’re setting short homeworks, one week should be plenty. And if you have multiple classes a week, you may consider even shorter time frames.

Again, it comes down to what your students are comfortable with. You’ll know pretty quickly if you’re overworking them – they’ll just stop handing in homework on time.

5. Get students to submit writing digitally before class

Spending half your class going through last week’s homework gets tiresome. This is especially true for writing tasks. Students watching you try to quickly mark their work and explain what’s right and wrong isn’t great learning.

You could accept the homework and mark it during the coming week, giving feedback in the next class. But I often find by then, students have forgotten what they wrote and your comments have much less impact. They’ve moved on.

You want to give fresh, immediate feedback soon after they hand it in. The best way to do this is to ask them to send it to you digitally. That means they send a typed document, or write it out by hand and take a photo.

Google Classroom is a great app for organising this kind of thing. You can create assignments (writing clear instructions, like in tip 3) and students can easily upload their work. Everything gets saved on Google Drive, which is a bonus.

For more great free apps that all EFL/ESL teachers should use, check out my list: 9 Best Free Apps for EFL/ESL Teachers and How to Use Them.

Make sure to set the deadline a day or two before the class, though. If students submit their homework digitally ten minutes before the session, it defeats the whole purpose of doing this.

When you’ve got their work, you can correct it. I like to print it out and go over it in coloured pens, highlighting different aspects, and focusing on one or two key points.

I have a whole article on how to correct writings in EFL/ESL. Check it out here: Best Method for Correcting EFL/ESL Writing: 9 Step Guide.


Sometimes the best homework isn’t “work” at all. Instead of setting specific tasks, I often just encourage my students to interact with English in a way they enjoy. That could be listening to podcasts, reading the news, or watching English-speaking YouTubers or streamers.

Homework doesn’t have to be horrible. If your students hate doing it and learn very little, why bother with it at all? And if you do set it, always make it engaging and relevant.

Follow the links below to learn how to be the best private EFL/ESL tutor possible.
Ultimate Guide to Giving Great EFL/ESL Private Classes
Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide
Principles of Designing Amazing Private EFL/ESL Lessons
Acing Your First Private EFL/ESL Class: 9 Steps to Success
Lesson Plans for First Private EFL/ESL Lesson (+ tips)
How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes
What to Do if Private EFL/ESL Students Won’t Participate
Getting EFL/ESL Exam Preparation Right: Tips for success
Give Amazing Private EFL/ESL Classes to Kids: 9 steps
7 Steps for Incredible Private EFL/ESL Conversation Classes
Teaching EFL/ESL Grammar: A guide for private tutors
5 Tips for Setting Homework in Private EFL/ESL Classes

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