Students often write in their English classes, following a specific genre in order to do so: the informal email; a job application letter, etc. Of course, it is important that they learn this kind of writing (which is usually essential for exam success), but it doesn’t always encourage them to write for the sake of writing, and to get used to writing in a more relaxed and creative way.

The aim of this lesson plan is to introduce the writing journal into the class, as a different kind of class writing activity, which can become an additional tool in order to help students develop their writing skills.

What is a journal?

Let me first start by defining what I mean by a journal in this lesson plan. This is a similar idea to a ‘learner diary’, where students regularly reflect on what they have learnt in classes, and the way that activities in class have helped them to learn. Nick Peachey has written in TeachingEnglish about using learner diaries in this way. It is also a similar idea to teacher-student journals, where students will write their ideas, and the teacher will make some sort of comment. Over time, this becomes a bit like a dialogue that takes place between student and teacher, and can help both student and teacher to learn more about each other (which usually has a good effect on motivation and learning).

Essentially, the journal I describe here includes both of the above ideas, as well as others. These include ideas such as: ‘fast writing’ – the teacher plays some music and students write down how it makes them feel; ‘character writing’ – students read a story, then imagine that they are a character in the story and then they write the story from their own point of view; ‘discussion sentence stems’ – the teacher dictates some sentence stems, students complete them and then discuss the propositions.

The journal, therefore, is not used for any one, specific purpose. It serves as the students’ ‘writing space’, and the type of writing will change depending on the activity.

What is the goal of journal writing?

What, then, is the point of the journal? I would argue that it encourages the teacher to include a greater number of writing tasks in the class than he/she might normally do. The purpose of the writing tasks may be to produce something that can be read by other students (by swapping over journals), but it doesn’t have to be. Writing for its own sake is a goal to pursue.

Why is this so? Basically writing, like reading, is a skill that we get better at; the more that we practise it, the more fluent we will become. Encouraging students to write freely, about a range of topics, often concerning how they feel about a topic or what their thoughts are regarding their learning, will help them to become more fluent writers. It forms part of ‘building the writing habit’. As Jeremy Harmer says ‘Journal writing contributes to a student’s general writing improvement in the same way as training enhances an athlete’s performance: it makes them fit.’ It can also be an enjoyable activity for many people.

What kind of journal?

Ideally a student’s journal will be a fairly thin, lightweight notebook. In this way, if the teacher wants to collect in a set to look at, he/she won’t find that they are too heavy to carry. Journals for younger students, who will typically write less, may just be some folded sheets of A4 with a colourful card cover which the teacher makes (or gets the students to make in the first lesson). The advantage of providing students with journals yourself is that you may want students to start writing in them from the start of the course. Otherwise, it can take a while for every student to bring some kind of journal notebook to class of their own accord! However, that is also an option.

How do you respond to the journal writing?

We are often encouraging personal reflection and response when we set a journal writing activity, and consequently the most valid response to this kind of writing might be to focus on its content and to respond primarily to this aspect of the writing. A teacher can express interest in the writing and refer to the ideas which are particularly well expressed.

Some learners may be happy with this kind of response and may prefer not to receive much or any ‘explicit correction’. However, there may be learners who would definitely like more detailed feedback on errors. Perhaps the best approach is to ask learners to decide the level of correction that they would like, and ask them to write this in their journal (as suggested in the lesson plan). If correction on a regular basis is going to prove difficult, the teacher could always set up an ‘appointments’ schedule, and arrange to take in and correct different diaries every week.

Using a correction code

If students specifically request that their writing is corrected, one way to correct writing is to use a correction code and to encourage students to correct their own mistakes. The teacher highlights the error, using the code, and later the student reads back over his/her journal entry and tries to make the corrections.

Here is an example of a typical correction code:

WW – wrong word

WT – wrong verb tense

WF – wrong word form (e.g. infinitive instead of gerund)

Ag – the determiner/article + noun don’t agree in number (e.g. singular article but plural noun)

G – there is a grammar problem

^ – there is a word missing

Sp – spelling is wrong

P – punctuation problem

Students can be introduced to this code right from the beginning of the course, and can write it in the front or back of the journal to refer to.

One disadvantage with using a correction code is that students may not actually know how to correct the mistake and may simply leave the error as it is, without feeling any the wiser about the error. For this reason, it is a good idea to use time in class for students to go back through their writing and to try to identify the errors. In that way, the teacher is on hand to help confirm the students’ hypotheses about the correct form and also to give the correct form if the student has no idea what the error is. This could be an extra activity in the lesson every two or three weeks: students look back over all their writing from that period and try to correct their mistakes.

Another disadvantage with using a correction code is that it might generate a lot of work for the teacher, particularly if the class is a large one! Each teacher needs to decide, therefore, what the best approach is going to be to respond to the class journals.

Creating the mood for writing

It can be a good idea to put on some background music while students are writing. This might be related to the activity. For example, one day when I wanted students to imagine that they were a regretful character, writing from a prison cell, I put Adagio for Strings on in the background. It’s one of the saddest pieces I know! It helped the students to focus on the mood. Other classical music is lively and happy – Schubert’s piano music, for example, can be nice! Obviously there is no end to the kind of music that you could play in the background while students are writing. Personally I would avoid music with lyrics, because I think it would be distracting, but the music could be contemporary music rather than classical music. YouTube is a great resource for instrumental or classical music, as much as it is for songs. You might want to take it in turns: in the first class, you choose the music; in the next class, a nominated student can choose it.

Activities for journal writing

You’ll find these ideas explained in more detail if you look at the lesson plan associated with this article. Here are some suggested activities:

  • Personalised journal entry: Students write a letter of introduction about themselves at the beginning of the course. During the course, they can write about key things in their lives: the media they read/watch/listen to; their hobbies; the things they own; the people who mean the most to them.
  • Reflecting on your learning: Dictate sentence stems about learning, e.g.: ‘The thing I enjoy most about learning English is …’ etc. Then they compare with their partners.
  • Character writing: Students read/listen to a story. They adopt different viewpoints within the story and write about it.
  • Happiness diary: Students chart their happiness (or lack of it) over the previous week; they write about why they felt like that
  • Vocabulary stories: Students pull words out of the class ‘word bag’; in groups they have to construct a story and write it in their journals, before reading it out to other students.

I hope you enjoy setting up class journals with your students. I think you’ll find that it encourages them to view writing in a more positive way, and that you will enjoy finding out some things that you didn’t know about your students.

Bibliography:

1. How to Teach Writing, Jeremy Harmer, Longman 2004

Chapter 8 – Journal writing

Article written by Joanna Dossetor

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Comments

Thanks for this article. I hadn't thought of other uses. I've used journals with preInterm teens and upper teens and it worked great, improving use of English in students who could not come to terms with word order, spelling and basically expressing their opinion.

Cheers!

what a awesome and useful idea!!
My students say to me they like comments about their writings.
In the beginning it was hard for them because they didn't know how to do it. But with a little help they write what they think and feel. I'm happy when they achieve to write what they really want to mention in their journals.
I like it.
Thanks for the article :)

Dear Joanna, your article is helpful and important for the readers. I learned much, thank you for it

Journal writing make us know how much we have learned and how much we remember the lesson then it can provide the record for future learning. So I love it.

I like the concept and you give some good ideas on how to manage it. I do tend to think it discouraging to see a page covered in red ink but on the other hand I think that students need feedback. One way I try to use to get around this is to use two colours. If I write your correction code in red ink, I have tried to complement the correction code by developing a commendation code which I write in green. Here's what I've come up with so far:
V - good vocabulary, a hard word used well
LL - you mastered the last lesson
SS - good sentence structure
G - good grammar
I always try to keep the amount of red and green on the writing about the same. Do you think it's worth developing further?

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