When teaching large classes of students year after year it can become very difficult to see each student as an individual with individual needs and abilities.

Learner diaries - writing article
Author: 
Nik Peachey

Learner diaries are one method I have used to try to overcome this and to develop a 'one-to-one' relationship even with large classes of students.

  • What makes a good learner diary
  • Why I use learner diaries
  • Setting up learner diaries
  • A successful experience
  • Some potential problems
  • Conclusion

What makes a good learner diary
I feel that a learner diary, at its best, should be a private dialogue between a student and teacher. It doesn't only have to be about the learning process, but can be about almost anything that the learner would like to know or discuss. The most important thing is that it is real communication and that I, as a teacher, respond to the student in an 'authentic' way within this dialogue. This means that I share my genuine thoughts and opinions with the student rather than simply correcting their grammar and spelling.

  • Learner diaries can, but don't have to be traditional exercise books, although these do work fine. Some of the most successful ones my students have done were just a collection of pieces of paper that students and I had written to each other on over the course of a term.
  • I have also tried using audiocassettes so that I exchange recorded messages with my students. This adds a valuable element of spoken communication to the activity, but can be problematic in terms of sound quality and access to recording equipment.

 

Why I use learner diaries
There are lots of good reasons for using learner diaries, but these are the reasons which I have found most motivating.

  • Learner diaries provide a 'one to one' connection to my students and allow them and me to develop an individual relationship, which can be hard to do from the front of a classroom, especially with larger classes.
  • They can become a form of authentic communication for our students. This kind of real communication can be very hard to achieve within the classroom.
  • As a teacher learner diaries provide me with some really valuable insights into what my students think of my lessons, what they understand and what problems they are having.
  • In every class I've used them with, the atmosphere and general leaning dynamics of the classroom have been greatly improved.
  • The fact that I have a private and individual learning relationship with each student can have a very positive effect on student behaviour and class control, as I have a discrete means of finding out about and addressing the causes of behavioural problems.
  • Used over a period of time, students can look back at early diary entries and see how much their English has developed.

Setting up learner diaries
I've used a number of different ways of setting up learner diaries, but the most important thing is to start a dialogue with the student and to provide something for them to respond to.

  • I buy simple exercise books and write an introduction about myself in the beginning of the book and ask the students to write something similar about themselves.
  • I also write in a few questions about the students for them to answer. The students then have to answer my questions and write a few questions for me. Sometimes the questions I ask can be about school-related things, like which lessons they prefer or which activities or texts within my lessons they found most or least interesting. Other times I've made the questions more 'personal', like asking them about their hobbies, friends or family.
  • Sometimes I give the students the diary at the end of the lesson and get them to write in it for homework, but at other times I've tried using the last or first ten to fifteen minutes of the class for students to write in the diary.

A successful experience
One of my most successful experiences with learner diaries was with a class of students who wanted more speaking practice.

  • I recorded a brief introduction and instructions for some tasks that I wanted the students to do onto an audiocassette. The tasks were mainly giving some basic information about their interests and what they found difficult about learning English. I gave the cassettes out at the end of a lesson and told the students to take them home and listen to them.
  • The next class only a few of the students returned the cassettes to me. The information they gave on the cassettes was really interesting and I was able to deal with some of their individual problems on the cassette. One wanted me to give examples of words which contained particular sounds from the phonemic chart, another wanted vocabulary for a particular topic.
  • As the weeks went by, the enthusiasm of these students for the activity became infectious and soon more and more of the students started using the cassettes without any prompting from me.
  • The use of audiocassettes for the activity was also really useful in helping me to really listen to my students' pronunciation and focus on common problems.

Some potential problems
If the learner diaries are successful, the students write more, and this can be very demanding on my time, especially if I have a large class of students.

  • Generally I try to avoid work overload, by only doing the diaries with smaller classes and only one class each term.
  • Giving the students limited time in class can also help to limit how much they write and how much work you have to do to respond.

 

Some students just don't like the activity and don't really want to develop a one-to-one relationship with their teacher.

  • I've often had students who have only done the absolute minimum for their diaries and when this happens I have accepted that it is their decision how much or little they write.

 

The decision of whether or not to correct mistakes within the diary is a difficult one. On the one hand correcting mistakes detracts from the 'authenticity' of the exercise, but on the other hand, if mistakes within the diary aren't corrected then students can assume that what they've produced is correct.

  • At times I've asked students whether they want their writing corrected in the diary and left the decision to them.
  • In cases where I haven't wanted to correct, I've told the students that I don't correct their work.
  • Where possible I've tried to reformulate their errors correctly within my reply to them and just hoped that they notice this.

Conclusion
It's important to remember that, as a teacher, you will only get from this activity what you are prepared to put in. If I write openly and honestly to my students I generally find that they do the same in return. Likewise if my responses are minimal and superficial, that is how my students respond to me. Generally I've found learner diaries to be really beneficial both to my students and to myself and I've learnt a lot from using them. They are however very time consuming and they won't work for everybody all of the time, so it is just as well to think of them as an experiment and not to have too high expectations of what can be achieved the first few times.

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