“Writing is thinking on paper”
William Zinsser, American writer and teacher
“Writing is not the destination; it’s the journey”
Mikhail Bahtin, philosopher, semiotician
Within the triadic process of teaching, learning, and assessment, the last element has at times been a highly challenging and controversial one for me. The issue is how to balance among measurable learning objectives, deepening of students’ learning, enhancement of learner autonomy, and informed feedback on my teaching practices. I work with young learners (7-11 years old) and one of my personal and professional domains of interest is to encourage reflective, self-directed learning valuable in the lifelong learning process. I use both summative and formative ways of assessment: end of unit tests, cloze assessments, reading, speaking, and listening fluency assessments, writing tasks, individual and group presentations, projects. There is, however, one continuous, self-assessment method of evaluation that in my case has had powerful and rewarding effects for both my elder (10-11 years old) pre-intermediate students and me: learning journals.
We work a lot with thematically structured projects in our English class whereby English language teaching and learning are mediated by the use of art, and the development of critical thinking skills through the Making Thinking Visible Approach. Themes vary but some examples of what we have worked on include bullying, hope, human rights, war/peace, environment. During these projects we take regular breaks from course books (8 to 10 40-45 minute teaching sessions) and rely on materials developed for the needs of the specific thematic area. For these specified periods of time journal writing functions as a standard homework assignment.
The general guideline is that students can describe the meeting, express further opinions, feelings or ideas, write if they liked it or not and why. Entering the process of reconstructing classroom experience in writing helps learners develop their meta-cognitive skills, and monitor their practice and progress better. They become more attentive and concentrated, their commitment levels grow and their note taking skills too; they become more actively involved. Active involvement interacts with motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence and responsibility in the learning process. Benefits can also be found in areas like deepening of self-understanding, reflective awareness on group dynamics, and enhancedengagement with project content. I have also found that by engaging in journal writing, many of my students overcome the discouragement they feel towards writing tasks. They feel they write with a purpose, about things that are important or bear relevance to them. Last but not least, learning journals provide valuable feedback and guidance for me on the effectiveness of my methodology when dealing with various aspects of language, and ways to improve my teaching strategies.
Things that may come in useful
When introducing journal keeping to a new group of students, I explain to learners what a learning journal is, and how vital reflecting on their learning in the English language class is for them.
I also take some time to make clear that all feelings, opinions, and ideas are appreciated and valued. Many students may initially find it uncomfortable writing in a personal tone knowing that I could be critical of their feelings or ideas.
Similarly, I encourage them to write as much as they can since a loss for ideas can also be an initial experience. Drawing on personal evidence I have found out that the more they become acquainted with journal writing, the more ideas begin to rush in and their writing skills evolve.
Journal correction is mediated by whether I want individual students to focus on fluency or accuracy. Generally, I am more interested in the flow of ideas and personal expression with some correction on grammatical and syntactic features.
There are a lot of other ways to exploit and make use of learning journals:
- Sandy Millin has written an excellent post on the same issue. Sandy has worked with journal writing within class which is an amazing idea I would be very interested in trying out if I had longer teaching sessions with my classes.
- Claudia Marcela Arciniegas Trejos has also written a relevant, well informed article on the issue.
- Luu Trong Tuan extensively probes into theoretical and practical issues related to enhancing EFL learners’ writing skill via journal writing.
Providing feedback to students’ learning journals can be a time demanding process since it entails a personalized approach. This, however, informed and collaborative teacher-learner dialogue is invaluable, in the long term, in building a close rapport with students based upon a comprehensive and dynamic picture of their linguistic, cognitive and emotional development rather than a static one.