Learning a language requires practice and guidance in order to use the target language successfully in the four skills. Although each skill has its burdens, writing has been one of the hardest skills to master, as it requires constant practice and assessment. Apart from that, it is a production skill, therefore writing does not involve a single right answer, but a broad scope of right answers. In the last decades, experts in education and second language teaching have come up with a variety of approaches and techniques to ensure students’ success. Besides, innovative activities have paved the way for students to achieve successful writing. In other words, development in education has provided guidance to second language learners in terms of writing. This discipline is compared to physical exercise, as both activities require constant practice. For this reason, it is important for teachers to provide students with guidance and activities in order to achieve enough practice.
A number of teachers introduced writing journals as an authentic activity. Such task enables students to keep a record of their day, make a reflection and analyze their reality. According to Bennet, a journal is“(...) a personal, regularly written record of an individual life. In education, journals have been used across the disciplines and age groups for students to write down their reactions and reflections to what they are reading or hearing in class “ (Denne - Bolton, 2013). Having said this, journal keeping is an effective tool for students to practice writing in their target language, as it has a significant number of benefits in the learning process. Besides, there are also important points to consider if teachers are willing to do this type of activity with their students.
To begin with, through journal writing, students who are inhibited by external feedback can avoid a situation in which the teacher would read their production. Writing entries generally involves independent work, since the teacher rarely checks their tasks. In most cases, they take a quick look to see the number of pages the student wrote. Another advantage of writing a journal is the meaningful use of the second language. As students are expected to write about themselves, they would use their target language to recall and reflect on their lives on paper. Consequently, they would use the language they learn in a real-life context and, more importantly, in their own context. In the words of Uduma,“As the ESL classroom becomes student-centered, they will write about things of personal interest, what they know and what they imagine. Journals therefore foster connections between what they know, and what they are learning“ (Uduma, 2011). For instance, students can produce personal and meaningful pieces of writing if teachers assign journal tasks with prompts such as “Write about what you did last weekend” or “What do you do when you are sad?”
One of the most underlying of journal keeping is the concept of “Writing to Learn”. This concept involves the use of writing to communicate and thinking how to write while the process of writing takes place. As Scott J. Baxter says about this concept, “Writing to learn is based on the assumption that students’ thoughts and understanding can grow and clarify through the process of writing” (Baxter, 2009). In this way, assignments would lead students to develop their ideas while they produce and consequently, they would write with less pressure to make drafts or recheck possible mistakes. Instead, they would concentrate more on the content rather than the grammatical part.
Despite the benefits, in order to work with journals successfully, it is important for teachers to provide guidance for self assessment, build rapport and adapt the writing prompt to the level and age of the student. When it comes to assessment, a certain number of teachers overlook the use of this tool. However, lack of feedback can turn into a disadvantage for the learner. For this reason, a positive alternative is to provide the student with the possibility to self-assess their work. An effective way to do so is a self-assessment chart, where students can answer self-check questions and check grammar mistakes after writing. In this way, students would produce and evaluate the work on their own and the presence of an editor would be less necessary. Even so, it is impossible to spot 100% of the mistakes with a self-assessment chart. Therefore, learners are prone to have errors related to vocabulary or word order as well as coherence and cohesion. The teacher can intervene in case the learner experiences a feeling of anxiety for not finding every error. To accomplish this, the former needs to build a friendly relationship with the students, so that the learners are not intimidated by the feedback. Another benefit of a friendly bond between the teacher and the student is the learners' confidence and comfort when writing. Instead of focusing strictly on the rules, writers would concentrate on what they want to write about. One of the examples of this fact is a case study carried out by Holly Hansen-Thomas in an English course in Hungary. After working with her students, she concluded:
"In some entries the students were actually writing to themselves in the form of a diary. Although these were dialogue journals done with the teacher, it was apparent that I was not being addressed; instead the journal was used for personal reflection."
(Hansen - Thomas, 2003)
Having said this, journaling can be a useful way to focus on content and consequently, "Write to Learn".
Another point that should be taken into account when it comes to journaling is the flexibility of evaluation and the adaptation of the writing prompt. The execution of writing journals in class ought to be adapted to the learners’ level. For example, a self-assessment chart is a suitable alternative for B1 students onwards because their level would enable them to be aware of mistakes and correct themselves. In the case of beginners, production activities such as journal writing are too complex, unless the prompts are simple commands such as “name your favorite animals” or “write your ideal shopping list for your favorite lunch”. Thus, students would be writing according to their needs, level and within their comfort zone.
To conclude, second language writing is a skill of great difficulty, and it needs frequent practice and guidance. For this reason, writing journals is an alternative option, so that learners can express their thoughts on paper while they enhance their writing in a meaningful way. If tasks are related to their daily lives and there are no strict rules about the feedback, students are more likely to be at ease and overcome anxiety, inhibition, and even lack of motivation. As regards teachers, it is of paramount importance that they adapt the journal writing activities by providing independent evaluation to advanced students or giving feedback to beginners as well as students who strive for error correction. In this way, this authentic activity would generate a positive experience for learners as well as meaningful learning in their real-life context.
Baxter, S. J. (2009). Journals in the Language Classroom. English Teaching Forum.
Denne - Bolton, S. (2013). The Dialogue Journal: A Tool for Building Better Writers. English Teaching Forum.
Hansen-Thomas, H. (2003). A Case Study of Reflective Journals in a University-Level EFL Writing Course in Hungary. English Teaching Forum.
Uduma, E. (2011). Journal Keeping in an ESL Classroom: an Innovative Approach in Language Learning. Journal of Education and Practice.
Figure 1: A person starting a journal entry. Instructables.com: How to Create a Good Journal Entry. Emily Johnson. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.instructables.com/How-to-Create-a-Good-Journal-Entry/
Figure 2: A young teacher and a student. Freepik.com. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/young-woman-teacher-teaches-lesson-class-teenage-children-teacher-stands-near-school-desk-with-boy-student-checks-knowledge-education-school-college-teaching-concept_20433593.htm
Figure 3: A journal entry. Writers.com: Creating the Visual Journal. Lissa Jensen. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://writers.com/course/creating-visual-journal
Figure 4: A photograph of Holly Hansen-Thomas. TWU-COPE Video Channel. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQZEuI1Jj8c