Activity: Journal Writing

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When I started teaching online, it was clear to me almost immediately that I wanted to encourage my learners to write and that I wanted to see their writing on a regular basis. I had a CLB 7 Academic class, and I began rather naively and ambitiously. The assignment was straightforward:

You will have three journal topics a week. You will be given 15 minutes a day, three times a week, to write in your journal. You will be given a journal topic or you can write about whatever you want. 

The class began skeptically but dutifully. It became a many-layered activity. First was the time to write in a journal (I soon adapted the requirements: time to write in your journal three times a week, but send me just two entries). By Monday, I gave each learner actionable feedback for improving the clarity and fluency of their writing. Beyond the individual feedback, I also introduced an Error Correction activity. I celebrated their successes while reminding them that they should continue to write for fluency and to communicate; however, we were going to focus on accuracy on Mondays with Error Correction. I did my best to notice any particular challenges that learners might have in common and I generated a focused Error Correction document with about 12 of their sentences that had one or two errors. For that activity, learners worked in small groups to identify and correct the errors. Then, as a whole group, we worked together to correct the errors. This activity worked really well. Generally, learners are keen to learn and practice grammar. They were working with sentences they had generated themselves, so they already had emotional investment. Error Correction quickly helped with:

  1. Formatting a document and a paragraph.
  2. Writing in sentences while identifying and avoiding run-on sentences and sentence fragments.
  3. Using coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.
  4. Expanding awareness of punctuation.

Outcomes

With journal topics, I got to play with planning, and I got to see different writing formats too.Journal writing let me connect ideas and themes in a way that was very satisfying. After a few weeks of journal writing and feedback, I started sharing (with permission) writing samples. I made it story time. Writers and their classmates were very touched and inspired. More than once, a proud writer cried.

As an instructor, I regularly got to see learner writing and provide individual and group feedback. Meanwhile, the learners received personalized and actionable feedback for improving the fluency, clarity, and accuracy of their writing. In that first class of motivated CLB 7 Academic learners, their writing improved much more than I could have anticipated. They gained confidence in writing and they got to experience many different writing formats. Learners intentionally used new expressions and vocabulary to personalize language and promote retention. There was also a mostly incidental but important by-product: this activity created a space for dialogue between the learners and myself.

Caveats

While learners gain experience and confidence in writing, and therefore generally score well in writing assessments, there is no tidy way to connect journal writing to a PBLA. This activity worked best with that small class of motivated learners: that first class invested in the activity and I invested in them. I’ve never seen such tangible results as the improvement in writing overall in that class. Meanwhile, this activity has worked to some degree, including with a CLB 5 class, in nearly every class that I’ve tried it.  

I believe it is always useful to see writing from my learners on a regular basis so I can track challenges and improvement. I have found that, with feedback and error correction, the activity consistently improves overall writing fluency, accuracy, and confidence. Getting started, I adapted some of the advice from FluentU here: https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/esl-journal-writing/.

When this journal writing activity succeeds, it succeeds extraordinarily well. I have come to recognize that I was spoiled with investment and success the first time. Since then, I have modified my requirements and my expectations. Especially in a smaller and motivated class, I will continue to use this activity in my instruction.

Have you used journal writing activities in your class?

My name is Kevin Slack. I am new and old. I mean: I have been teaching ESL for the TDSB for the last three years, but I taught EFL in Korea and Ecuador years ago (when nothing at all popped or cracked when I stood up). I also taught high school English and Visual Arts. Between my bookends of teaching, I was an artist, a writer, and a freelance web developer. I am ever-curious about language, communication, and self-expression, and it continues to excite and satisfy me to be part of a welcoming, engaging, and enriching space where people can connect, share, and expand – with language, of course, but not only for language. I like coffee, irony, Oxford commas, and semicolons; I generally dislike socks – huzzah for teaching online! – and exclamation points.

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