Using Journals with English Learners

We received this question from one of our subscribers:

Do you have any entries on the website, or any suggestions, about having the students use journals to practice their writing and become more at ease in English?

Journaling with English learnersThis is a topic that is close to my heart. When I worked in a traditional classroom teaching English, I always encouraged my English learners to keep journals. Some of my most enthusiastic language learners kept journals and saw great results because of it. When they looked back at what they wrote months earlier, they were shocked at their own progress. Now that I teach English online, journaling is how I communicate with English learners from all over the world. I highly recommend journaling with your English learners. When I say “with” I mean  teachers should be journaling too!

Don’t Call It A Diary

The word “diary” may seem too personal and turn your students off. Call it something else like a “writer’s notebook,” and explain to your students that journaling is simply an informal type of writing practice that can be used in many different disciplines including science, art, and yes, language learning. Informal writing helps build a writing voice, and gives students a safe place to experiment with the language. Your students should not be expected to write about their personal lives unless they want to. On the other hand, if your students are learning English abroad, a “diary type” notebook may be exactly what they need. Like the pictures they snap, the thoughts they record in their “travel notebooks” will likely end up being their most lasting memories.

Provide Optional Journal Topics

Some students will have no idea what to write in their journals. Other students will never have trouble thinking of something to write about. This is probably true in their own native language as well. Give students optional topics to journal about, but don’t expect them to use these topics if they don’t want to.  Asking a question is one of the easiest ways to create a journal topic. Why not have your students take turns creating journal topics/questions? You can also use topics from the news. Be sure to take note of the topics your students write about. Are they interested in sports, music, or reality TV? Incorporate these interests in your lesson plans and worksheets to keep them engaged. Here are a few online sources where you can find writing prompts:


Be Clear About How You Will Provide Feedback

When your English learners start journaling, they will probably expect you to correct every word. Before you start journaling with your students, explain that you will NOT be “marking” the journals. You don’t mark “home reading” (or silent reading) and you won’t mark “home writing” (or free writing practice). What you can do is offer to read your students’ journals once a week (or even every other week). Don’t  be tempted to make detailed corrections. Circle one or two places where your students could attempt to make their own corrections. If you don’t have time to read every word, don’t feel guilty. The most important thing is that you are encouraging your learners to practice using the language. When I worked in a traditional classroom setting I had an editing key that I used with my students. I handed it out on the first day of class.  (They can use it for peer editing when working on other classroom work.) Your editing key should have symbols or abbreviations for  common writing errors. Here is an example:

Students may not be motivated to keep a journal unless there is some sort of mark attached to it. You can assign a small percentage mark for completion to give students incentive to practice regularly. Alternatively, you could offer some sort of reward.

Look for Common Errors

Journals are extremely useful for finding common errors in your students’ writing. They can help you choose grammar and usage points to review in class. If you notice an error that a specific student is making over and over, be sure to point it out in the journal. Consider enclosing an extra worksheet for your student to practice.

Schedule Journal Writing

Decide how often you want your students to write, and how often you plan on collecting the journals. If you have time in your schedule for five to ten minutes a day of in-class free-writing, nobody will have an excuse not to keep a journal, including you! Don’t be tempted to spend the time marking or planning your next lesson. Keep a journal yourself, and show your students that language learning is a lifelong journey, even for teachers. If necessary, assign a minimum number of sentences. (To prevent all students from writing the minimum,  do this privately with certain students who need the extra push.)

Consider Online Journals/Blogging

Have you ever thought about blogging with your English learners? Even kids as young as kindergarten are blogging these days. The teacher can have a blog that acts as “the hub”. Post your weekly writing prompt or challenge on your blog, and have your students respond on their own blogs.  I encourage you to provide a “model” by responding to your own prompt or question on the hub (teacher) blog. When your students write their own response, they can share the link to their blog post in the comments of your blog. I’ve been doing with with English learners from all over the world for years in the form of a monthly “Writing Challenge”. With an online journal, students can share images, links, and videos that go with their writing. Some of my students take blogging one step further, by adding recordings of their voices. We call it Voice Blogging.

Platforms for blogging with English learners:


Try Different Types of Journals

Dialogue Journal – Write back and forth with your student, or assign your students dialogue partners.
Dream Journal – Have students record their dreams.
Goal or Progress Journal – Have students write down a weekly goal at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week they can comment on their achievements.
Gratitude Journal – Students write down things they are thankful for. Beginners can write journals in list form.
Fictional Journal – Have students take on the persona of a famous person or a fictional person. This can be useful for students who don’t want to write about themselves.
Reading Journal – Have students write about what they are reading.
Vocabulary Journal – Students choose one new word per day and try to use it as many times as they can in a journal entry.
Photo Journal – Students choose a photo and write about it. Useful for online blogs. (Try Fotobabble)

The Benefits of Journaling: Summary

Journaling helps language learners:
✓experiment with and review the language
✓build a writing voice
✓gain confidence
✓express frustrations and struggles
✓relieve stress
✓communicate with the teacher
✓create lasting memories of their language journey
✓monitor their own progress

Journaling helps teachers:
✓discover student interests
✓isolate common errors
✓build relationships with students
✓develop their own writing voices
✓reflect on teaching practices

I hope you find joy in journaling with your English learners. If you have any suggestions, examples, or questions, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share links to your students’ online journals in the comments below.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
~Ernest Hemingway


Leave a Comment ↓

  1. Ray Voith says:

    May 16, 2015 at 1:52 am

    I like the idea of dedicating 10-15 minutes in class to make journal entries. It’s hard to get everyone to do this at home

    • Tara Benwell says:

      May 19, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks, Ray. You may find that a few students even fall in love with writing.

  2. ESL Library Staff says:

    Apr 18, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Becki,

    Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you like the editing key!

    We received this comment from Jeff Hornstein via FB. I hope he doesn’t mind if we copy it here for other teachers to see:
    “I have my beginner students start a “personal profile” during the first week of school. They have a special notebook for this. They begin by writing their name, age, nickname, marital status, birthday, etc. Every week they have to add a 1 paragraph entry using the structures and vocabulary we studied during the week. By the end of the first level of the course, they have 5-10 pages written that talks about their families, best friend, pets, hobbies, interests, jobs/school, home, physical/personality traits, favorites, daily routines, etc. They enjoy looking back on what they wrote as a means of seeing their progress. Some of my students who studied with me for a year or more have over 25 pages. As the students become more advanced, I give them a weekly / bi-weekly writing prompt to write in their profiles.”

  3. Becki Benedict says:

    Apr 18, 2013 at 10:30 am

    I think journals are great for homework. I like the simple Editing Key. Thanks!

  4. Tara Benwell says:

    Apr 05, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Here is a fun post with an alternative to the “Editing Key” :

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