How to Teach Journaling in the ESL Class

Writing can present enough of a challenge to a native English speaker. But to someone whose second language is English, it is a major hurdle.

To write something in English they not only have to think of the correct grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and spelling but also they have to consider all their thoughts, ideas and opinions and make sure they are all in order and in the right place.

Then to cap all that the average ESL student has to deal with the most uninspiring and unimaginative writing prompts. They could be any of the following:

A Day in the Life of a Seal

The effect of tourism on the island of Malta

The advantages and disadvantages of a subway system in the city

Ten things I like about dogs

These topics would be fine if you have an interest in Arctic wildlife, the tourist industry, public transport or pets. But if you don’t, then you are stuck with it and that’s when the panic takes effect.

I’ve been in class and had to hand out these topics or something similar as writing assignments. Even I had to stifle a yawn as I read the topics out.

It felt like such a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Then I came up with journaling.

Of course, I didn’t come up with the concept of writing a journal but I thought journal writing in the class or as a writing assignment has to be much better than what we had been doing before.


What is Journaling?

This is the first question the students asked.

And I always said: It can be whatever you want it to be.

That was not a fair answer to give them, but it is accurate. The journal can be whatever you want it to be. If you want to write about all the things you hate in life and why you hate them, so be it. If you want to write about every single piece of food you eat for every day then do that.

That’s the thing with journaling. It is private — as most are — so it is entirely up to the person writing it what they want it to be.

As soon as my students got their heads around this, they perked up. Some asked some questions to make sure they had it right.


Write anything I want?

I can write anything?

Like, anything?

Yes, yes, and yes. You can write anything you want.

Then I gave them the really good news.

You don’t have to show it to me. Because what you write might be very private and personal so you are under no obligation to show me anything.

They thought all their birthdays had come at once. One of them burst into tears.

But why?

This was another question the students asked.

Because by writing anything, you are under no stress to write about a certain theme or topic or idea. You have the freedom to write whatever you want and so there should be no excuse not to write anything.

Absolute freedom to write whatever you wish so you should be able to write something.


But I don’t know what to write…

The pressure of the blank page. Staring at it and hoping for something to kick start the writer’s mind and start writing something.

And for some students, they needed to start small. No use telling them to write a 2000 word epic story about their life, they simply could not do it.

Start small.

I gave them a variety of journal prompts to help them. The first one being…

What did you eat today?

So at the end of every day, they have to write what they ate.

For students learning English as a second language, they are coming to terms with food vocabulary. This could be in the form of simple lists such as:

I ate an apple for breakfast

I had chicken and vegetables for lunch

I had curry for dinner

After a while, they could add other elements like where they ate and who with. They then build more vocabulary and start using conjunctions and more complex sentence structure.

What did you do today?

Much like the topic above, but talking about the things the student did for every day. I said it would be a good idea to write about three things they did and try to reflect on them.

For some students, the actual act of writing was a problem. Not so much to do with their English ability so much to do with not knowing how to write.

This is the problem that many ESL students encounter. They have to do things that involve other skill sets, such as writing or public speaking and so on.

For these students, I just said: Write one sentence. Could be about anything but just get that one sentence down.

The great thing about this is that very few people can write just one sentence. They might start off in the very beginning writing one sentence but by the end of the week, they could write two or three sentences regularly. Especially if they are allowed to write anything they want and they don’t have to show it to anyone.


The Results

The results were obvious. For any of the students that maintained a regular writing habit, I could see an improvement in their class work and any other assignments. Their range of vocabulary was broader, they could express their opinions and thoughts with more clarity and their grammar and sentence structure also saw some improvement.

For the students who had not kept up with their journaling, there was no improvement.



Yes, it is a big risk to do this in class. I eventually had a class monitor check who was writing a daily journal and who was not.

Some students saw it as an excuse to just take an extended break and not do any writing at all. But for those that made the effort, the results were clear.

Journaling frees them from the constraints of tedious topics that leave them feeling uninspired and bored. They can write about anything they choose and if you give the student that kind of freedom many will respond well to it. Others not so well…

Writing a journal also instills in the students the mindset of regular writing practice. Just write anything you want.

And some students began to show me some pages — not all — of their journals because their confidence levels were higher and they had more faith in their English writing ability.

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