Journals in the foreign language classroom

Written by: Scott J Baxter, University of Minnesota, Crookston

Abstract: In this paper I describe some of the ways that journals can be used as teaching tools in the foreign language classroom. I begin by describing the concept of writing to learn, which is the theoretical foundation that journals are based on. After that, I give some practical advice for using journals in the classroom. Finally, I end the paper with advice and opinions from some students at the American University of Bulgaria.

Writing to Learn

One way to begin is by thinking about the concept of writing to learn. But, rather than starting with a definition of the concept, I would like to start with a thought experiment. If someone asked you to grab a piece of paper and jot down an answer to the question, what things are important to me as a teacher, what would you say? Perhaps you would write about the things you want your students to learn. Or maybe you would write about what sort of atmosphere you like to have an your classroom. Or perhaps you would write about the factors that led to your becoming a teacher.

If you had, in fact, grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down some information, you would have been doing a type of writing called writing to learn.Writing to learn is thinking as you write. And this thinking as you write is the kind of writing that happens when people keep journals.

Writing to learn is based on the assumption that students’ thought and understanding can grow and clarify through the process of writing. And this growth in thought and understanding can certainly happen in the foreign language classroom.

Writing to learn is usually contrasted with writing to communicate. Writing to communicate is the sort of graded writing that is usually assigned in classrooms. Art Young (1999, p. 14), describes seven differences between writing to learn and writing to communicate. First, writing to communicate emphasizes discovery thinking, as opposed to critical thinking. Second, the emphasis is on developing ideas rather than revising, crafting, or clarifying. Third, the writing is designed to make sense primarily to the writer, rather than a reader. Fourth, the audience is self and trusted others, rather than a distant audience. Fifth, the language can be personal, rather than academic and formal. Sixth, the teacher plays the role or mentor or coach rather than judge. And, finally, the forms include things like journals, blogs, and rough drafts rather than graded essays, reports, or business letters.

This list of seven differences is one way to think about how writing to learn and writing to communicate are different from each other. Another way to think about what writing to learn is illustrated by Christine Casanave and Miguel Sosa:

“An intermediate or high-intermediate second language student (you, your students), bored by textbook exercises, longs to be challenged by something more interesting, which almost always means something more difficult and more interactive and almost always something outside the conventional school setting. Like the scholar and the piano student, the second language student experiences the world in complex ways, multidimensionally and multimodally, through body and mind. In the language class, we can draw on these experiences—what the student at some level already knows. To express the complexities of her lived experiences and embodied cultural knowledge and then to communicate with others both within and outside her own culture, she must merge experiences, emotions, images, beliefs, and sensations with language, squeezing out lines of words in speech and writing and letting the spoken and written words build on each other. But if she is doing this in her L2, she must hold to a belief that may make her fearful at first–she must believe that she does not have to wait until her language is error-free in order to transform her experiences and complex thoughts into lines of words. The lines do not need to be long. The grammar does not need to be perfect. They do need to connect with the student’s mind, body, and experience. She also needs to be convinced that there is a receptive audience consisting of other people who are interested in what she has to say. In other words, she must be convinced that someone (in our example, a teacher and peers) is interested enough in her to listen well to her words and to help her put them into coherent lines that can be shared with others” (Casanave, 2007).


Having described what writing to learn is, let me now offer some advice about using journals in the classroom. Art Young is one of  the world’s expert’s on the topic of journals. He says

“But probably my best advice on journals is to make regular, frequent use of them in class. Teachers new to journals sometimes assign them on the first day of class, require maybe three entries a week, and then don’t mention them again until midterm. When they read them, they realize that the journals are the product of a marathon writing session the night before, complete with properly identified different dates. Journals need to be integrated into the fabric of a course.”

Young continues by saying “… Students learn that journals are valuable, not just “busywork,” because they are used daily as students and teacher build the knowledge of the course” (Young, 2006, p. 16).

To add to Youngs advice, I offer seven suggestions:

First, ask students to buy a notebook they can easily carry around in their backpacks. Inspiration for a journal entry might come to them at any time, and they are more likely to write in their journal outside of class if it is easy for them to carry it with them wherever they go.

Second, the language of the journal could be English, but it could also be their first langauge (L1). Or it could have both. For advanced students, it makes sense to have them use the target language. For beginners, a journal in their native language might be a place where they can express their feelings without having to worry about remembering difficult grammar or vocabulary.

Third, collect them and read the journals on a regular basis. But do not correct. If you feel you should respond, then talk about something you liked. Remember that “In a language class, in the end, everything boils down to the same question: can you use language to convey whatever your thoughts are? … can you express something about yourself, your ideas, your curiosities, and questions?” (Casanave 2007).

Fourth, leave a blank page between entries for room to comment later. Class time could be devoted to having students read and re-read entries and respond to what they have written. In my experience, students really enjoy having a chance to comment on their own growth and development in the journal.

Fifth, encourage students to write about a wide variety of topics, but the topics should always, at least in some way, connect with the class. Making the connection between the class and the larger life of the student can offer a number of creative possibilities.

Sixth, if possible, keep a journal along with your students. Ask your students to write during class time, and write along with them. I kept a journal along with my students. Writing with your students is a powerful model for them. It tells them that the teacher takes the ideas of journals seriously and so should they. Keeping a journal along with your students also helps you see how much time it takes, helps you be reasonable with what you expect, and gives you a clue as to how interesting the prompts are that you give to your students.

Finally, look for ways to use the journal during class time. If you can find ten minutes to give the students a chance to say what they think about today’s class it will make things more engaging for them. Look for ways to connect the journal with what you consider important in the class.

Student Opinions

I think that there is real and genuine value in listening to the voices of the learners. Part of having a learner-centered classroom, at least in my opinion, means hearing the voices of the learners. Hearing the voices of the learners is something that has real value. Those voices, for me, remind me of the reasons I like being a language educator.

In the spring of 2007, I used journals as an integral part of my classes at the American University of Bulgaria. At the end of the semester I asked them to talk about what surprised them and what advice they have for students who are asked to keep journals. To end this paper, I offer three sets of opinions from my students

Student Opinion 1

I was surprised by the ease with which the whole process went. It wasn’t difficult, it wasn’t scary and it didn’t bite me. Probably the most surprising things about keeping a journal was the volume of paper I wasted (whole two trees dead- I feel like a murderer) and the exactness of details kept in my mind. which however have no chance of being released except when a person is with a piece of paper and pen.

Advices: Be creative! Love your journal! Your journal is your friend! (so are trees but you know, this is a journal-tree trade-off) Be specific! Be sincere! Be up to date with entries! Be ready to argue and defend your position! Be ready to make mistakes- both grammatical and spelling- that’s why it’s a journal and not a paper. Write about things you’re interested in and which you like- make it interesting! (make a tree’s death meaningful) (Magdalena, Bulgaria)

Student Opinion 2

At the beginning I did not exactly know what a journal was. I realized that one day as I was reading my journals I compared the ones I had written in the beginning with the ones I had written in the end. They differed so much from each other. The journals I had written in the beginning of the semester were more formal and seemed more like essays. I remember writing them on pieces of paper at the beginning and then in the notebook. Scott told me about that and also while listening to other people and discussing in class I started to change my way of writing journals. I became more open to them and less formal. I started writing using “I” and expressing my exact opinion on everything. And that was the thing I appreciated most. Usually I kept my ideas to myself as I am very shy and sometimes even if I wanted to say something I did not. Writing journals helped me not only ameliorate my writing, an aim that I think I realized, but also it helped me ameliorate as a person. It stimulated my critical thinking and looking at things deeper. I started to look at them from a different perspectives and analyze them more. I found it really helpful either in the developing writing skills perspective or developing self-confidence and being more analytic. I really appreciated it and I am grateful to the professor. I really appreciated his choice and I think every student has to experience writing journals. I actually think that I will continue to write them, even after this class. I will make it a tradition and I will always remember my persuasion class with Scott. (Erka, Albania)

Student Opinion 3

Keeping the journal was probably the best part of the course. At the beginning, I was very skeptical and worried, finding hundred reasons it would be difficult. I understood what a journal meant and for what purpose it was kept. And I made sure from the beginning I make the proper difference between the journal and the diary. But OK, I have to tell what surprised me. Well, first after being asked in my previous Exposition class to write those formal essays with the fixed forms, I felt like I did now know how to write in English anymore.

And we started writing the journal from the beginning, and it was a continuous work. I have to say it was a very good practice. And we were told that the style of writing was free, we could write however we felt like writing, without caring about the form, grammar or spelling. And I understood I did not have problems to write in English as I thought before. Free writing is not just a very good practice (for the written English). In my opinion it is a lot more than that. By opening the journal and starting to write on a topic before prior thinking on what to write, I realized I would come up with some really good thoughts and observations of issues. So it helped us not in just improving our performance in written English, but also in training us to think, to reflect on issues, to think of the problems and try to find solutions, to put thoughts (very straight ones) for another project so we could set the work. I really feel like it helped me a lot, meaning in lot of ways.

And I did not expect this, that is why it surprised me. I did not expect that I could put that much of reflective and valuable writing in my journal. And more than surprised me. I am grateful I had to keep this journal as it made me understand I am not limited in writing English, and I do not really need three days to write a 500-word essay, which will turn out to be not that good. And I am also grateful I had to keep this journal as it made me think of a lot of things I would not think of otherwise.

At the very beginning I thought it would be very hard to come up with topics that would be connected to the class. But it didn’t take me a lot of time until I realized this was not a problem at all. The persuasion class was filled with various activities and we always had something to write about, something we could continue analyzing further, something we could express our concerns about, something we could argue about. Furthermore, we had little projects and papers all the time and the journal was where I started to work on all of these. And I really mean when I say that it helped a lot. Because I felt that the journal was the best place I could express my ideas. I could write a perfect draft in there, I could put the best very first thought in there. And it did not take much time. Because at first we were all stressed thinking that keeping a journal will take us a lot of time. Surprisingly, again it turned out it didn’t. And this all about the free writing. Not just that you make a good writing, but you also finish it for a shorter period of time. And I am grateful for this too. Now, when I had to write my papers it did not take me more than three days. And these papers were even longer than 1000 words or 1500. And as a result they turned out to be better.

So surprisingly, keeping the journal brought back my self- confidence for writing in English. It also helped me broaden out my thoughts, pushing me to think further about stuff and analyze problems. Surprisingly, I felt really good about keeping it and I might consider continuing to keep it (but I admit this will be hard for the mere reason we don’t have much time here). And, lastly, I am grateful for being asked to keep a journal, letting us have it as an obligation, because otherwise we wouldn’t.

I will conclude by giving advices to students who are asked to keep the journal.

I would advise them to accept it from the beginning as a very good opportunity and not to worry about it at all. I would advise them not to think they will waste a lot of time writing the entries. Because they won’t. They will actually gain time as they will become not just better but also faster at writing. And I won’t mention all the other reasons I mentioned above (the helpful skills and improvements one gains from keeping the journal). But for all these reasons, they should understand from the beginning the importance of the journal.

And they will always find topics. I am sure when I say this. The last advice I want to give them is to just start writing, even if they think they don’t have what to say on that topic. The words will come, the ideas too.

I am pretty sure everyone at the end will understand the importance of keeping a journal, but I hope they understand it at the very beginning, so they will enjoy keeping it and never consider it as an obligation. (Arita, Kosovo)


Casanave, C.P. & M Sosa. (2007). Respite for Teachers: Reflection and Renewal in the Teaching Life. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Young, A. (1999). Writing Across the Curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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