When my students ask me how they can improve their language skills, I usually tell them to read and write as often as they can.
The benefits of these two activities cannot be overstated. Just as when learning an instrument one must practice to improve, practicing reading and writing frequently will improve all areas of a student’s language skills. Best of all, they can be practiced anytime, anywhere.
I have, in my long career, worked with many students at various ages and various levels of language learning. A mentor of mine first gave me the idea of encouraging students to write a daily journal when I was working in Japan. I was not sure how it would work, but, to my surprise, it yielded incredible results. Even those students who usually achieved low grades noticeably improved, across different subject areas.
What is a journal?
First of all, a journal is not necessarily a diary (which is a private book in which you record intimate details of your life). It is simply a notebook or document in which you write; this may not be for the purpose of being corrected but simply just writing practice.
You can, of course ask for corrections, and I have corrected my students' journals in the past when they have asked me to. We would sit together while I explained some of the changes I made to their journals. They learned a lot during this process, but they learned a lot simply by writing as well.
Why write a journal?
Writing daily, even if it’s something short, allows you to start thinking about how sentences are constructed and how to put across certain everyday things. For my students, English became something real, useful, and relevant. They developed vocabulary, grammar and the power of expression; they learned how to say what they wanted to say; they developed organizational skills and confidence in writing.
Where to start?
First, decide whether you want to keep your journal digitally or in a notebook. I personally like the idea of keeping a notebook and writing by hand. If you do too, choose a notebook that you like (one that you will carry with you and can write in whenever you feel inspired).
Aim for five minutes of writing every day, or simply a few sentences to a paragraph a few times a week, if that works better for you. As long as you are trying to get a few words or sentences down on the page on a regular basis, you will be on the path to improvement.
What to write about?
You can write about anything at all. The important thing is that you are thinking about how to say all these things in your new language. You can write about daily activities like having tea with a friend, going shopping or cooking dinner.
You may realize that you need a lot of new vocabulary, but the act of searching for these words and recording them will likely help you to remember them for next time. It may even prove useful once you have a conversation with someone on a similar subject in the future.
The other important aspect of writing about daily activities, beyond just finding the vocabulary, is the process of constructing phrases and thinking about how things have to be said in the target language. This helps you become aware of which articles to use and when, which verb tenses to use, and even which prepositions are correct. All of these small grammar points are things that we sometimes forget to think about when we are talking.
If you do not want to record personal activities, you can write about your thoughts on a more abstract level. You could, for example, record your thoughts on friendship, growing older, the importance of art and literature, or something that you heard about on the news.
Once you begin writing, you may find that the words flow better or that your thoughts come together better. You may then find that you write for longer and not want to stop. I personally noticed this with my students' journals, which got longer, more complicated and sometimes more personal as they went along. The act of writing can really help students organize their thoughts.
One student even came up to me at the end of a session, turning in his last journals for the term, and said that while originally he did not like the activity and could not see the purpose he now felt very differently about it. He said he felt his writing really improved and flowed more easily after only one month, and that he would probably try to continue the practice.
I feel that a journal is really useful for many reasons. First, there is no pressure; no one has to look at it, grade it or judge it. It is mostly for you. With that in mind, writing a journal can be a really beneficial activity for improving writing in a second language.
My first diary was given to me at the age of 10 and I started writing about everything on a daily basis. By the time I was 14 and learning French, I would occasionally write in French too. I have no doubt in my mind that this helped me in school by improving my writing skills, my French abilities and maybe even my grades as well.
Let's get started! Come on everyone, let's write!