Many of my students ask me how they can improve their language skills. My usual answer to them is to write as often as they can and to read as much as they can. The benefits of these two activities cannot be denied. Like playing an instrument, one must practice to improve. In that same way, practicing writing and reading often will inevitably lead to improvement in all areas of language skills, and they can be practiced anytime, anywhere.
I have, throughout my career, worked with many students at various ages and at various levels. I was first given the idea of encouraging students to write a daily journal when I was working in Japan. It was my mentor’s idea. I was not sure how it would work, but in fact, to my surprise, it yielded incredible results. Students, even those who had low grades, noticeably improved their grades, even across subject areas.
First, however, I must define what a journal is. It 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 where you write maybe not for the purpose of being corrected but just for the practice of writing. Of course, you could ask for corrections, and I did correct my students’ journals if they asked me to. We would sit together while I explained some of the changes I made to their journals and why I made them. They learned a lot during this process, but they learned a lot simply by writing as well.
In writing daily, even something short, students started to think about how sentences (in their case English sentences) were constructed, how to say certain things that happen in everyday life. English for them became something real, useful, relevant. They developed vocabulary, grammar, expression. They learned how to say what they wanted to say. They developed organizational skills and confidence in writing.
Where should you start? Decide whether you want to do a journal digitally or keep a notebook. I personally like the idea of keeping a notebook and writing by hand. Choose a notebook that you like, one that you will carry with you and can write when you feel inspired. Try for a goal of writing every day for five minutes, or maybe simply writing a few sentences or a paragraph a few times a week. As long as you are trying on a regular basis to get a few words or sentences down on the page, you will be on the path to improvement.
The subject matter is entirely up to you. You can write anything at all. You can write about your daily activities, having tea with a friend, going shopping, cooking dinner. The important thing is that you are thinking about how to say all these things in your new language. You may realize that you need a lot of new vocabulary. 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. The other important aspect of writing about your daily activities, more than just finding the vocabulary, is the process of constructing your phrases, thinking about how things have to be said in the language. It makes you become aware of which articles to use and when, which verb tenses, even which prepositions and all these little grammar points that we sometimes forget to think about when we are talking.
If you do not want to record personal activities, you could write about your thoughts on things on a more abstract level. You could record your thoughts about friendship, growing older, the importance of art or literature, something that you heard about in the news. Once you start writing, you may find that the words flow better, your thoughts come together better, and you may write more, for longer and not want to stop. I noticed this with my students’ journals, which got longer and more complicated, and sometimes more personal. 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 originally he did not like the activity. He could not at first see the purpose, but by the end of the term he really felt differently about it. He said he felt his writing had really improved and flowed more easily, after only one month, and that he would likely try to continue the practice.
In conclusion, I feel that a journal is really useful for many reasons. There is no pressure. No one has to look at it, grade it, judge it. It is mostly for you. With that in mind, writing a journal can be a really beneficial activity for improving writing, especially in a second language. My first diary was given to me at the age of 10. 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 ability in French and possibly improving my grades as well.