By Lucy Tilney on Wednesday, 02 June, 2021
In Praise Of The Diary: student-centred learning
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Oscar Wilde (Irish wit, poet, and playwright1854-1900)
I want to share how I create really effective and meaningful classes for my student. In this blog, I sing the praises of using a diary to help my student in their English learning journey.
During normal, non-Covid times, I offer one-to-one, full immersion courses to adults who come and live with me for short but intensive periods. We have lessons in the morning, between three and four hours. After that I make lunch for us, with conversation and correction. In the afternoon or evening, we may have an excursion together, with conversation and correction. Every evening, I cook dinner and we have conversation and correction. This type of teaching is very intensive and challenging, but very rewarding for both the student and the teacher. As you can understand, the only time to prepare is before the lesson in the morning, while I’m eating my breakfast. This is where the beauty of the diary starts.
I ask my student to write a simple account of their day; nothing fancy, just an account. This is to be done as homework and I suggest that they go to a café, where they can observe and listen to people speaking English. For this reason, I suggest that they have a book small enough to put in their bag or to carry with them. On the first day, I ask them to write about their journey to me; what time they left home, who took them to the airport, what the flight was like - on time or delayed; their first impressions of Bristol and their new home; what they learned in their first lesson etc.
I ask them to write on every other line to leave space for corrections. The next morning, we go through the diary together. First I ask them to read the complete diary to me. I listen without interruption and get an idea of their writing level and the errors they are making. Then we go through the diary, sentence by sentence. They choose one colour for grammar/vocabulary corrections and another (red) for pronunciation correction into phonemic – this is something I show them and we start using from the second day of their course. Generally, when we write in another language, we create a sentence in our first language and then ‘drop’ the foreign vocabulary in the order of our own language. This means that the teacher can hear the gaps in the knowledge. This activity is a kind of ‘grammar clinic’, and these issues are presented in an organic way. As each error is noted and corrected, it’s an opportunity to give a mini-lesson on the subject. The student listens and makes the correction. The act of correcting their diary for themselves reinforces the learning in a visual and kinaesthetic way, and provides a record of the correction. With the diary, we can look at word order in English sentences; vocabulary; prepositions; the past simple (diaries are usually written in the past); occasionally present perfect, past perfect, past continuous, present continuous for future arrangements; regular/irregular verbs; adjectives; adverbs, gerunds…
For my lower level students, I ask them to make a simple record of their activities: what time they woke up; what time they got up (good irregular verbs, and phrasal verbs for higher levels); what they ate for breakfast; what they studied in class; where they went in the afternoon and then what they ate for dinner with me – that expands vocabulary for food and drink, which is always useful. At a higher level, I ask my student to write something more ‘literary’ and incorporate more conceptual ideas, such as cultural differences they notice: for example, the importance of ritual politeness in British society.
Once the diary is corrected for grammar, it becomes a pronunciation activity. I ask my student to read it aloud and we record it. We do this during the lesson or sometimes my student will do it as part of their homework, after lesson. Then we listen again, checking for pronunciation errors; often it’s the first time my student has listened to themself speaking in English.
This is a student-centred approach to creating material for the lessons. Furthermore, it’s a natural and organic way to address grammar and pronunciation which arise out of a need to communicate. And the real delight is I can learn a lot about my student; sometimes they reveal quite personal things in their diaries.
For my students, it can also be a record of their visit, which may be the first time they have ever travelled alone to a foreign country. Some students like to collect things like brochures or labels from their drinks or till receipts and stick them in their diary, like a scrapbook. Above you can see a photo from a diary kept by Évelin Morano, a Spanish/Colombian woman who came to me for a course of four weeks in July 2019. As you can see, her diary is a delight! She loved writing the diary and told me that re-reading it recently gave her back some of her best memories!