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Teaching Tips 157

Learning from their diaries
To surrender or not?

Writing diaries

Learning from their

Last week we looked at giving tutorials as a way of providing a channel for two-way feedback between individual students & the teacher. We also mentioned using learner diaries. These are an excellent idea for continued feedback between you & the individual student about the course & the learning process. The student gets a chance to privately let you know how the course is going, get feedback from you & also be involved in authentic writing practice. You get valuable feedback on your lessons.

Here's how to set it up: provide, or get your students to buy, a notebook exclusively for the diary. The students complete them individually after a few lessons, depending on the frequency of the lessons. They will need some guidelines initially, something along the lines of the following:

Which parts of the lessons did you enjoy? Why?
Which parts did you find challenging?
Which parts would you like to look at again?
Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Write the pointers to suit the group. For example you might be asking them to prepare a mini-presentation outside the class to present in the class in the near future. This might be a place for them to ask you language questions they have.

It is probably better to get the students to complete their diaries in class time, 10 minutes at the end of the week/fortnight, as many might not do them outside of class. And if they are of a very low level, they could write in their mother tongue.

Take in the diaries & comment in each. You are mainly interested in the content but also give them some feedback on the writing - not too much as it might put them off the diaries! You can also comment on other things that have happened in the class e.g. praise the student for a good performance in a roleplay or encourage more attention to pronunciation etc. Do give individual feedback.

Encourage the students to write as often as they like & stick to the minimum. So not only the time in the class but when they wish outside of class. You will have to talk to the students & convince them that it is a good idea to use learner diaries but once you get the project going all should see the benefits. And talk to the group about general points that crop up through the diaries.

Another format for the diary could be through emails or the Moodle software. Your students could email you their learner diary or leave their entry in their online space for you to see. In Moodle, after setting up a course for your students, they all have individual blogs that they can complete & use in the same way. If you'd like your own Moodle installation, do get in touch with us at

An alternative to a semi-public diary (ie. you see it) is to encourage your students to write their own diaries at home & not give them in. This would give them a purpose to write outside of class & also help them to periodically reflect on their own learning. Some students would find it difficult to keep this up over an extended time.

A way to get into diaries in class is to use an excerpt from a famous diary such as Ann Frank's, Pepy's or Scott's diary - for the more advanced group.
Find the same day in the diary as the lesson - careful as it can be difficult, but a feeling for the diary can be conveyed.

For all levels - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4.

However you choose to use learner diaries, they are sure to be useful to your students & if you get to see them, they will provide some interesting ideas on your own teaching to reflect on.

There is an article on the site from Henny Burke about learner diaries being used on CELTA courses. To view the article:


Limerick Day
The unofficial Limerick Day, the birthday of Edward Lear, is on
May 12th - for ideas on classroom use, see this past Tip:

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Useful Tutorials

Giving tutorials is a chance for you to talk to individual students for five to ten minutes, for them to give you feedback on how they feel the course is going & for you to give feedback on their progress & future directions. It is also a time to sort out any problems that have come up.

It's not enough to simply sit down & chat. In the lesson before give out a pre-tutorial task sheet & get the students to bring the completed task sheet along to the tutorial. This task sheet enables the students to think & prepare themselves for the tutorial, giving a focus to the discussion. To see some examples of these -
The task sheets could require a non-linguistic response for lower levels - ticking, marking a cline etc - & for higher levels a more linguistic response.
At the same time make some notes for each student so that you are also prepared. Without this preparation you could find yourself with little to say & the student feeling that it is wasted time & opportunity.

You will probably have to do the tutorials during class time so you need to prepare a lesson that does not need you to be present. So get together materials - reading, listening, grammar....etc with the answers. It could be the next couple of pages in the coursebook. Give clear instructions at the beginning & let them get on with it while you talk to each student in turn. If you have a self-access centre then the lesson could take place there.

You will need a quiet place to talk - not in the same room as the group! Talk about their ideas in the task sheet & try to give clear ideas on where they need to concentrate their efforts, not forgetting to give positive feedback for progress they have made. Clearly do the tutorial in English if at all possible, for the very low levels you will have to use their mother tongue.

For a group attending three hours a week a tutorial every term might be enough & at the end of a course it's a very good idea to give pointers on how they can carry on developing.

After the tutorials, to draw everything together nicely, give general feedback to the group on the feedback you got from the individual students - feedback on the feedback. If there's a point mentioned by several students in the tutorials then discuss it with the group. And don't forget to use ideas from the tutorials in future lessons.

Apart from the practical applications of tutorials, students really appreciate them, if carried out well. Students have to rush off at the end of the lesson & teachers have to move into another lesson shortly & so the opportunity for a private time is limited. Arranging it within class time is the answer.

And then there are learner diaries which link in nicely with
tutorials. See the past Tip:

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To surrender or

When we plan our courses, the syllabuses we draw up reflect the ideas we have about teaching. If we think that grammar is one of the most useful tools, then there will be lots of grammar in the plan. If we think that functional work is the way to go then this will dominate. Likewise with skills, if we feel that the development of language skills rather than language is the road to success, we might take a more task-based approach. It is usually the case that there are many different things inter-relating in a balanced plan, sometimes called a multi-layered syllabus, but there will be still be dominant strands that reflect our beliefs & approach.

A look at the popular coursebooks on the market highlight our, or perhaps rather our publishers', fixation with grammar as the dominant strand. Even books that claim to be task-based, are based on grammatical syllabuses. As language is really organic, grammar gives everyone something tangible & manageable to hang on to. It's certainly easier to sell like this.

Our course syllabuses need to take into account the type of course it is. Among several variables, these can be intensive or longer-term, in an English-speaking country or in the learners' home country. If there is no immediate need to use the language, as in the learner in their own country, we can take time to use a building block approach to the course. We can gradually build up the language, showing how the different aspects inter-relate. If we are in an English-speaking country, students need to go & do things with the language straightaway - they need to buy the shopping, deal with the landlord & generally function day to day in English. In this situation we will give them the language they need, taking a functional approach.

Our syllabuses in the first situation are said to have 'low surrender value', while in the latter 'high surrender value'. These terms are taken from insurance & describing policies. The policy that gives very little back , needing you keep the policy for a long time before getting any benefits is said to have low surrender value. The other type, where you get a lot back soon, has high surrender value.

Obviously one can work with a syllabus that provides high surrender value in the learners' own country. A group of computer programmers on a reading course will need to go away & put those strategies into practice straightaway. Other professionals who need English for meetings with business associates from other countries will need a high surrender value course.

A way of providing a relevant syllabus is to bring the learner into the decision-making process. After the needs' analysis process, get together with the students & discuss what you propose & how it will be relevant. Take a note of their wishes &, if sensible, incorporate them into the course plan. If you feel they are off-beam, explain why. As the course progresses, make changes & tweaks to keep it all on target. This starting point & on-going attention makes for a more successful, satisfying course all round.

By the way, we do plan our courses, don't we? Or do we let the coursebook plan the course for us? Coursebooks are a helpful tool, certainly for the less experienced teacher, but to allow them to dictate what happens in our classrooms......? They are usually written by someone in some far off place who has never met our students & knows nothing of the learning situation we are in. Which approach would you prefer if you were a student in a language class?

And now having planned the syllabus, it's on to the timetable:

For associated past Tips:
Using learner diaries
Giving tutorials
Diagnostic testing

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