Learning Diaries in the English as a Foreign Language Classroom: A Tool for Accessing Learners' Perceptions of Lessons and Developing Learner Autonomy and Reflection

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The aim of this study was to learn from students'frame of reference how they experience foreign language classes. Data include learning diaries written during 2005 for more than 35 weeks (March to November). Subjects were 95 Argentine, Caucasian, mostly female, middle-class, Spanish-speaking college students between 19 and 21 years of age who were enrolled in English Language 11 at the National University of La Plata in Argentina. The results of this study stress 1) the value of systematic learner introspection over time as a vehicle for reflection and autonomy in foreign and second language learning contexts; 2) uncovering learners' thoughts and beliefs in an effort to understand how these affect their engagement with language activities; and 3) using this information to make instructional decisions and monitor their adequacy and effectiveness.

Key words: autonomy, diary writing, introspection and reflection in English as a foreign language learning, learner centeredness

Language: Relevant to all languages

Introduction

The research reported here was carried out in the framework of English Language II, a compulsory annual course common to two graduate programs offered by the Department of Modern Languages at the National University of La Plata in Argentina: Teacher of English Language and Literature (five years) and National Public Translator in English (five years). English is a foreign language (L2) in this country, with Spanish as the mother tongue (LI). The medium of instruction is English and students are required to have achieved the level of Cambridge Certificate of Advanced English at this stage.

Current practices involve the compulsory reading of instructor-selected books, the identification and memorization of the most significant content in these obligatory reading materials for the final exam, a product approach to writing, and the evaluation of writing skills on the basis of the timed production of grammatically and lexically accurate texts. More precisely, learners have two hours to produce a written text of approximately 350 words on an instrucor-selected topic. Feedback comes in the form of error correction by the instructor. Learner self-correction, as recommended by Makino (1993), is not encouraged. Although good content is valued and flaws in content are identified, too many grammatical mistakes (tenses, prepositions, etc.) outweigh any well-developed piece and result in a fail mark. Learners need to pass 60% of all required pieces to be allowed to sit for the final exam as regular students.

Although learner independence did not seem to be feasible in this context, I decided to introduce some elements of autonomy in my classroom and initiate diary writing as a vehicle to channel my learners' reactions as well as my reactions to them. Changes, while not dramatic, were important in the sense that they required a gradual increase of responsibility from learners in the management of their own learning and constituted a first step toward autonomy. 1 introduced the following changes: 1) All learners together selected classroom activities from a variety of options. Given that they had never had choice in this respect, the autonomous classroom where learners proceed individually to complete tasks at their own pace was not appropriate at this stage. These learners had never before engaged in any form of autonomous learning. 2) Learners retained their right to withdraw from any activity at any time, especially speaking activities-given their perceived difficulty as stated in the diaries. If they did withdraw, they reflected in writing on their reasons for doing so. 3) Learners were given activities to practice at home on their own to become better learners (e.g., Call's [1996] strategy for narrative writing, a course requirement, as explained in "The Witch's Hat"). 4) An Amazing Facts section at the beginning of each class gave learners the opportunity to comment voluntarily on

something amazing (interesting, exciting, frustrating, sad, etc. …