I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:
- Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
- Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
- Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen
They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!
The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.
While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher. This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.
This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!