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The Language Teacher

Using Diaries to Develop Language Learning Strategies

Karen Fedderholdt
Toyama University

Successful language learners make use of different types of learning strategies. The language learner who is able to use a wide variety of language learning strategies appropriately, is better equipped to improve her language skills. However, being able to use the best strategies out of a carefully cultivated range does not always come by itself. Students need guidance in learning how to learn. The language teacher must be able to help students recognize the various components which make up the learning process.

Skills development in three areas are needed. Metacognitive strategies improve organization of learning time, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation. Cognitive strategies include using previous knowledge to help solve new problems, or note taking. Learners also need to become familiar with socio-affective strategies, which include asking native speakers to correct their pronunciation, or asking a classmate to work together on a particular language problem. Possessing these skills help the language learner build up learner independence and autonomy whereby she can take control of her own learning. One way of developing these skills is through the use of diaries, in which students keep a record of their language learning strategy development.

The Students

I introduced the idea of using diaries to record strategy use to 17 third-year students, predominantly female, who participated in my weekly, 90-minute oral communication class at a national university. At the beginning of the semester, I talked briefly about what language learning strategies are and their advantages. I asked students to think about whether they would be interested in working on developing their learning strategies during the ensuing semester, and let me know the following week. If they were, they would have to commit themselves for a semester and keep a Language Learning Strategy (LLS) diary. I felt it was important that students were motivated, for without this, what Wenden and Rubin (1987) describes as "an internal change of consciousnessÓ could take place, and the development of language learning strategies would likely be impaired.



Fifteen students decided to participate. Before starting on the diaries, students were encouraged to speak in English about what language learning meant to them, how they learned language, and what their perceptions of themselves as language learners were. Those not wishing to keep diaries also participated in this discussion. Discussions were a regular feature of classes, so this was not an unusual activity.

It became apparent that students did not plan when they would study English, but squeezed study time in between university club activities, part-time jobs, and other subjects worth more credits. Students did not monitor their own progress, and evaluation was expected to be carried out by the teacher. Furthermore, they used very fixed, limited strategies which they had not evaluated for effectiveness. For example, most students said that in order to memorize words, they wrote them down many times, but when asked why they used this method and not another, they could hardly imagine any other way possible. There was a marked discrepancy between what students said would be helpful, such as speaking with speakers of English and listening to tapes, and what they actually did. For example, only two in a class of seventeen had ever attempted to speak to any foreigners. Furthermore, some strategies, which seemed to be superficially good techniques, such as listening to tapes, were imperfectly developed. Apart from switching on the radio or putting a cassette in a tape deck, it was apparent that students had no clear idea as to how to listen efficiently.

In general, students had limited understanding of the components of language learning, and very little awareness of their roles as language learners. To help them, I gave a short, simplified orientation to the three main groups of LLS set out by O'Malley and Chamot (1990):

1. Metacognitive strategies, which deal with self-management: setting goals, monitoring, and self-evaluation.

2. Cognitive strategies, which deal with actual information: how to obtain it (by asking for clarification, repetition, etc.); inferencing meaning from context; using dictionaries and grammar books; retaining it through memorization, repetition, mnemotechnic tricks, and writing things down; and retrieving it.

3. Socio-effective strategies, which include co-operating with classmates, friends, teachers, or speaking English with other speakers of English.

Keeping the diaries

Although not everyone in the class wanted to participate in the actual keeping of a diary, all students joined in the discussions and orientation connected with the LLS diary. I felt the nonparticipants would benefit from this, and possibly want to keep one themselves in the future. The introductory session, in which students focused on the metacognitive strategy of setting specific, manageable goals, took about 40 minutes. This was followed by further metacognitive strategies, including those of self-monitoring and self-evaluation (20 minutes) and finally examples of various cognitive strategies (25 minutes). The remaining five minutes were spent discussing how to keep the diaries.

By the end of the class, students had been told that during each week of the semester, they should make entries every day in their diaries as follows:

Day 1 (after class): write one goal to work towards during the week.

Days 2 - 5: write about what they had done on a daily basis (self-monitoring), and which strategies they had used in working towards their goal.

Day 6: write a self-evaluation of well they had done and why.

Day 7: hand in their diaries for me to read and comment upon.

In the following weeks, I used about 10 minutes of each class to go over some specific points of interest which would be useful for everyone, such as how to listen to tapes effectively. Otherwise, students read my comments, and consulted me about them outside class time.

We spent a substantial amount of time on goal-setting. That is, students had to make clear to themselves what exactly they wanted to be successful in regarding English. In order to do this, students discussed in groups their reasons for learning English. These reasons included wanting to become teachers of English at junior or senior high schools, being able to speak fluently with foreigners in Japan or abroad, and finding jobs using English. However, these goals were very general. Hedge and Gosden (1991) point out that students often lack the practice and ability to pinpoint which components their goals consist of, and consequently, have difficulty in achieving them. Therefore, the students were asked to write down a number of areas into which their goals could be broken down. Again, huge goals such as improving listening, speaking, reading, and writing appeared. Reflecting upon this together, however, helped them realize that these goals also needed breaking down into various manageable components. Items such as being able to communicate that one is listening, being able to interrupt, ask for clarification, repetition, understanding the subtle rules of pragmatics, register, and genre, as well as topics such as practicing to overcome shyness were mentioned.


The following diary entries are representative examples of how some students negotiated the various steps involved in developing their LLS and learner autonomy. As with all things, some students were quicker at being able to utilize various strategies effectively. Others needed more guidance for a longer period, either through my comments in connection to their diary entries or by talking with me outside of class.

Student A:

Goal for the week: To overcome my shyness and being ashamed of my English.

Strategies: Talk English with people.

After specifying his goal and ways of achieving it, there were diary entries describing what was done: I talked to classmates in English in class. I talked to Karen for 10 minutes after class.

At the end of the week I could read that he was not too pleased with himself:

I did not succeed very well. I am still shy.

At first sight, this may not seem very promising, but I made a note in his diary that things take time, and that one week was a very short time to overcome a personality trait. Also, I praised him for thinking about this problem, working to overcome it, and evaluating how he had fared.

The teacher's role is one of encouragement, and should guide students in choosing and using strategies. The teacher should also remind students that many things certainly take more than just a week, but that once a start has been made, a particular goal can be pursued alongside others.

Other diary entries included reflections such as the following:

Student B:

I was shocked how many times I really could not understand much of the text. This student had decided to listen to tapes and write down what she heard.

Student C:

I listened to the tape several times. I thought today's listening was the best, but I checked my mistakes and noticed that I couldn't catch "have" and "had. So next time when I listen, I'll pay attention to "have" and "had."

Student D:

I watched a program in English. I recorded it. After the end of the program, I watched it in Japanese and found that I had missed many points.

As pointed out earlier, students have very little practice in self-evaluation and self-monitoring. Their inability to do so can often result in an inaccurate idea of how good or poor they are at certain things. The goal of improving the metacognitive strategies of self-evaluation and self-monitoring is to increase students' responsibility for their own learning process, to help them make decisions regarding the planning, effectuation and appraisal of their efforts. The diaries helped students achieve this goal.

Some diary entries expressed goals and strategy use that were much too general:

Student E:

Iwant to improve my listening....I listened to a tape for 30 minutes.

Sudents needed guidance in order to become more specific about what they were doing. For example, were they listening for general understanding or specific points, to improve vocabulary or check grammar in practice or what? As for learning strategies, I would ask them to think about what they were doing while listening. Were they listening to the tape in its entirety, or were they stopping it after a few sentences, making notes, and repeating what they heard?

Despite good intentions, there were sometimes limits to the practice of socio-affective strategies such as trying to talk with a partner in English; these fell short of a natural conversation with a speaker of English:

Student F:

Another student and I met at the bowling alley. We had unnatural and artificial conversations in English such as: "Yes, he's got a good score, but hers is better."

Nevertheless, entries like the following showed that students were aware of the usefulness of socio-affective strategies and that working together was helpful:

Student G:

This morning M_____ gave me a test on "another-other's-the others." I could answer correctly.

Discussion and Conclusion

By the end of the semester, most students had progressed to becoming more specific in their definition of their goals. Being able to do so showed that they had developed an extended consciousness of the many issues that make up the learning of a language. The goals they wrote about in their diaries became more varied as they reflected on them. They became better at assessing both their strong and weak points, and recognizing problems and working to overcome them using various relevant learner strategies.

I have made one important change to the project. Originally, only volunteers participated, as I believed that only students with intrinsic motivation would benefit. However, I now include all students, as I feel that in order to be able to choose whether one is interested or not, one first has to try.

I have presented one project concerned with the development of language learning strategies and showed how easy it is to implement in one university semester. I believe strongly that good language learning strategies are essential, and I continue to work on refinements that will help students become better learners. It is not only students who must learn and improve, but teachers too!


Hedge, N., and Gosden, H. (1991). Language Awareness and EAP Courses. In C. James and P. Garret (Eds.), Language awareness in the classroom. London: Longman.

Holec, H. (1980). Learner training: meeting needs in self-directed learning. In Howard B. Altman and C. Vaughn James (eds.), Foreign language teaching: Meeting individual needs. New York: Pergamon Press.

O'Malley, J.M., and Chamot, A.U. (1990). Learner strategies in second language acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1995). What can we learn from the good language learner? The Canadian Modern Language Review 31/4: 304-318.

Wenden, A., and Rubin, J. (1987). Learning strategies in language learning. USA: Prentice Hall International.

Article copyright © 1998 by the author.
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Last modified: April 20, 1998
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