Grammar Journals: The continuum at work



Photo: Khajoo-Bridge, Masoud Shafiei

 Last year, our department did some soul-searching about our grammar classes. We had become increasingly concerned that students were learning grammar in a way that trapped it in tidy little boxes. They could do discrete item exercises and tests, but in writing in particular grammar control was conspicuously absent.

Research in transfer theory suggests that learners can transfer knowledge from one task to another if the tasks are similar, but when the conditions of a task are different from the conditions of learning, learners tend to be less successful. (Larsen-Freeman, 2013). We needed to include tasks in the grammar class that more closely resembled the ways students would use it beyond the grammar class. A grammar journal seemed a promising way to build a bridge from grammar class to real life.

The grammar journal as we envisioned it comprised a set of prompts matched to the objectives of the grammar class and closely tied to the chapters in the textbook. We could use the results to investigate what happened when students wrote their own ideas while deliberately using target grammar.

The following details our approach to the project:


  • Students are assigned to buy 5 or 6 blue books–the kind for writing essay tests. Each blue book has enough pages for about 10 journal entries, and with two going at once, the student can have one to write in while the teacher marks another. When a book is full, they just start a new one.
  • The teacher explains that the grammar journal is a bridge between grammar rules and writing skills. The students will get a completion grade depending on how many they do, but the entries themselves will not receive a letter grade. (By removing evaluation, the journal becomes an information exchange about the students working language.)
  • After each grammar lesson, the teacher assigns a prompt that matches the grammar of that lesson. Students are instructed to deliberately use the target grammar, and underline examples. (They do not have to use it in every sentence, which would lead to inauthenticity.)
  • The students write in their blue books and submit them during the next class. The teacher reads them and corrects the grammar only. (This takes a surprisingly short time since the teacher does not need to address content and organization.)
  • The teacher may then use the information from the grammar journals to inform subsequent lessons, or have students go back, reflect on their strengths and weakness and set goals for future assignments. These may include the target language but also language that they are working on from other lessons.
Sample Prompts
The simple present How do business people dress, and how do students dress? Why do they dress differently?
The present continuous(plus stative verbs) Think about someone you know whose life is changing. How is it changing? How do they feel about the change?
The past and the past continuous Tell a story about an unexpected event in your life or someone else’s. Start by giving background information–think past continuous. Then tell the story.
Questions Write a conversation between a reporter and someone you follow in social media. Write different types of questions.
Modals of possibility Choose one (or more) of the predictions below to write about. Think about how sure you are that this will happen so that you choose the right modal.
The present perfect What job are you becoming qualified for? Write about your educational experience up to this point and how it is preparing you for the future. When you write about your past experience use the present perfect to show that your career is not yet over.  Use for and since for work that you continue to do.
Articles Imagine that you are going to visit relatives back home or in another country. What will you pack? Include at least ten items. Then say what you will do with the items after you get there.
Gerunds & infinitives What are some activities that you enjoy doing?   Use gerunds to describe the activities. Try to use a gerund as a subject at least once. Then write about the next time you will do these activities. Use a variety of verbs such as plan, hope, expect, and want with infinitives.
The future conditional Write about someone you know who is trying to solve a problem. Describe the problem. Then use conditionals to provide a possible solution. Decide whether can, could, might or will works best for your purposes.


Two semesters later, anecdotal evidence has been largely positive. For the most part, students are using target grammar while also producing meaningful texts that show they are engaged in the topics. Students report that they like the corrections, and teachers find the marking to be fairly quick. However, the biggest benefit has been an unexpected one. The grammar journal, intended to be a device for getting students to practice grammar in context, was just as much a class for working on vocabulary.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 8.28.43 AMThe journal prompts had worked like magnets, attracting words and phrases that ventured beyond the handful of words typically populating grammar charts. Students were attempting to combine a rich array of verbs and nouns, adjectives and adverbs with the target grammar to produce meaningful communication, and while they were pretty good at the basic grammar with basic words, what they did not yet know was how to plug in trickier words that have embedded grammar, such as choosing between speak, tell, and say.

To give another example, several journals contained variations of the following two sentences: A business person wears casually. Students dress shorts and a t-shirt. They were using the present tense well enough, but where they had trouble was in using wear and dress as transitive and intransitive verbs respectively. They were studying present simple for perhaps the third time, and this vocabulary-related issue was where the gap was and where new learning could happen.

Such examples also provided an ah ha moment that potentially explained certain types of errors in essays. It wasn’t the grammar of the grammar that students were struggling with, it was the grammar of the words, their forms, and the way they partner with other words.photo (4)

So along with supporting students in using grammar in a more purposeful way, we had also found a way to provide much needed vocabulary information at the point of need, yet another reminder that vocabulary and grammar exist on a continuum.



2 replies »

  1. Although I am not teaching a grammar class, I think I can use this activity in my writing class as students are writing journals, so I can assign them with a grammar purpose in mind! Thanks for sharing!!


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