October 2017
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Patrick T. Randolph, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

The Motivation

Two major factors inspired the creation and ultimately the implementation of my version of observation journals. First, I noticed that my intermediate and advanced English language learners (ELLs) were spending most of their free time on their smartphones and not embracing all the valuable aspects of their host culture. I wanted them to spend more time observing and experiencing all the special elements that their host culture has to offer, both in terms of understanding the culture and using the target language. Second, I had hoped my students would practice writing on a frequent basis and use an interesting medium that would instill a sense of inspiration and joy during the writing process; that is, I wanted them to write often so as to develop a feeling of comfort and confidence (Randolph, 2012). I hoped that the project would nurture a flicker of enthusiasm for writing that would kindle itself into a comfortable and constant flame.

The Observation Journals

An observation journal entry includes a title that summarizes the observation and a reference to the kind of observation. The entry is one paragraph about an observation that consists of the following:

  • a lead-in sentence,

  • a topic sentence that explains the focus of the observation,

  • a reason that states why the content of the observation is of interest,

  • a developed example/explanation elaborating on the observation or the reason of interest, and

  • a conclusion.

(For an example entry, see the Appendix.)

I originally required my students to make one observation and write one entry per day, Monday through Friday. If they preferred, they could replace weekday observations with weekend ones. The total number of observations and entries was five. One the one hand, this met my original intention of having my students write frequently to develop confidence in their writing and make it a natural part of their daily lives. On the other hand, students complained that it was too much writing, which conflicted with my hope of making it an enjoyable and inspiring writing activity.

I needed to be careful not to make this project an added burden because I wanted it to be something that would inspire my students to engage in observations and write about them. I consequently changed my requirements from five observations per week to three. This compromise seemed to satisfy my students’ concerns and simultaneously make the project “fun” once again.

Observation Categories

To help guide my students through the process, I created five general categories for their observations:

  1. Culture-based observations (e.g., the cultural norm of one person holding the door for another)

  2. Language use–based observations (e.g., how a certain buzzword or idiom is used among friends)

  3. Classroom dynamics–based observations (e.g., students who sit in front volunteer more than those who sit in the back)

  4. Nature/environment-based observations (e.g., observing the first snowflake at dawn)

  5. Self-reflection-based observations (e.g., being aware of a particular change in emotion and realizing how it affects them). (Randolph, 2017, para. 13)


I created a grading rubric with six categories worth five points each. They are listed in Table 1 with a brief explanation of their focus.

Table 1. Rubric for Observation Journals



Content and cohesion

How well has the entry generally expressed the observation through implementing the paragraph template?

Observation focus

How well does the entry focus on the specific observation and express it clearly in the paragraph?

Development of the example and explanation

How well is the example/explanation part of the paragraph expressed?

Vocabulary use

How much class-acquired vocabulary was recycled and used?


Does the writer appear to have learned something from the observation?

Care and caution

Does the entry appear to be carefully thought out and written, or does it appear to be quickly penned in a matter of seconds?

Possible Pitfalls and Solutions

The two main problems that appeared in each of my classes were entries that either listed just a series of daily activities or listed multiple observations without any focused theme. That is, the first problem was that the entries were like common diary entries, and the second problem was that they lacked any real focus. In both cases, there was an absence of logical development or cohesiveness (Randolph, 2017).

I was able to remedy these shortcomings by addressing three important points. First, I went over the parts of the paragraph template in class, and we discussed the significance of each point. Then, as a class, we wrote up an observation entry based on one of the previous student-generated observations. This helped the students review each point and see how each part is connected to the next.

Second, I reviewed the 6-point rubric. I asked the students to pair up and analyze the importance of each one, and we discussed their responses. I wrote their insights on the board and asked that they record them in their notes. We then used the rubric to evaluate our class-composed observation entry. Going over the rubric and applying it helped the students focus on their topic and develop detailed explanations.

For added reinforcement and to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated, I reviewed the major pitfalls by listing them on the board. We then discussed how they could be avoided (Randolph, 2017). The students were quick to respond by explaining the need to follow the directions regarding the paragraph template and the need to be aware of the demands of the rubric.

Student Responses

In the spring term of 2017, I conducted a survey that asked my students from the three writing classes what they thought of the observation journals (N=41). The first question was Did you enjoy the observation journal project? I was delighted to discover that the majority of the students did in fact find it a worthwhile activity. Of the nine surveys completed in my intermediate class, eight students reported that they liked the project, and one student reported he or she did not like it. This student gave no reason why he or she did not enjoy the project. I also collected surveys from the two sections of my advanced writing course. In the first section, 15 said they enjoyed it, and two stated that they did not. The second section included 12 students who liked the project and three who did not. Interestingly enough, the five students who reported that they did not like it gave the same reasons: They thought the observations took too much time, and they did not like writing in English. Overall, though, the majority of the students found the project to be very useful and enjoyable.

In a different survey I distributed at the end of the term, I asked my students about their general impression of the project (N=46). Twenty-four students reported that the project motivated them to be more open and aware of the special moments and the “details” in their daily lives. Twenty-one students reported that the journals actually helped to “enhance” the “quality” of their lives. And 23 students felt that they developed more confidence in their writing and were able to understand how parts of the paragraph connect with each other (Randolph, 2017, para. 30).


I often tell my wife and our 5-year-old daughter that there is no such thing as boredom; there is far too much going on in our lives to observe and investigate for such a state to exist. By implementing the observation journals in my writing classes, my ELLs are slowly starting to realize the truth about our reality; that is, it is void of boredom. As my students develop and sharpen their observation skills and start to see the precious, simple things in life, they also develop and sharpen their ability to record these moments and insights in their journals. Our life offers a myriad of unique gifts on an hourly basis. The challenge, then, is to get our students to become and be aware of them through observations and then write about them with a sense of awe, excitement, and comfort.


Randolph, P. T. (2017). Observation journals: Inspiring ELLs to embrace a life worth living. CATESOL News, 48(4).

Randolph, P. T. (2012). Using creative writing as a bridge to enhance academic writing. In J. M. Perren, K. M. Losey, D. O. Perren, J. Popko, A. Piippo, & L. Gallo (Eds.), New horizons: Striding into the future: Selected Proceedings of the 2011 Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Conference (pp. 91–108). Lansing, MI: Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Appendix: Sample Observation Journal Entry

Holding Doors for Others, Opening Doors of Kindness—A Culture-Based Observation

When one person holds a door for another, it not only helps the person in need, but it builds a sense of compassion and gratitude among both people. My favorite observation today was when I watched a young woman, who appeared to be in a hurry, actually stop and hold the library door for a stranger who had both hands full of books and a book bag. This interested me because the woman who held the door was in a hurry, but she took the time to be kind and patient with what appeared to be a complete stranger. I liked how the young man (the stranger) smiled and said, “Oh, wow! Thank you!” Then, he looked at the young woman. She smiled at him before disappearing down the hall. This would rarely happen in my own culture because people really only watch out for themselves. However, here, on the Nebraska campus, I see people hold the door for others all the time. But, today’s observation was special because I could feel a sense of humanity between the two people. In sum, I felt that the woman not only held the door for the man, but she also opened a door of kindness. Her actions said, “Look, I’m busy, in a hurry, but I want to offer you a helping hand to make the day a little brighter.”

Patrick T. Randolph currently teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. Patrick was recently awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” in 2017 for his 2016 presentation on plagiarism. This is his second “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” award. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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