Observation Journals: Award-Winning Talk, Inspiring Activity

Observation Journals: Award-Winning Talk, Inspiring Activity

How do we get our ELLs to put down their smartphones and embrace all the unique gifts around them? How do we get our ELLs to develop a higher awareness of their host culture while simultaneously developing their writing? The answers to these crucial questions were addressed in an award-winning presentation, “Observation Journals: Inspiring ELLs to Embrace Life,” by MIDTESOL’s Patrick T. Randolph. He presented on his version of observation journals at both #MIDTESOL17 and the Colorado TESOL (CoTESOL) Conference in November 2017 where he received their prestigious “Best of CoTESOL Award” for his presentation. For the complete story, please go to CoTESOL’s website at www.cotesol.org.

What are 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
  • a conclusion

Observation Journal Categories

To help guide his students through the process, Randolph created six 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)
  6. Sensory-based observations (e.g., being aware of the different tastes in the local cuisine or the different aromas in the neighborhood at dinnertime)

Assessment of the Observation Journals

Randolph 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 the Observation Journals

Item Focus
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?
Takeaways 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?


The Various Uses for the Observation Journals

Observation journals can be used for a number of activities—from creative and academic writing projects to research papers and informative presentations. Below are some examples:

  • weekly journal observations on culture and language
  • poetry starters
  • short story starters
  • short dramas based on the observations
  • ethnographic research topics
  • presentations on the observations

Student Responses to the Observation Journals

The observation journals will be a hit with students. In fact, Randolph’s ELLs have claimed the following:

  • “They [the observation journals] taught me to see what is important in my life.”
  • “These weekly journals made me a better writer.”
  • “I became a careful man— not only in my studies but also in my life.”
  • “The journals made me take a moment to observe my surroundings. We are so busy we forget to look around and wonder and question.”


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

Randolph, P. T. (October, 2017b). Using observation journals to awaken observation skills and increase comfort with writing. TESOL’s SLWIS News.

Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Randolph will represent MIDTESOL on March 29, 2018, in Chicago at the 2018 TESOL International Convention and Language Expo in a Best of TESOL Affiliates presentation entitled “A Guaranteed, Humanistic Four-Step Process to Help Prevent Plagiarism.” It was his #MIDTESOL16 presentation.

Patrick T. Randolph lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he specializes in ELL vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. Randolph is co-author of a bestselling book published by TESOL Press, Cat Got Your Tongue?: Recent Research and Classroom Practices for Teaching Idioms to English Learners Around the World (2014), with Paul McPherron of Hunter College–New York City.  His work has appeared in the TESOL JournalTESOL Connections, and many state-affiliated TESOL publications.

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