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Writing Strategy: Dialogue Journals
by Elena Andrei

Adolescence is a great period in which students explore who they are, what they like, and how they will fit in the world; it is a period of romance, questioning, and reflection. Journaling is a great way to help them with these explorations. I think all of us can relate to writing in a journal when we were adolescents: I remember keeping my journal in different colorful agendas with hard covers when I was in middle school. If you are teaching adolescents, a dialogue journal could be a great way to tap into their age-related characteristics and interests. I used dialogue journals myself when I was an ESL teacher and I found them useful and relevant for my students.

Dialogue Journals
A dialogue journal is a private, written conversation between teacher and student or between students (Peyton, 1993; Schwartzer, 2004; Staton, 1987).  It is an asynchronous dialogue between two or more persons. The students free write in their journals on a regular basis or respond to a prompt provided by the teacher or by one of their peers. The teacher collects, reads, and replies to the journals regularly, either at the end of the week or every time the students write (Peyton, 1993). Teachers and other students in the class can reply to the entries by either asking additional questions on an entry or making comments.  When the students get their journals back, they read the teacher’s or their peers’ reactions, comments, or questions, and then the journaling continues: They answer any questions, reply to comments they may have received, or write a new entry (Peyton, 1993).

Based on the context, the content you are teaching, current events, time of the year (before or after high-stake tests, for example), the students you have in your classroom, and their interests and characteristics, you can decide if you want to let the students free write or answer a prompt, or both (Peyton, 1993).

A dialogue journal is especially useful for English language learning: students get a chance to put their thoughts into words in a nonthreatening way. With dialogue journaling, ELLs need to be encouraged by their teacher to move on with their writing even if they do not know a word in English; they can either try to explain the word using vocabulary they do know, use a word in their native language, or replace the word with a drawing (Kim, 2011; Schwartzer, 2004). If students want to write in their journals in their native language, allow them to do that, and then gradually you can encourage them to translate their entries into English or start writing in English when they feel comfortable (Schwartzer, 2004). If students develop stamina and love for writing in their native language, it will be easier for them to translate that stamina and love into writing in English when they’re ready (Kim, 2011; Schwartzer, 2004).

Format
The dialogue journal takes the form of a notebook, agenda, word-processed document, or e-mail, depending on the resources available to you and your students and your preferences (Peyton, 1993). When I was an ESL teacher in North Carolina, I bought composition notebooks for my students and those turned into their dialogue journals. I heard of other teachers using pieces of paper that were later collected in a folder, or allowing the students to type at a computer and print their writing. With some districts offering tablets and computers to every student, asking the students to type their journals may be convenient.

How to Use It
You can use the dialogue journal as a warm-up, as an exit slip (last activity before the class ends), or as a regular writing activity during a certain day of the week (Peyton, 1993).

In my classroom I used dialogue journals as the first activity on Fridays. We called it Journaling Day. My students wrote in their journals for 10–15 minutes every Friday. At first, I let them write freely about anything they wanted to share with me. Then, when I realized that some of my students needed more structure and some ideas to start from, I started giving them prompts. Here are some sample prompts you could use:

Fun Prompts 

Hypothetical Prompts 

What is the most interesting event in your recent school life to you and why?

What is the scariest story you have ever heard?

What would you like to do next week instead of coming to school?

What kind of animal would you like to be, and why?

If you could make one wish, what would it be?

What do you think is the greatest invention of all time?

If you were to choose only three items to save for students in 2050 to represent your generation, what would you choose and why?

If you were to choose where you were born, what place would you choose and why?

If you were to choose when you were born, what year would you choose and why?

If you could have been someone from history, who would you have been, and why?

If there were no rules, what would happen? 

Reflective Prompts  

Dilemma/Ethical Prompts 

Describe your ideal school.

What does it mean to be brave/honorable/
wise/kind?

What is something you are optimistic/
pessimistic about?

What is your biggest fear? Why?

What is one of your life goals?

What is your most valuable possession?

Why do you think some people are unkind to others? 

What would you do if you saw your best friend cheating on a test? Would you tell the teacher or would you pretend you did not notice since he/she was your best friend? Why?

You think your friend has an eating disorder. What do you do?

Is it okay to lie to make someone feel better?

You see someone being bullied. Do you tell the teacher, or mind your own business? 

Objectives
The main purpose of the dialogue journal is writing for writing’s sake and for communication’s sake (Schwartzer, 2004). A dialogue journal is about free writing and about putting ideas and thoughts on paper. Thus, a dialogue journal is not an opportunity for teachers to give feedback on language, spelling, organization, or word choice (Peyton, 1993; Schwartzer, 2004). However, from my experience and from the literature (Kim, 2011; Lonnell, 2010; Peyton, 1993; Staton, 1987), there are several other objectives that could be achieved with a dialogue journal:

Student Objectives

  • Students will develop writing stamina and will write better by writing more.
  • Students will become more open about expressing themselves.

Teacher Objectives

  • Teachers start knowing their students even better by finding out what they think and what they care about.
  • Teachers collect information about what areas of the language students are struggling with. This could inform future instructional decisions on what needs to be retaught or emphasized.

Conclusion
There are many advantages to dialogue journals, but the greatest advantage to the learner is the simple act of free writing; students have the opportunity to put their ideas down (Lonnell, 2010) without worrying about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and they get to read honest reactions and questions related to what they wrote. This leads to an open, productive writing environment.


References

Kim, D. (2011). A young English learner’s L2 literacy practice through dialogue journals. Journal of Reading Education, 36(3), 27–34.

Linnell, K. M. (2010). Using dialogue journals to focus on form. Journal of Adult Education, 39 (1), 23–28.

Peyton, J. K. (1993). Dialogue journals: Interactive writing to develop language and literacy. National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. Retrieved from http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/peyton01.html

Schwartzer, D. (2004). Student and teacher strategies for communicating through dialogue journals in Hebrew: A teacher resource project. Foreign Language Annals, 37, 77–84.

Staton, J. (1987). Dialogue journals. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-926/journals.htm

________________________

Elena Andrei is currently a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on ESL at the University of Virginia. Her previous work experiences include serving as an EFL teacher in her native Romania and as an ESL teacher in North Carolina. 

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