March 2015
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Sarah Lee Takahashi, Asia University, Tokyo, Japan

Since 2004, I have used online journals for students in my writing classes. My objectives are to provide students with a mobile, interactive, online platform. Additionally, I hoped journaling would provide an outlet for individual expression (other than TOEFL writing practice and formal, academic writing), a way to develop students’ writing fluency, and an opportunity for students to read, engage, and comment on peers' journals, developing their writing voice and an immediate audience (e.g., classmates).

Online journaling can help developing ELL writers to develop their writing fluency and to enrich the overall writing experience. However, often technical snags interfere with this process, particularly as students begin to navigate new technical terms and applications in a second language. Over several years’ experience using platforms such as Blogger, Wordpress, and discussion boards on BlackBoard, I found that students with emerging language skills struggled with more complex controls and interfaces. These technical barriers worked against students who were less experienced with the digital realm.

Additionally, I was concerned about the security and privacy of my students. These online journals were not intended to be blogs, per se. Blogs are inherently public forums, and many of my students were not ready or willing to share their journals with a larger online readership. Therefore, we needed easy control of privacy and sharing permissions. Again, the privacy and sharing settings of more sophisticated blogging sites (e.g., Wordpress) seemed daunting for many students.

These stumbling blocks sent me on a mission to find a more user-friendly online journal, which led me to the discovery of Penzu is a free private online journal designed to be used by individuals who would like to keep an online journal that is not shared publicly. Since 2011, I have used this journaling platform successfully with multiple levels of EFL writing students. In this article, I will explain more about my experience using this platform, its ease of use and sharing capabilities, as well as some of the benefits and drawbacks in using an online journal for both students and instructors.

Ease of Use

The user interface of Penzu was immediately appealing. Because the default setting of the website is private, students had no reason to worry about the privacy of their journals. Signing up for a free journal proved to be a painless process that could be done in a matter of minutes in the classroom. I usually do this in class, walking students through each step on a projector or screen as they work individually. In fewer than 30 minutes, students should be ready to go with their individual blog, user name, and password.

Controls are simple, graphic, and easy to identify. At the top of each journal page, an icon bar appears, giving a user various options: add a new journal, save, print, add a photo, change the font or size, email, and comment. This graphic interface is intuitive for students as no additional technical vocabulary or expertise is required for basic operations.

Additionally, in contrast to more sophisticated blogging platforms such as Wordpress, Penzu integrates the controls and appearance. In other words, no separation exists between the “dashboard” controls and the journal as it appears to the end user or reader. This seamless integration represents another advantage of Penzu as a platform for ELLs.


Typically, I group students in dyads or triads to allow them to comment on each other’s journals, and they are required to send me their entries as well. Because Penzu is inherently a private journal, each user must share his or her journal entries with the teacher or other readers via email. This can be achieved easily and directly by using the “mail” icon on the screen. However, users need to enter the email address of each user with whom they share a journal entry. One way to save time during this process is to create a master email list for each class so that students can select the addresses of students with whom they share journals.

Grading and commenting on students’ journals from the teacher’s perspective is very simple. Every time a journal is shared with you, it goes into a separate “shared” folder on your journal, where you can see the user name, title of the journal, and date and time it was sent. This can be useful if timeliness is important. A link to these journals can also be sent via email, but this could clog your inbox, so I opted to retrieve entries directly from my shared folder on the website. However, one advantage of the email function is that you can reply or comment directly to individual journals via email without logging onto Penzu.

Comments on individual journals are visible to all with whom that entry is shared. This can be useful if you are evaluating the quality of students’ comments. It also allows students to view the teacher’s comments as a model for their own responses.


Limitations arise when customizing the appearance of the Penzu journal. Unlike blogging platforms such as Blogger, this site does not offer a variety of colors, backgrounds, and layouts for users to choose from. However, as discussed previously, the simplicity enhances its ease of use.

The appearance of the default page looks like a leather-bound journal with clean, simple-lined paper for each journal page. While font and color choices are limited for free Penzu accounts, users can add photos and hyperlinks to their journals. Students can also choose from a limited range of profile avatars as free users, but they are not allowed to upload their own.

Penzu, Penzu Pro, and Penzu Classroom

Penzu now offers a Classroom edition of the website in addition to the free and paid edition. This edition offers more seamless sharing, commenting, and grading functions for a nominal yearly fee. However, because I have only used the free version, I can only present these as potential alternatives to a free account.


Based on students’ feedback and my own overall satisfaction with this website, I can recommend Penzu for teachers who would like an approachable, user-friendly way to integrate online journals into their writing classes. From my perspective as a teacher, I could see a marked improvement in the development, clarity, and fluency of students’ writing. In the less formalized structure of the online journal, many students seemed to find a more distinct voice in their writing, which transferred to their more formalized essay and TOEFL practice writing assignments.

In terms of feedback from students, in response to an informal class survey of 14 high-intermediate level students, all respondents reported enjoying the online journal format more than their handwritten notebook journals. In terms of developing a voice, nearly 90% of respondents reported that their writing fluency increased, and roughly 70% felt that they were more prepared to use English to participate on social networking services (e.g., Facebook, Twitter). About 70% reported that it helped them prepare for the writing section of the TOEFL iBT test, and many students felt that their keyboarding skills in particular increased. In terms of privacy, only about 40% of respondents found that the privacy settings on Penzu were hard to control, and 67% reported that they would be unwilling to share their journals with others outside of the closed classroom network.

Finally, most students enjoyed the additional level of interaction with each other beyond their face-to-face time in the classroom, reporting that they learned more about their classmates and felt a stronger group connection through sharing and commenting on Penzu. Overall, I found that using an online journal such as Penzu is a valuable extension to an academic writing course, supplementing formal essay assignments and test-based writing prompts by providing a much-needed platform for individual exploration, self-expression, and communication through writing.

Sarah Lee Takahashi is an instructor and member of the Curriculum Development Committee at Asia University's Center for English Language Education in Tokyo, Japan. She has been teaching ESL and EFL in a variety of contexts for the past 14 years. Her current research interests are in CALL and second language writing as well as intercultural communication. In her free time, she studies Japanese, yoga, Zen meditation, and other esoteric pursuits.

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