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
These stumbling blocks sent me on a mission to find a more
user-friendly online journal, which led me to the discovery of Penzu.com. 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
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
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
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
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.