Corresponding with your students in journals

Diverse Elementary ClassBarbara Bode, an elementary and middle school principal in Tampa, FL, reports that “dialogue journal-writing” is a rewarding experience for both the teachers and students in her school.

Children in grades one through six correspond with their teachers. They keep a journal in which they write every day and in which their teacher writes back to them every night. Journals encourage students to think critically about their environment and to express their opinions. It is a way for students to take action, to get things done by using written language. Children thus learn the functional use of language through this dialogue with their teacher.

The focus of the journal is on meaningful communication rather than literary instruction. However, with younger students, teachers can respond with the same words that the children used, but with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. The child’s entry itself is never corrected. But, when the teacher’s response repeats much of what the child has written, the teach is, in effect, using an indirect form of editing. In this way, the child can begin to internalize the conventions of our written language without feeling embarrassed or defeated by mistakes.

Drawing pictures for younger students

When journal writing is introduced to young children or to those with less developed skills, it is sometimes necessary to allow them to start by drawing a picture or by dictating their entry to the teacher.

The teacher can also write to the student first or use a class discussion or sentence starter to help students begin. Teachers can rotate among students, allowing them to read what they have written and she can then respond, reading what she has written to the child. An advantage of journal writing is that it enables teachers to meet each child at his/her developmental level.

One teacher’s goal for journal writing with upper elementary students was “the development of their ability to be more autonomous in managing their academic and interpersonal life.” Sixth graders’ entries included opinions, personal facts, response to questions, predictions of the future, complaints, apologies, thank-you notes, evaluation, promises and questions. Complaining is a frequent function. Students are not usually allowed to voice complaints openly or to challenge the teacher in class, and the journal enables them to get their opinions and feelings heard.

Complaints also give teachers an insight into student perspectives and this, in turn, enables teachers to reevaluate what is happening in their classes and to change, supplement, repeat or continue various instruction or activities. Journals seem to allow students to interact with teachers on a more equal footing. Journal entries also provide the teacher with information which enables her to personalize instruction on the basis of the greater knowledge she has gained of each student.

Whole-language approach to learning

Dialogue journal-writing is an example of the “whole language” approach to education. Students are freed from spelling requirements to communicate at a more complex level, closer to the level of their oral language. It is also an example of individualizing instruction.

Each child is working at his/her own level without the teacher having to test each student or prepare individual lessons. Each journal not only provides the teacher with information about a student’s grammar, spelling and writing skills, it also enables her to begin to understand each child’s thoughts and feelings.

In 1988, Bode studied the results of journal writing on student achievement and reported an increase in achievement. She also reports that students enjoy the personal relationship this activity fosters with their teacher.

“Dialogue Journal Writing”The Reading Teacher April 1989, pp. 568.

Published in ERN May/June 1989 Volume 2 Number 3

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