Writing may be one of the most hated exercises in a classroom. Rarely do students celebrate when the teacher asks them to do a writing activity. Joy Peyton says there is good reason for that: much of the writing is often formal.
"There are requirements for moving through the class to the next class and out of the program and that requirement is often writing an essay."
Peyton is with the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language and educational research organization in Washington, DC. She says dialogue journals are an ideal alternative to structured essays. She says journal writing also can improve learners' language skills.
Dialogue journals are ongoing, written conversations between two people. They could be between a student and teacher or other English language expert. Or, they could be between two English learners, if one learner has strong English skills. The writing takes place for a period of time, such as a school term or year.
With dialogue journals, learners write about subjects that interest them. And, they can write as much or little as they wish. The teacher's job is not to judge the writing skills of the English learner or even correct mistakes. Instead, the teacher is an equal partner in a continuing one-on-one conversation.
"So there's some sense in which we share the power to introduce topics, to respond, to ask questions, like we would in a conversation with a friend. That's not typically the way a teaching situation works."
That was Jana Staton, a Counselor Education supervisor at the University of Montana. She has done a number of studies on dialogue journals, some in partnership with Joy Peyton.
How do the journals improve English?
One unusual thing about dialogue journals is that there is little or no correction of mistakes. But, without correction, how do learners improve their English skills? Peyton explains.
"In this kind of writing, they're writing with another person who's a better writer than they are, whose language is more advanced than theirs and they're motivated to do it because they're writing about topics that are interesting to them."
Learners improve a number of language skills by observing how the teacher writes and then self-correcting.
Dialogue journal excerpt from a 1996 paper by Janet Isserlis. Reprinted with permission.
Peyton and Staton say English learners take more risks in expressing themselves with the language because they are not being judged by the teacher, their classmates or anyone else.
Clarena Larrotta is Associate Professor in the Adult, Professional and Community Education Programs at Texas State University. She says dialogue journals can improve things like language fluency and confidence without error correction.
"For me dialogue journals is for helping them develop vocabulary, develop fluency, feel less scared about writing, feel more confident about using English to communicate. So, my recommendation is that there have to be other activities in class where correction is the goal."
Larrotta says the journals also give learners a chance to do something that is usually quite difficult in a second language: forming questions correctly.
And, dialogue journals do not simply help learners, Staton says; instead, teachers gain a lot. They learn more about their students and this can help them feel like part of a community.
How can we get started?
Dialogue journals are a low- to no-cost activity. The only required materials are paper notebooks or possibly a computer or other electronic device. If you choose an electronic device, Staton suggests avoiding email and using something like Google Docs instead. She says it keeps a clearer record of the conversation.
Blackboard, or other online communication tools used by universities, may be another method.
The writing can take place at the beginning or end of a class, or in between two activities. And, Peyton says, it usually only requires about 10 or 15 minutes of class time.
The frequency may depend on the number of students and the workload of the teacher.
Larrotta suggests that, if teachers have a large class, they can collect some journals on one day and the others on a different day.
For subjects, Staton says avoid the thinking of: "I want you all to write about x." Instead, you might start the very first journal by asking the English learners what questions they have or what they think about what they're doing in the classroom. Or, you can simply start with, "Tell me what your day was like."
Once the learners feel at ease with what is expected, the writing can move to more personal subjects, those important to the learner. What does this person want? What are his or her goals and hopes? What is difficult for them and what would be more helpful?
Larrotta suggests that both the teacher and the learner include a few questions in each journal submission. This helps keep the conversation going because it gives the reader something to react to.
She also says ground rules are important before beginning dialogue journaling. One of her rules is to recognize the kind of questions you ask. And, if you see an unwanted question, you have the right not to answer that question and suggest a different subject.
The important thing to remember with dialogue journals, she says, is not to be afraid of making mistakes because even native English speakers make mistakes.
joy – n. happiness
alternative – n. something that can be chosen instead of something else
conversation – n. a spoken exchange between two or more people
format – n. structure
fluency – n. the ability to speak easily
frequency – n. the number of times that something happens during a particular period
dialog – n. a conversation; a discussion involving two or more groups
ground rule – n. a rule about what should be done in a particular situation