Dialogue Journaling -
A Classroom Practice that Works
English language learners come to adult literacy programs for
a variety of reasons. However, most of them have one common
goal. They want to learn English to better participate in the
English speaking community that surrounds them. Speaking
and being understood come first. For that reason teachers often
face the challenge of incorporating writing assignments that their
students perceive as meaningful. These assignments go beyond
filling out blanks in a worksheet; they must become bridges to
writing outside the classroom-writing in order to be understood.
In the late 1980s dialogue journals emerged as a means to support
the writing process. Also, they were found to promote language
acquisition as a whole (Holmes & Mouton, 1997). By the
mid 1990s dialogue journals were a vital part of many educational
settings (Peyton, 2000). Inspired by Peyton's argument that supports
journaling as an instructional approach to develop language
and literacy (Peyton, 2000), we have practiced journaling at the
Richardson Adult Literacy Center (RALC) for the past couple of
years. The majority of students who used journaling for at least a
semester reported that, although admittedly difficult, the dialogue
journals were the activity they felt they benefitted from the most.
The RALC seeks to address the literacy needs of beginning to
intermediate ESL students in a learning environment that values
the individual. Dialogue journals fit our mission well because
of their student-centered nature. We see dialogue journaling
as slow-paced written conversation between a single student
and his/her teacher. We use journals in both the classroom and
one-on-one settings. The goal is to be responsive to topics and
concerns, to ask questions, to introduce topics, and to write about
one 's self (Peyton, 2000). Very quickly each journal develops a
life of its own. It provides learning opportunities using content and
language relevant to the individual student. Let's take a closer
look at some of the benefits that dialogue journaling can bring to
Dialogue journaling provides a means for building a relationship
between student and teacher based on mutual respect and trust.
Their relationship is built through the interpersonal connection
established by writing which is relevant to and chosen by the student.
Student and teacher explore subjects collaboratively. Thus, dialogue
journals allow the students to utilize knowledge they have
gathered throughout their lives. Their expertise is valued. With the teacher responding in written language that "is modified to,
but slightly beyond, the learner's proficiency level" (Peyton, 2000)
the student's language can improve. Knowing about developmental
stages of language acquisition (Lightbown & Spada, 2010)
empowers the teacher to assess and to "target the language
level at which a learner is individually operating comfortably, and
then tailor the conversation to a level that is just beyond what the
learner can do alone" (Nordeen, 2006). This targeting includes
vocabulary, grammar and syntax. One of the RALC's more advanced
students wrote extensively about the traditions of the Chinese
New Year. These were all clearly communicated despite her
belief that "my English is very poor, a lot vocabulary I don't know
so I only can write this." As the teacher responded, the student
and teacher together figured out the vocabulary to fill in the gaps.
Because the students have looked for the words and found them
on their own or within the teacher's response, they will more easily
remember them (Champeau de Lopez, 1989). In the process,
they will most likely become less fearful and more confident expressing
themselves in writing.
Topics that arise in the journals may become themes for the class
curriculum because the content has appeal to multiple students
(Peyton 2000; Szeto, 2009). Lessons can be better tailored to
the students' interests and therefore become more relevant. For
example, we once used IHOP, McDonald's, and Chili's menus
in class to discuss ordering food in restaurants. We found our
students didn't frequent those restaurants, a point they had not
brought out in class but did address in the journals. As a result,
we facilitated a classroom discussion about favorite restaurants
and changed our menu selection. Also, the focus of topics can
be fine-tuned. In another class the students were asked about
Thanksgiving-type celebrations. One student responded: "In
thanksgiving all uu us be together and we cook turkey and we
have it For Dinner and we have cold coke and after that the family
talk a time and after that we eat the turkey and small cake
its all." From this and similar responses a few "Thanksgiving" lesson plans were devised: one on family get-togethers, one on
celebration meals–with less focus on the history of Thanksgiving
or even the traditional foods, and one on football or Black Friday
shopping. We were better able to approach this subject from a
Dialogue journals give insight into students' interests and what they can do with language. Therefore, we see dialogue journals as a crucial part of a learner-centered curriculum. The student's responses and questions can be used to create relevant and meaningful lessons. Dialogue journaling enhances student engagement. It individualizes the language acquisition process to better fit the student's needs. Moreover, it takes the fear out of writing. In this safe environment students will find that writing is a way in which they can be understood in the English speaking culture that surrounds them. Nordeen (2006) shared a comment from one of her students: "I was scared to write before, but I'm not scared to write anymore." Our students reported much the same.
Champeau de Lopez, C. (1989). Improved Reading Through Writing. TESL Reporter of Brigham Young Unviersity, Hawaii, 22(2). Retrieved July 13, 2011 from here.
Holmes, V., & Moulton, M. (1997). Dialogue Journals As An ESL
Learning Strategy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 40(8),
Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2010). How Languages Are Learned.
Third edition. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Nordeen, N. B. (2006). Focused Topic Dialogue Journaling in ESL
Workplace Instruction. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from here.
Peyton, J. K. ( 2000). Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing to Develop
Language and Literacy (Revised). Center for Adult English
Language Acquisition. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from here.
Szeto, J. (2009). Dialogue Journals Help Improve Writing. Teacher
Tips/Training @suite101. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from here.
Tannenbaum, J. (1996). Practical Ideas On Alternative Assessment
For ESL Students. Center for Applied Linguistics Online Resources.
Retrieved July 13, 2011, from here.
About the Authors
Elizabeth Harling is a lawyer and volunteer ESL teacher/tutor. She has been involved in literacy advocacy for over ten years. She has served on the board of the Richardson Adult Literacy Center and trains volunteers to tutor ESL. She helped develop a mothers' elementary school program and taught the pilot classes.
Barbara Berthold holds a doctorate in School Improvement. English is her second language. She has volunteered as an ESL tutor for the Richardson Adult Literacy Center (RALC) since 2007, and currently serves her 2nd term as President of the RALC Board of Directors.