Journal Writing Skills for ELL Students

Journal Writing Skills for ELL Students

To start your dialog journal, click the link “My Journal” below.

From The Instructor

Journal Writing Skills for ELL StudentsLearning English is a great period in which ESL students explore who they are, what they like, and how they will fit in the world; it is a period of questioning and reflection. Journaling is a great way to help ESL students with these explorations. If you are learning English, a dialogue journal is a great way to tap into your characteristics and interests. I used dialogue journals myself when I was an ESL teacher and I found them useful and relevant for my ESL students.

Many teachers of ELL have found dialogue journals, interactive writing with a teacher or other individuals, to be an important part of their classes. Dialogue journals not only open new channels of communication, but they also provide natural contexts for language and literacy development. When ESL Students write with their teachers, they have opportunities to use English in a supportive, nonthreatening interaction with a proficient English speaker who has knowledge of life in the country they have migrated to. Because the interaction is written, it allows ELL to use reading and writing in purposeful ways and provides a natural, comfortable bridge to other kinds of writing.

What is Journal Writing

Journal writing is a collection of personal writing about or around a topic or general theme. Journal entries should be made on a regular basis – daily or even more often – and are usually kept together in a notebook, folder, or now online. The important thing is to write which is one way for ELL’s to improve their writing or to prove to themselves that they indeed can write. This is a general strategy for writers at all levels but is particularly appropriate for beginning writers.

Types of Journals

There are many types of journals you could write. These are probably the most common you would be exposed to.

Personal Journals / Diaries:

Personal Journals in which learners show their own experiences can be written or dictated to a scribe and can include drawing as well as writing. If young children keep a diary, parents should also keep one to model the process for children. Entries in personal journals can be good first drafts for teaching the writing process.

Dialogue Journals:

Dialogue Journals are kept by two people (teacher and learner, or child and parent) in which a written conversation over a variety of topics takes place. ELL’s write informally about a topic of interest, a concern, a book they are reading, or a topic they are studying.

Response Journals / Reading Journals:

In Reader-Response Journals, ELL’s are asked to respond to some experience and can take a variety of forms:

  • Noting new vocabulary words
  • Writing about the character they identified with
  • Making predictions about what might happen next
  • Writing about the part they liked
  • Writing about how the reading made them feel
  • Writing about what they would have done in the particular situation described
  • Writing about how they could use what they just read about

Entries may be open ended or directed, e.g. what advice would you give the character, what you think will happen if this story continued, or how the character is like me.

Double-Entry Journals:

For a Double-Entry Journal, ELL’s divide their journal paged into two parts. In the left-hand column, they write quotes or notes from their reading. In the right-hand column, learners write their response or reaction to the information they have written in the first column.

Learning Logs:

Learning Logs are journals in which ELL’s show on learning experiences they take part in. They can respond to questions they have about the experience or content, reflect on how well they understand the presentation, connect the material to their own lives, or comment on their interest in the content.

What is Dialog Journal?

A dialogue journal is a private, written conversation between teacher and student or between students (Peyton, 1993; Schwartzer, 2004; Staton, 1987). It is an asynchronous dialogue between two or more persons. The students are free write in their journals on a regular basis or respond to a prompt provided by the teacher or by one of their peers. The teacher collects, reads, and replies to the journals regularly, either at the end of the week or every time the students write (Peyton, 1993). Teachers and other students in the class can reply to the entries by either asking other questions on an entry or making comments. When the students get their journals back, they read the teacher’s or their peers’ reactions, comments, or questions, and then the journaling continues. They answer any questions, reply to comments they may have received, or write a new entry (Peyton, 1993).

Dialog Journals

A dialogue journal is especially useful for English language learning. Students get a chance to put their thoughts into words in a nonthreatening way.

The dialogue journal takes the form of a notebook, agenda, word-processed document, online blog, or e-mail, depending on the resources available to you and your students and your preferences (Peyton, 1993).


The main purpose of the dialogue journal is writing for writing’s sake and for communication’s sake (Schwartzer, 2004). A dialogue journal is about free writing and about putting ideas and thoughts on paper. Thus, a dialogue journal is not an opportunity for teachers to give feedback on language, spelling, organization, or word choice (Peyton, 1993; Schwartzer, 2004). However, from my experience and from the literature (Kim, 2011; Lonnell, 2010; Peyton, 1993; Staton, 1987), there are several other goals that could be achieved with a dialogue journal:

Student Objectives

Develop writing stamina and write better by writing more.
Become more open about expressing themselves.

Teacher Objectives

To start knowing their students even better by finding out what they think and what they care about.
To collect information about what areas of the language students are struggling with. This could tell future instructional decisions on.

Why do I need to keep a dialog journal?

For second-language learners, interpersonal journals, such as dialogue journals, can offer the opportunity to practice authentic language through the interactions of writer and reader. Pressure to be correct is reduced by stressing the goal of communication, not grammatical accuracy. Fluency can be gained more readily through the simple act of writing for personal communication on topics of meaning to the writer. Journal writing can also be a powerful political tool in the emancipator or participatory classroom. Journals can give learners with the opportunities to reflect on practice and its implications for social change and personal empowerment.

Benefits include:

  • Extended contact time with ELL’s.
  • Assessment of ELL needs and progress.
  • Facilitation of English language learning.

How do I write a journal?

Who does a dialog journal apply to?

At the AWS ESL Student Academy, we ask all learners start their diary as they begin one of our courses. With the advent of tablets and computers, I have included an electronic Journal for each ESL Student who is taking a course.

When should I write in a journal?

You should write in your journal every day or even more often.

What should I write in a journal?

With dialogue journaling, ESL students need to be encouraged to move on with their writing. Even if you do not know a word in English; you can either try to explain the word using vocabulary you do know, use a word in your native language, or replace the word with a drawing (Kim, 2011; Schwartzer, 2004). If ELL’s want to write in their journals in their native language, allow them to do that, and then gradually you can encourage them to translate their entries into English or start writing in English when they feel comfortable (Schwartzer, 2004). If students develop stamina and love for writing in their native language, it will be easier for them to translate that stamina and love into writing in English when they’re ready (Kim, 2011; Schwartzer, 2004).

The Journaling Process

1. A separate notebook is devoted solely to the dialogue journal. Writing is done on both sides of the page to save paper and money. (We use a more popular way to do journals on computers via our forum or mail.)
2. Students write about many topics, depending on the purpose for which the journals are being used, for example, course content, how the class is being taught, out-of-school events, classmates and other people and places at school, questions about the teacher or other people and things, and poems, jokes, riddles, etc. they want to share.
3. Writing is double-spaced or with big margins, providing readers with space to write feedback. Feedback can also be written at the end of an entry.
4. Dialogue journal entries are done regularly (more than once a day, if possible).
5. Teachers, classmates, family members, etc. can write responses in the dialogue journals for each entry. Students should know ahead of time who may be reading and responding to their journal.
6. The focus is on communication. Thus, there is no overt error correction. This is a very important point. This is a non-threatening, non-competitive environment.
7. Standard prewriting activities can proceed dialogue journal writing. These include whole class or small group discussions, relevant readings or videos, and experiences in class, such as writing about reactions to a lesson, or out of class, such as what a student’s family did on the weekend.
8. Writing can be done in or out of class. When writing is done in class and peer feedback is part of the process, dialogue journals are normally stored in the classroom. This is done to avoid the problem of students forgetting to bring their journals.

What happens when I have finished?

At AWS ESL Student Academy, readers give feedback on dialogue journals in many ways. This feedback concentrates on the ideas in the writing, not on the grammar and mechanics of the writing. Feedback can be inserted in the entry, in the margins in the space left between the double-spaced lines, or at the end of the entry.

Ways of giving feedback include:

1. Questions that seek more information, e.g., “How did you do that?” b. ask for clarification, e.g., “I don’t understand. Would you please clarify?”
2. Drawings, e.g., Happy Face.
3. Symbols, e.g., !! or ?.
4. Telling of our experiences, a student talked about what she is reading; we talk about what we are reading.
5. Advice,
• Solicited
• Unsolicited.
6. Requests that the writer share all or part of what was written with the rest of the class.
7. Short phrases, e.g., “Great minds think alike!” when we agree with an idea a student has expressed.
8. Exclamations, e.g., “Wow!”, “Fantastic!”
9. Opinions, e.g., “That was very kind of you”. These will mostly be praise and agreement, but disagreement can also be used.
10. Addressing of the writer by name with a short note at end of entry and signing it with the reader’s name as in a regular letter.
11. Circling or bracketing parts of an entry to make it clear what part of the entry is being referred to.
12. Feedback on form – only if specifically requested, only on a small part of the entry, and only in addition to, not in place of, feedback on content. Ways to do this include:
• Focus on grammar or vocabulary errors that cause confusion or lack of understanding. In this way, we are just like real readers struggling to understand meaning, and form is only a vehicle for communicating meaning. For instance, when a student wrote, “For distance, Singapore is very clean”, I circled “For distance” and wrote “I don’t understand” next to it.
• Writers highlight one section or sentence where they would like feedback, instead of requesting feedback on the entry.
• Have a “grammatical p.s.”, e.g., “By the way, the usual way to say ____________ is.”
• Pre-teach structures that might come up in a particular entry, especially where everyone is writing on the same general topic.
• At another time, focus on errors that have occurred frequently in entries.
• Use the correct form in our content-based feedback. For instance, one of my students wrote, “Do you know how do the businessmen think? They think every thing is ” money “. Because they think money is their “God ” money can make they are happy. That’s why anything they do, they do for their big profit.” Two of the errors here were (1) the use of “businessmen” which, contrary to the emerging international standard ignores the fact that women can and are involved in business and (2) the spacing before and after quotation marks. I put the correct forms in his reply and asked a question to continue the chat: “What can we do to control businesspeople who think everything is “money”? How can we stop them from ruining society?”
13. Inserting a sheet of paper or a post-it note with feedback. This leaves the entry unspoiled. Writing feedback in pencil is also useful in this regard.
14. Asking for future news, e.g., updates “Please let me know how X (which was described in the entry) turns out.”
15. By developing a system of abbreviations, we cut the time spent writing the feedback without reducing the amount of feedback given. Examples of abbreviations are “Ss” for students.


There are many advantages to dialogue journals, but the greatest advantage to the learner is the simple act of free writing. Students have the opportunity to put their ideas down (Lonnell, 2010) without worrying about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and they get to read honest reactions and questions related to what they wrote. This leads to an open, productive writing environment.
At AWS ESL Student Academy we hope everyone will start a start a journal. Each course has a pre-requisite to begin a journal, and when the course is completed the journal is submitted for review.

What to write about? Well I have included a list of topic ideas in the book, so if you would like to read the topic suggestions, follow this link to open the PDF, Journal Writing Skills for ELL Students..

To start your dialog journal, click the link “My Journal” below. Each journal entry should have a date of entry. Continue with journal entries as many times as you see a need (at least once a day).

To start your dialog journal, click the link “My Journal” below.

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