Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dialogue Journals: A Tool for Fostering ESL Writing Abilities

Wanda Huber

Journal writing is a powerful tool for fostering learning (English and Gillen 1). It has been defined as an “art and a science, providing a means to express a writer’s inner thoughts, emotions, and actions while also helping him or her reflect “intentionally and systematically” on a subject (2). Although theoretical scholarship as well as empirical evidence associated with journal use in building language skills is limited (English and Gillen 3; Hiemstra 19; Jayne 1; Mlynarczyk Conversations 11), the classroom studies suggest certain journal-writing practices as affecting the quality and quantity of student writing (Norton 63). Such productivity occurs through journaling practices that encourage students to make connections between their personal thoughts and the academic materials (Mlynarczyk Conversations 168). To foster students’ ability to communicate meaningful thoughts without inhibitions, teachers use journals, called dialogue journals, to engage in conversations with their students. The available research suggests that for students of English as a second language (ESL or L2 learners), a nurturing environment helps writers overcome their inhibitions (Orem 76). Overcoming inhibitions is easier when writers converse with their teachers and peers without fear of negative or punitive criticism (Weissberg 132 ). When learning to write, participating in a real dialogue is more effective than passive memorization (Cisero 231). Through dialogue journaling, ESL students become actively engaged in writing, gaining the one-one attention needed to improve their skills (Peyton and Reed 111).

History of Dialogue Journaling as a Learning Tool
Dialogue journaling is not a “theoretically generated idea, but a teacher-developed classroom practice. Teachers, researchers, and teacher educators developed the practice at a time when “the broader ideas of interactional participation in learning and the power of natural conversational discourse were becoming widespread” (Staton and Peyton 7-1). Dialogue journaling has grown from one teacher, Leslee Reed’s exchange of thoughts for the day with her students to yearlong journal conversations that provided her students with a forum to “ask questions, to complain, to request help in solving personal as well as academic problems, and to share feelings” to formal classroom-level research of the dialogue journal (7-1). During the time when these studies were forming, “a network of ESL and foreign language instructors” began to develop by word of mouth before written descriptions of the process were publicly available (7-4). These teachers were interested in understanding how to use dialogue journals in ways specific to their needs (7-4). In response to this need, many doctoral students since the mid 1980s have adapted their dissertation research to understanding how dialogue journals support learners in different environments.

Characteristics of Journal Formats, Purposes, and Goals
Dialogue journaling offers students opportunities to engage in intellectually reflective conversations. Because many models incorporate some form of scaffolding, students are continually pressed to question, clarify, reconsider, and expand on their thoughts in greater and greater detail (Fenwick 35). From such dialogue students become actively engaged in their own thoughts as well as others. Being engaged in dialogue with another person in writing has a much greater impact on their fluency than “copying or filling in blanks” (Mlynarczyk 130). Teachers can facilitate journal writers thinking by directing attention to gaps in writer’s content or areas that could be explored more deeply (English 39). A common purpose of such interaction is to help students formulate complex thinking into words on the page without feeling inhibited by the added pressures of using correct English.

Although journaling takes many forms—diary, learning journal, interactive reading log, theory log, electronic journal, and others—not all forms are conducive to improving students’ abilities to formulate their thoughts in writing. For example, a diary is typically used to record chronological events, and this activity alone is not enough to “bring about deep changes in a person’s life” (Hiemstra 19), deep changes referring to growth as a writer, learner, and as a communicator. Incorporating teachers’ comments and questions designed for continued reflection, however, readies the diary for supporting ESL learners develop (19). Although large scale research on the affects of journal writing pedagogies is lagging, most field studies that utilize learning journals, reading logs, theory logs, and electronic journal formats incorporate some form of dialogue or response to entries (Peyton 22). These types of journals are characterized as follows: a learning journal is a record of “thoughts, reflections, feelings, personal opinions, and even hopes or fears during an educational experience” (21); an interactive reading log is a “series of reactions or responses. . .of what [learners] are reading in their own voice or words” (23); in a theory log students “make notes regarding what they perceive to be theoretical concepts, salient points, truths, bridges to known theory, ideas to be tested, and gaps in the knowledge. . .provid[ing] a foundation for course content” (23). The conversation taking place in these journals reflects the overall subject matter and journaling purpose.

In an L2 learning environment, students’ dialogue journals are characterized by the particular focus such as learning language structure, a structural approach; improving communication skills, a communicative approach; or developing self-empowerment, a participatory approach (Orem 73). These goals can be the sole purpose for the journaling practice or they can be used in combination. A journaling practice grounded in a structural approach will emphasize grammar and language structure and is most often found in an academic setting with teachers focusing on correct usage and error correction. With such a focus, dialogues can be particularly helpful when teachers do more than correction, offering feedback on students’ improvement and other forms of encouragement and advice (73). When employing a communicative approach, the content of the journal entries are more important than grammar and correctness (73). The participatory approach to teaching ESL emphasizes students’ self-empowerment by letting the context of students’ experiences frame the conversation with the self and with the teacher and/or peers (75). In an adult ESL learning environment, the journal becomes a tool for students to understand themselves as writers, as participants in a new cultural milieu, and a more complex usage of the English language.

Whether the journal focuses on syntactical/grammatical constructions, reading experiences, theoretical concepts, or personal interactions, the experience offers students writing practice. The dialogue journal will usually provide occasions for three types of reflection: those that engage the writer in reflection on future, present, or past actions or events. Being engaged in a writing situation constitutes a learning experience (Boud 13). This point highlights the basic qualities of reflective models that work from the assumption that “learning from experience is an active one” (Boud 12), requiring engaged thinking. In that moment of learning, writers challenge their own perceptions, notice their own processes and intervene on their own behalves (13). As an active process, learning occurs by re-evaluating past experiences, recognizing recurrent situations, and anticipating future responses based on the new information that arises from self-evaluation. Anticipatory reflection focuses on the context of a journal entry, exploring the writers’ goals for their writing, clarifying what is hoped to be gained from the journaling experience as a whole and then planning to work to achieve those benefits.

Issues, Benefits, and Obstacles of Dialogue Journaling in an ESL or Adult Literacy Course
Although it seems reasonable to assume that writers will be more motivated to participate in a journaling practices when their own personal learning goals are at stake, the research is not that simple. Student motivation is a complicated issue that alludes researchers. Some researchers believe student motivation in becoming actively engaged in a writing activity arises from beliefs that dialogue journaling directly leads to improved skills (Jayne 62). However, other researchers believe that whether or not students recognize the personal value arising from dialogue journaling, having a forum to communicate with their teacher one-on-one can often motivate students to participate and thus reap the benefits without intending to do so (Jayne 62). Such motivation seems to be enhanced when students feel their analysis or their thoughts are being taken seriously and being evaluated by real-world standards (Fallows and Ahmet 19).

In a classroom setting, students, teachers, and institutions expect writing to be evaluated not only on content but for language usage as well. This claim is especially true for the ESL learning environments. The tension from the need to assess student writing in dialogue journaling and the need to simply engage students creates a tension for teachers. This tension can shape students’ writing because when being assessed they will naturally be more interested in displaying what they know versus what they do not know. This type of performance is in direct opposition to successful dialogue journaling because “reflection involves focus on uncertainty, perplexing events, and exploration without necessarily knowing where it will lead” (English 16). For dialogue journaling to benefit writing and thinking abilities, students need to feel free to “express their doubts, reveal their lack of understanding, and focus on what they do not know” (English 16). Creating a comfortable space for writers to explore what they do not know, willingly exposing their intellectual inadequacies in classroom or group settings, often hinges on the relationship writers have with readers (Boud 16). If the role of a teacher’s response is of corrector, a writer is not free to explore in their writing concepts that are relevant and/or infused with mature thought but designed to please the teacher and thus limiting the journaling experience. Addressing the tensions at the start of a dialogue journaling experience is essential to dealing with the opposition between creating a writing environment where writers feel safe from criticism and one that pushes writers to advance their efforts and improve their skills. It is important to note that most often when the practice of dialogue journaling is employed for developing better communication skills, it functions in tangent with other classroom procedures and pedagogies. This is important when seeking to alleviate such tension as some teachers may choose to clearly identify strictly reflective work from work that will be assessed or graded (Boud 17).

Providing a forum for students to think and write without scrutiny can have great effect on writers developing fluencies (Mlynarczyk Conversations 13). The validity of this claim is implicit in a journal entry of a twelfth grade ESL student, who is asked to comment on her experience dialogue journaling with her teacher
What I have learned from the journals is how to write about my ideas. . .I can write what I want, and when I am writing, I have ideas about what to write. I sometimes don’t like it when teaches tell me what to write and I’m not interested in what I’m writing about. I feel bored and don’t enjoy it. The best thing about the journal is it keeps you thinking about what you are writing. (Peyton and Reed 27)
The experience of dialogue journaling for this student reveals an important element of a successful dialogue journaling experience—providing topics learners are interested in and the opportunity to share those ideas (Norton 69). Echoing this assumption, Joy Peyton and Leslee Reed quote Loban’s assertion regarding the need for students to be given an opportunity to write genuine communications: “‘. . .pupils must apply whatever is studied to situations in which they have something to say, a deep desire to say it, and someone to whom they genuinely want to say it’” (qtd. in 27). Providing a forum where genuine communications can take place is a chief benefit of a successful dialogue journaling practice.

In her dissertation, Veronica Jayne points out a number of student surveys that parallel the above student’s comments, addressing how the focus on content and not grammar correctness motivates active engagement in writing “‘you don’t scare for the structure,’” “ ‘even spelling is wrong, I don’t care. Just writing more,’” and it’s good psychologically because every time we see mistake, you know, it is not good for the students. They are too much demotivated’” (Jayne 10-11). That these students feel motivated to write because their grammar is not corrected does not imply a lack of interest in learning to use correct grammar. In fact, not all students react positively to conversing with their teachers outside of a writing/assessing relationship. Some students may even find writing that is not graded on its correctness suspect (Jayne 11). The issue of grammar correction is complicated by the fact that no evidence supports the belief that students’ benefit from grammar correction. A study comparing two groups of learners, one with a focus on error correction and the other with a content focus validates the belief that error correction does not help writers improve the quality of their writing. This study reveals the group receiving error correction produced writing with no improvement in content and with less complex texts while the other group improved in complexity and content (Jayne 12). That in addition to a diminished complexity in writing the students whose writing was being corrected began demonstrating avoidance behaviors points to the need for teachers to be educated in how to respond to student writing since it can effect their motivation to actively engage in a writing practice.

How to Respond to Journals
For teachers interested in helping students developing their skills, a dialogue journal is a useful tool that depends on teachers’ appropriate responses. Responding to student writing is a critical teacher skill (Shin)—unfortunately, one that ESL teacher training often omits. Many teachers and researchers lament this point and believe training imperative (Orem 70, Jarvis 79, English 88, Shin). In general, teachers are “largely unprepared, marginalized, and isolated practitioners” (Orem 70). Orem, Jarvis, and Shin recommend that teachers interested in teaching L2 language learners need training and practice in dialogue journaling. The hope is that by teachers engaging in a reflective practice of their own and in conversation with their supervising teacher, they will “see how their own ideas are changing and developing as the course proceeds and to test their practice against the theoretical ideas to which they have been introduced” (Jarvis 82). Through praxis, the anticipated outcome is that teachers “will come to understand their own actions better, but will use journals as a way to engage in their own research. . .gain[ing] practice in asking questions (73).

In Shin’s study of pre-service teachers, she incorporates a reflective learning journal with ESL tutoring, asking student teacher’s to reflect on each tutoring experience immediately following a tutoring session, to make connections to previous sessions, and to question what has worked and what has not as well as to anticipate methods for improvement. By “emphasizing the importance of providing contexts in which teachers use their educational experiences to construct an understanding of their philosophy of teaching, as well as their strengths, weaknesses and potential as teachers, the reflective approach enables prospective teachers to integrate theory and practice and to plan their personal and professional development” (Shin). More simply, to be effective educators requires educators to be reflective practitioners (English 33).

Since Shin’s study is not a generalized practice for teacher training, teachers need to rely on the available research for knowing how to respond appropriately to students journals. Researchers have identified three basic types of teacher responses as helpful: those that affirm, those that direct attention to gaps in thoughts or that provide insight or clarity of thoughts emerging in the writing, and those that “enter a conversation with the journal writer by probing, extending, and connecting (Fenwick 35). Whether the responder is the journal writer, the instructor, or a peer, responders take on different roles through which to listen and respond that depend on the writer’s intentions and the relationship between writer and responder (Fenwick 41). Tara Fenwick characterizes these responses as those that comfort, mirror, provoke, direct learning, portray a friend-in-dialogue, elevate students knowledge, and/or act as a biographer (41) Although most of these roles seem self-explanatory, a few require additional explanation. For example, as a biographer the responder reminds the journal writer of their overall development that has taken shape, opening the door for changing established narrative patterns; as a mirror, a teacher’s response will reflect a students thoughts or questions (41). As a general rule, teacher response will be most helpful if have a casual tone, use personal examples, ask questions to help writer’s clarify their thoughts (Fenwick 41; English and Gillen 91). Taken from Kirby and Liner’s work, Fenwick outlines suggestions for responding to student writing:
•Be an active reader
•Encourage the student to share excerpts from the journal writing with classmates
•Suggest future topics. Notice profitable digressions
•Write an extended response, a short poem, or ask questions
•Avoid empty comments like interesting, nice, or good idea
•Be honest with students
•Look for something good
•Avoid sarcasm. Even offhand humorous comments in writing can be hurtful.
•Take a break. Respond to just a few journals at a time (41)
Fenwick’s final suggestion to take a break speaks to the main obstacle for engaging in dialogue journaling—time. Writing and responding to journals in a full practice is extremely time consuming and can inhibit the development of this practice (English and Gillen 85). To avoid burn-out, teachers should be realistic in their expectations. Some instructors have dealt with the lack of time by broadening their students’ audiences, adding peer groups to the conversations (Mlynarczyk Conversations 174). Because of the amount of work involved, teachers need to understand that they are not only helping students in their reflective practices but the act of responding to others’ thoughts serves to help clarify one’s own beliefs (175). Because of the time constraint, teachers and students need clear, yet flexible, guidelines established in the beginning of the practice so that expectations can be realistic.

Although researchers believe dialogue journaling is invaluable to learning and should be taught more consistently in higher education (English and Gillen 85), there are those that argue for caution. They believe not enough is known about how to properly respond to students and worry that the crossover between the professional and the personal implicit in dialogue journaling has serious ethical implications: “The point is that by engaging students personally and encouraging them to communicate openly in their journals. . .we invite personal response (Weissberg 140). Leona English echoes Boud and Walker’s belief that educators should “avoid demanding that learners reflect on critical incidents in their lives or ask learners for too much disclosure, especially when there are inadequate support services to counsel learners in crisis” (30).

When the professional teacher engages students socially there is danger that the dialogue journal “will turn into unexpectedly significant social events (Weissberg 141). This may be due, in part, to the fact that L2 writers “may not share our cultural or personal values, or our assumptions about what constitutes socially appropriate discourse (Weissberg 141). These ethical concerns ought not be trivialized as they “arise every time we discuss an issue, put something into practice, engage in dialogue with colleagues, and interact with learners” (English 34). Because dialogue journaling is a practice that is being embraced in the field, some basic principles to adhere to are useful as more field research and reflection are being conducted: Practice respect, justice, beneficence, self-awareness, and caring when conversing with students and when handling the private information found within their journals (32-3).

Although dialogue journaling provides the one-to-one relationship that ESL learners require, helps writers feel more confident and less afraid of criticism, supports pre-service teachers in developing their practice, creates meaningful writing experiences with real-world implications, the benefits of dialogue journaling are not without risks. Dialogue journaling makes teaching a personal practice, a practice that grows in the interstices between the personal and the professional. From this in-between place, teachers invite students to engage in a dialogue. Although such a dialogue can be framed and the parameters of appropriate conversation delimited, real reflection is difficult to control. When students and teachers are engaging in personal conversations, the typical parameters of what is appropriate to discuss and what is inappropriate become blurred. For example, if a teacher, mirroring a student’s reflection, shares that she has dyslexia, should the student be held accountable for keeping such information private? Should the teacher? Teachers need more than basic guidelines and common sense when determining how to handle the inevitable ethical issues that will arise when engaging students in dialogue. Because of the specific nature of the individual issues that may arise, it is impossible to list how to handle every situation. Conducting a large scale, multi-leveled survey could uncover invaluable information for the practicing teacher. Thee questions might include asking teachers and students who have engaged in dialogue journals about their specific experiences such as describing the ethical dilemmas experienced, the manner in which they were handled, the final outcomes as well as imagined outcomes if the situation were handled differently. It is reasonable to assume that this research will uncover similar situations that teachers and students have faced, multiple ways in which they have been handled, and multiple outcomes. Providing teachers with such information, could serve teachers’ in knowing the best manner in which to handle those border conversations in a manner that fosters learning with uncompromised ethics.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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