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Making the most of dialogue journals


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  • 1. DRAFT1Making the Most of Dialogue JournalsBy Kimberly Miller LinnellWhat is a Dialogue Journal? How have they been helpful in theESL classroom?Dialogue journals have been a classroom staple for quite sometime and are used in a wide range of teaching situations.According to Peyton (2000) teachers make use of dialoguejournals when teaching both children and adults, native and non-native speakers as well as in traditional classrooms andvolunteer programs. What exactly is a dialogue journal? Adialogue journal is a routine written conversation between thestudent and the teacher, though not always just the teacher.Topics are often chosen by the student or suggested by theteacher in response to the curriculum or experience. Studentstypically record their entries in a bound notebook, leavingspace for the teacher’s written response.Dialogue journals have various educational benefits(Peyton 1993,2000). For example, they are an effective tool for dealing withthe challenges of teaching large classes. Journals connect theteacher with each student, individually. They also maketeaching in a multi-level classroom more manageable because ofthe individual nature of the task. Furthermore, for the adult
  • 2. DRAFT2learner, the journal is a place where students can bring theirlife and cultural background into the classroom. Not only doesthis make the communication more meaningful and authentic, butmore personal, placing the student at the center of learning.Dialogue journals are especially useful in the ESL classroom.In fact, they are ideally suited for language learning, meetingmany of the conditions believed necessary for the acquisition ofa second language.First, dialogue journals provide a context for meaningfulcommunication. Researchers in the field of second languageacquisition have found meaningful communication, the give andtake of messages in the target language, as a requisitecondition for second language acquisition. “The essential claimis that people of all ages learn languages best, inside oroutside a classroom, not by treating the languages as an objectof study, but by experiencing them as a medium of communication”(Long, 1998). Authentic communication has typically been theoverarching goal of dialogue journals. Peyton (2000) states,“The teacher is primarily a participant in an ongoing writtenconversation with the learner rather than an evaluator whocorrects of comments on the quality of the learner’s writing.”Secondly, the teacher’s journal responses provide students withcomprehensible input that is slightly above their current level
  • 3. DRAFT3of proficiency. Comprehensible input theory (Krashen, 1982)claims that in order to acquire a second language, students needexposure to the target language that is comprehensible and onlyslightly beyond their current level of acquisition. Beingfully aware of the students’ level of proficiency (based on thejournal entries), the teacher can respond with language that isunderstandable to the student, though perhaps slightly beyondthe student’s current level of proficiency—making for ideallanguage input.In addition to comprehensible input, students need opportunitiesfor output in order to become proficient in a second language.Ellis (2008) summarizes the findings of three research studieson the role of output in second language acquisition. Accordingto these studies, language production causes the learner to takenotice of grammar, test hypotheses, automatize what they havelearned, get useful feedback, learn discourse skills, and helplearners acquire a voice as they guide conversations towardtopics of interest.Journals are an ideal setting for language output. In a journal,students get the floor and put their thoughts and feelings intolanguage. Although students may not be able to develop oraldiscourse skills in a journal, they can develop writtendiscourse skills as they converse with their teacher and
  • 4. DRAFT4classmates in writing. In addition, their entries draw outbetter input in the teachers’ responses. Furthermore, whenstudents commit words to paper, they pay attention to theirgrammar and test their current understanding of the targetlanguage. Finally, by having some control of the topic,students develop a voice in the second language, and their ownwords, reflected upon, are a source of language input.Not only do second language learners need opportunities forinput and output, but research has shown the importance ofinteraction as well. According to Long’s (1998) interactionhypothesis, the acquisition of a second language is enhancedwhen learners need to resolve a communication problem bymodifying their output and correcting their errors in order tobe understood. Although journals do not elicit that feedbackimmediately as in spoken discourse, they do provide a contextwhere teachers can ask for clarification and provide feedbackthat will push students toward more native like language.As noted above, understanding the student’s current level ofproficiency is important for helping the teacher fine tune thelevel of their written feedback, making optimal comprehensibleinput more likely. However, being familiar with a student’slevel of language acquisition serves other purposes as well.Second language acquisition theorists generally agree that
  • 5. DRAFT5meaningful communication and opportunities for output may beinsufficient conditions for the acquisition of a secondlanguage. In order to make progress, students need to payattention to the forms of the language as well as their meaning.Using the journals as data, the teacher can design grammarlessons in response to common student errors (Peyton, 2000).For example, if a teacher notices common, repetitive errors incount and non-count nouns, an inductive or deductive grammarlesson can be designed on the topic. For a deductive approach,student written errors can be analyzed (modifying the journalexamples to maintain confidentiality) as a class in order toinfer the rule. A deductive lesson would highlight the rulefirst, and then give opportunities to practice the form andrevise their own errors.Providing grammar lessons, an “intensive approach” (Ellis,2008)is certainly one way to focus on form. However, Ellis pointsout that the approach takes time and is limited in the scope oferrors that can be addressed. Teachers can address a widerrange of errors in a shorter time span when they correct errorsas they happen in student output. Dialogue journals present theteacher with an optimal opportunity to point out errors in thestudent’s language. The challenge is how to do this without
  • 6. DRAFT6compromising the meaningful communication and authenticinteraction that is so fundamental to the journal.The Challenge of Corrective FeedbackPeyton (2000) points out that one of the main challenges ofdialogue journals is the role of corrective feedback. Dialoguejournals are a venue for free communication, a place wherestudents can express themselves without the fear of the dreadedred pen. However, to make the most of journals, it would beideal to incorporate some corrective feedback in this meaningfulcontext. Ellis (1996) suggested that “advanced speaking andwriting proficiency necessary for achievement of studentsacademic and vocabulary goals require explicit focus on form.”Is it possible to provide feedback that is extensive, covering arange of structures frequently over time and is “individualized”without impairing the communicative nature of the journal? Thereis some reason to believe that for the non-native speakerincorporating corrective feedback may be possible withoutsacrificing the conversational tone of the medium.First, corrections are less likely to hinder the communicativenature of the journal if the teacher has laid the groundwork formeaningful communication first—which may mean withholding
  • 7. DRAFT7grammar correction initially. During the initial phase, theteacher and student build a venue for meaningful communication.The teacher helps students develop a routine for writing andestablishes guidelines for how much (or how long) the studentsshould write. As in all phases of journal keeping, students aregiven a rich menu of writing topics; teachers interact withtheir ideas, and introduce new topics in response to theirideas. This introductory get-to-know you phase not onlyestablishes the journal as a place for meaningful, interactivecommunication but also enables the teacher to become acclimatedto the students’ language needs.Secondly, corrective feedback does not necessarily have to shutdown the communication channels. As Schulz (1998) points out,most English language learners are favorable towards some focuson form and negative feedback. Students from other culturesoften request correction and feel short changed by the teacherwho does not deliver it. As a result, students, especiallyadults, typically want more than a written conversation in theirjournals. Corrective feedback may actually encourage studentsto provide more output rather than hinder communication.Thirdly, corrections can be a natural part of the dialogue.Just as an interlocutor would request clarification andconfirmation in response to a misunderstanding, the teacher can
  • 8. DRAFT8legitimately do the same without detracting from the dialogue.“I’m not sure I’m following you here. What do you mean by….?”“Did you mean to say ….?” Errors can also be recast by theteacher in their correct form. For example, the teacher writes“You went to the mall last weekend. What did you buy?”(recasting the student’s sentence, “I go the mall lastweekend”).In addition, there are strategies for providing correction in adiscrete manner (Peyton, 2000). For example, corrective feedbackcan be written as a “P.S.” to the student. This strategyunderscores the primary importance of meaningful dialogue andthe secondary importance of correct grammar usage. Anothertactic is to pre-teach items that students can then incorporateinto their journal entries. In this way, students can focus onform prior to the journal assignment and then attempt toincorporate the targeted structures into their journal entries.Vocabulary words related to a particular theme, for example, canbe handled this way. After learning the vocabulary in class,the students incorporate some of the targeted words into theirwriting on a relevant theme. The same strategy can be used toaddress grammatical forms. In his application of cognitiveperspectives on language learning, DeKeyser (1998) states thathaving this declarative knowledge in mind whilst completing a
  • 9. DRAFT9communicative task helps that language form to become proceduralknowledge or automatized. The teacher can teach a lesson oncomparative adjectives, for example, and then set up a journalentry that requires students to compare two people, places, orthings—utilizing the forms taught in class when possible.Another way to focus on form without killing the content is toput the onus on students for soliciting grammatical feedback.In the blank spaces of the journal, reserved for teachercomments, the student can ask their specific questions about thegrammatical correctness of their entries. The teacher canactually pre-teach these questions so that students have anarsenal of questions to guide them. (“Did I spell __________correctly?”; “Is ___________ word used correctly?”; “Is thissentence correct?”; “I wasn’t sure how to say _________? Isthere a better way?”). In this way correction is not alwayssomething done to the student, but is also something that thestudent can control.Finally, if the student is responsive to grammatical feedbackand the journal has been well established as a meaningfulcontext of communication, the teacher may consider givingexplicit corrective feedback--listing grammatical errors andperhaps their related rules along with the comments andreactions to the ideas in the journal. Keen students of grammar
  • 10. DRAFT10may even want to use the back of the journal to catalog types oferrors with their corresponding rules, allotting a page for eachparticular type of error. For example, one page can beallocated for words that were spelled incorrectly, another forverb tense and number errors, another for word usage errors andperhaps another for article usage. By cataloging the errors,students can become more aware of the types of errors theyroutinely make and monitor them in future entries. In order topreserve the authentic dialogue, however, the teacher mustbalance the attention to form with the overall intention ofmeaningful dialogue and communication.SummaryThe educational benefits of dialogue journals are many. Studentsdevelop a voice in writing as they work out their thoughts,feelings, and experiences on paper. Teachers become familiarwith the needs of individual students, both linguistically andpersonally. The journal is also an ideal setting for theEnglish language learner to become more proficient. Many of theconditions known to foster second language acquisition areinherent in the dialogue journal: meaningful communication,comprehensible input, output, interaction, and an opportunityfor the teacher to give some focus to the form of the student’s
  • 11. DRAFT11language production. Traditionally, dialogue journals have notbeen the place for a focus on form. However, there arestrategies that teacher’s can employ to focus on form withoutcompromising the communicative nature of the journal.
  • 12. DRAFT12ReferencesDeKeyser, Robert M. (1998). Beyond Focus on Form. In C. Doughtyand J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on Form in Second LanguageClassroom Acquisition (pp. 42-63). New York: CambridgeUniversity Press.Long, Michael H. (1998). Focus on Form. In C. Doughty and J.Williams (Eds.), Focus on Form in Second Language ClassroomAcquisition (pp. 16-41). New York: Cambridge UniversityPress.Ellis, Rod (2008). Principles of Instructed Second LanguageAcquisition. CAL Digest, Washington, D.C: Center foApplied Linguistics.Krashen, Stephen P. (1982). Principles and Practices in SecondLanguage Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.Peyton, Joy Kreeft (1993). Dialogue Journals: InteractiveWriting to Develop Language and Literacy. NationalClearinghouse on Literacy Education, Washington, DC: Centerfor Applied Linguistics.Peyton, Joe Kreeft (2000). Dialogue Journals: InteractiveWriting to Develop Language and Literacy. CAELA ESLResources: Digests, Washington, DC: Center for AppliedLinguistics.
  • 13. DRAFT13Rodgriguez, Amber Gallup (2009). Teaching Grammar to AdultEnglish Language Learners: Focus on Form. CAELA NetworkBriefs. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.Schulz, Renate A. (1998). Focus on Form in the Foreign LanguageClassroom: Students’ and Teachers’ Views on ErrorCorrection and the Role of Grammar. In E. Alcon and V.Condena (Eds.) English Language Methodology (pp. 49-76).Castellon de la Plana: Publicacions de la UniversitatJuama I.