Using Journal Writing with English Learners (and Other Students)

By Katharine Davies Samway

Journal writing provides an opportunity for students to reflect upon their lives and learning. This type of writing can enhance the language, literacy, and content learning of English learners (ELs) (e.g., Peyton & Reed, 1990; Taylor, 1990; Samway & Taylor, 1993), as well as non-ELs. While I have found that this type of reflective writing can be a powerful learning tool in good times, it can be particularly relevant and helpful during difficult times, such as now with schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and teaching/learning moved to online. However, keep in mind that online journal writing requires access to the Internet and a computer or cell phone—see my earlier K-12Talk post for solutions to these equity issues: What About Students Who Do Not Have Access to the Tools that Are Needed for Online Learning?

Journaling can focus on a wide range of issues: daily observations about something students have learned each day; reflections on what a poem means to students; descriptions of what students have observed about living beings/organisms in their environments; reflections on how students are feeling on a given day. They can be open-ended, guided, or content-specific and can be written by hand (with a screenshot taken to share with others) or composed on a cellphone or computer. Some journaling is intended for the writer only and often focuses on personal experiences and feelings (e.g., a diary), whereas others are more dialogic in nature and are shared with others. What follows are some examples of journal writing.

Personal Journals

Depending on the age, familiarity with English, and writing experience of the student, personal journal entries can include text, pictures, or labeled pictures. It is a good idea to encourage newcomers to English to write in both English and their native language, if they are literate in that language.  Students can share their entries with the teacher and each other (in small groups and one-on-one).

It is sometimes helpful to provide sentence starters as they can act as a bridge to original writing; this is particularly the case with newcomer ELs, struggling writers, and younger children. Some sentence starters that I have used with success include:

  • What I liked best about yesterday was . . .
  • In the morning/afternoon, I . . .
  • My favorite time of the year is . . .
  • My favorite music is . . .
  • I am good at . . .
  • My favorite time of the day is . . . because . . .

The final prompt includes “because,” which can make the task more challenging, but also provides more insight into the student. Unless students have experience journaling, it is a good idea for teachers to demonstrate by sharing an example (e.g., “What I liked best about yesterday was that it was sunny and I could walk outside”). It can also be helpful if ELs have access to picture dictionaries, including bilingual picture dictionaries.    

Content-Specific Journals or Logs

In content-specific journals or logs, students record their observations, thoughts, opinions, and/or hypotheses. It is typically helpful if journals build on topics that have already been introduced (e.g., after studying weather and types of clouds, keeping a daily log of types of clouds and accompanying weather). Some examples of these journals and logs follow:

A Nature Journal or Through the Window Nature Journal:

Students go for a walk outside, in their garden or in their neighborhood, to observe and record what they see (e.g., clouds, trees, flowers, bushes, ants, squirrels, spiders, birds). If children are not able to leave their homes alone, they can make observations through a window.  It can be helpful to prepare a sheet with labeled boxes to help students record their observations; it is important to leave some empty boxes for them to add categories as they observe (see example below). They can also keep a tally of how many they observe in each category and sketch what they see:

A Weather Journal:

Students keep a record of daily weather in order to enhance their understanding of weather patterns. They may record what the weather is like every hour (e.g., is it sunny, cloudy, raining, snowing?), using drawings, labeled drawings, and/or descriptions (e.g., a drawing of it raining with a label, “9:00 a.m., it rain”). They can record wind direction and wind intensity by the hour. If they have access to an outdoor thermometer, they can record the temperature each hour. Students can also graph their findings (e.g., how the weather was each hour; outdoor temperatures by the hour).

Reading Log:

Students keep a log in which they list books they have read. Entries can be as simple as including the Title, Author, and a rating using symbols (e.g. √-, √, √+). More detailed entries can include genre and a synopsis, as well as a more finely-tuned rating along with an explanation of the rating. A student sample follows:

Dialogue Journals

In a dialogue journal, the teacher corresponds with individual students; students can also correspond with each other. The content may be completely open-ended or it can be guided (e.g., writing about books read or what the student is learning in math). It is important for the teacher to respond genuinely, rather than relying on “cheerleading” comments, such as “Good job!” or “Interesting.” I’ve learned that it’s also important to keep my responses to a reasonable length so as not to overwhelm students. An example follows:

Student:   My dog sick.  He six year old.  I not hapy.  I cry.
Teacher:  I’m so sorry to hear about your dog. When my dog got sick, I was very sad, too.  How is he now?

Some Steps that I’ve Found to Be Helpful When Introducing and Maintaining Journaling:

  • If students are unfamiliar with a specific type or content of the journal or log, it’s important to teach them the purpose and show examples. Students may be familiar with one kind of journal (e.g., a reading log), but not another (e.g., a nature journal).
  • Respond to students’ entries, but don’t become overwhelmed by trying to respond too often. It can be very helpful to keep a roster of students and respond to each student once a week (or every 2 weeks, if students are at an age and level of English where their entries are long). 
  • Respond to students’ entries in a meaningful way that may extend their thinking. For example, a student wrote, “In yard, I see los (lots) of bug like ant.” The teacher responded to and extended the child’s journal entry by writing back, “I see a lot of bugs in my yard, too.  Ants, butterflies (with a quick sketch), and bees (with a quick sketch).”
  • Be prepared to read your entry aloud to the student, after which the student can write his/her response.
  • Students often enjoy reading the journal entries of other people and this can help inspire them. An annotated list of books for children and young adults that use reflective writing (e.g., diaries, letters, and journals) as a literary technique can be found here.
  • If a student expresses great sadness or negative emotion, it is important to follow up with the student. While schools are closed, a phone call or video conference can help to find out what is troubling the student. Some students are fine being on their own all day, whereas others miss the camaraderie and social learning that school provides. In the case of undocumented students and parents, these are particularly difficult times as there have been stepped-up efforts in some locations to deport them, and they may be experiencing greater anxiety than other students.


Peyton, J., & Reed, L.  (1990).  Dialogue Journal Writing with Nonnative English Speakers. A Handbook for Teachers and An Instructional Packet for Teachers and Workshop LeadersAlexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

Taylor, 1990. (1990).  Writing and Reading Literature in a Second Language. In N. Atwell (Ed.), Workshop 2: Beyond the Basal. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Samway, K. Davies, & Taylor, D.  (1993).  Inviting Children to Make Connections Between Reading and Writing.  TESOL Journal, 2 (3): 7-11.

Katharine Davies Samway is Professor Emerita at San José State University in California. She has spent almost all of her professional life working with and on behalf of English learners. Her most recent book, Supporting Newcomer Students: Effective Advocacy and Instruction for English Learners (written with Lucinda Pease-Alvarez and Laura Alvarez) will be available in May 2020 from W.W. Norton.

One thought on “Using Journal Writing with English Learners (and Other Students)”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. I especially appreciated the suggestions for a variety of types of journaling. In my experience I have found that most students find motivation and delight in sharing their writing. Many thanks for the article.

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