Student Journaling as a Tool for Teaching English Language Learners
Journaling has become a staple in many classrooms, giving students additional writing practice to help them sharpen their skills. While writing can be daunting for any student, it can be distinctly challenging for English language learners (ELs/ELLs). When teaching English as a second language (ESL), journaling can be an effective tool for developing skills and building confidence in young writers.
Benefits of Journaling for ELLs
There are many benefits to making journaling a routine in your classroom:
- Expands student vocabulary
- Increases retention of learning
- Uses higher-order thinking skills
- Builds teacher-student relationships
- Connects reading and writing activities for ESL students
- Can serve a dual purpose as a formative assessment
Whether you’re new to student journaling, or you’re specifically looking for new writing activities for your English language learners, consider these ideas.
Ways to Use Student Journaling for Reflection
When it comes to journaling for personal reflection, it’s up to you to determine what level of correction you want to offer. You can ask your students to choose the entries they’d like you to review or have them revisit earlier entries to self-correct.
Personal journals provide students with a safe space to express their feelings, opinions, and emotions about any topic that interests them. Students can free-write or you can provide specific ESL writing prompts to help get them started. It’s beneficial for ELs to write in their native language in their personal journals.
Personal journaling can also be good for mental, emotional, and social health. Journal writing can provide a healthy outlet for ELL students as they face unique challenges both in and out of the classroom.
Dialogue journals create a one-on-one conversation between students and their teachers. Not only can you learn about your students, but students can also express questions, concerns, or opinions they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing in front of the classroom.
Given their interactive nature, dialogue journals are especially useful for scaffolding writing for ELLs. Dialogue journals offer the perfect opportunity for teachers to model how to approach thinking before, during, and after writing. In dialogue journals, teachers can write questions to prompt students to dig a little deeper, use vocabulary terms in a natural context, and utilize them for individual instruction.
5 Academic Uses for Student Journaling
Journal writing can go beyond personal reflection and relationship building and can be used for academic purposes. When you utilize journaling in other curricular areas, you can evaluate both your English learner’s progress in acquiring content skills as well as their developing writing skills.
1. Writing Prompts
Writing prompts are useful when planning ESL writing activities for beginners. Many students are overwhelmed by open-ended writing—this is especially true for ELLs. Your students will benefit from selecting ESL writing prompts that tie into your curriculum and help them make personal connections.
Dual-entry (or Double-Entry) journals are often used to support reading comprehension. Have students fold their paper in half. Then on the left side of the paper, have them write down a passage or quote, critical fact, key event, or emerging problem/conflict from their reading. On the right side of the paper, they can respond with their reaction, theory, or explanation.
In addition to writing skills, these journals promote students’ vocabulary development, comprehension, and content retention, which are literary foundations for teaching English language learners. This ESL writing exercise can activate prior knowledge as well as text-to-self connections, which creates more meaningful learning opportunities.
3. KWL Charts
Student journaling is also a great tool for helping students organize the information they learn throughout a unit by creating KWL charts (Know – Want to Know – Learned) in their journals. KWL charts can easily serve as a formative assessment. Teachers can use the data collected from KWL charts to focus lessons for large and small group instruction.
While this type of journaling is beneficial for all students, it can be extremely useful for ELLs. When using KWL charts with ELLs, consider allowing them to record information in their native language or utilize pictures or other non-linguistic representations.
4. Free Writing / Creative Writing
Another style of journal writing is called free or creative writing. It’s a departure from prompted writing, as it allows students to create poems or stories on whatever topics they choose. While some students thrive with free writing, beginning English learners will benefit from the structure of a prompt. Be sure to incorporate both styles in your ESL writing exercises.
5. Lifted Line
Lifted line journaling tasks students with pulling a single quotation or line of text from their reading or lesson and responding to it. For more advanced ELLs, they may choose to select a line themselves. For beginning ELLs, you may want to select a line for them.
Student Journaling Opportunities In Other Subjects
Journal writing in your English language arts curriculum seems like a natural fit. But another one of the benefits of journaling is how easily it can be integrated across your curriculum.
By using a math journal, ELs can build academic language and expand their background knowledge. Many math curricula will ask students to explain their work, which can be difficult for ELL students. Encourage students to use their journals to write out, in their own words, their process for solving different types of problems.
Our job as teachers is to make content accessible for our English learners, which can be particularly challenging in the area of science. Science is filled with specific, technical, academic language that can quickly turn into cognitive overload for English learners.
Journals are an excellent tool for teaching science to ELLs. Students can use journals to write, sketch, or diagram their observations, collect data, and apply specialized science vocabulary terms. Science ESL writing activities for beginners may include asking students to draw their responses or providing them with sentence frames.
A social studies curriculum allows for opportunities to journal about connections between the past and present, timelines of events, and their interpretations of historical events.
For ELLs, this can be difficult as they come from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. As they progress through the upper grades, the vocabulary and concepts in social studies become more complicated, and extra support is crucial to their success.
Social studies teachers must provide writing activities for English language learners that will help them grasp more abstract concepts and apply specific vocabulary terms. When it comes to scaffolding writing for ELLs in social studies journals, you may consider using writing prompts, sentence frames, or sentence starters.
This blog was originally published on September 25, 2017. It was updated on September 23, 2022.