Article reprinted from the TEAL News, Winter 2018.
In this article, I review Penzu Classic’s free journal as a tool for facilitating online dialogue journaling. As a technique to foster writing skills, dialogue journaling can be used with young and old, native and non-native learners in any educational setting (Peyton & Staton, 1991, p.2). Dialogue journaling (DJ) is informal written communication between a student and teacher (tutor, self or more advanced peer) in a journal on a scheduled basis. Regarding non-native learners, many teachers use it to develop writing fluency, but it has also shown other benefits—for example, increasing grammar knowledge (Rokni & Seifi, 2013), stimulating interest in writing (Holmes & Moulton, 1997) and reducing writing anxiety (Holmes & Moulton, 1997; Liao & Wong, 2010). Not all research, however, is as supportive. For instance, Yoshihara (2008) found that DJ did not improve writing fluency to a statistically significant degree, but it did improve the learner- teacher relationship (Yoshihara, 2008). Other auxiliary uses include the ability to extend learner-teacher contact time and provide information on learners’ needs, interests and progress (Peyton, 2000).
For years, the paperbound journal has been used to facilitate this interactive writing activity—but now there are online journals that can be used in place of it. Being virtual, these journals remove geographical barriers, eliminate the frustration of reading messy handwriting (a grievance voiced not only by teachers but also by learners) and simplify the burden of dealing with late or lost journal entries (Longhurst & Sandage, 2004). There are many virtual journals, but one that stands out is Penzu Classic (http://classic.penzu.com). Although it offers three kinds of accounts, teachers and learners only need its free-of-charge Basic account to facilitate DJ. The Basic account provides one free journal where a learner can write an unlimited number of journal entries on an authentic-looking writing pad. The learner can also share his or her journal entries with a teacher, and, moreover, the learner and teacher can write back and forth on the journal entries within dialogue bubbles, giving the written dialogue a conversation-like feeling.
Key Characteristics of Dialogue Journaling
In addition to being relaxed and scheduled, dialogue journaling is learner-centered, conversation-like, not assessed and discreet (See Linnell, 2010; Peyton, 2000; Peyton, 2000; Putney, 1991 for further elaboration).
The learner decides what to write about. To illustrate, primary school learners can write questions about an upcoming field trip; middle or high school year learners, opinions on a new social trend; post-secondary or adult learners, reflections on a course assignment or challenge at work. But if the learner cannot decide what to write about, the teacher can step in and suggest a topic relevant to the learner or the curriculum (Linnell, 2010, p. 23). Regardless of whether the topic is selected by the learner or by the teacher, sensitive or inappropriate content can appear because of the open-ended nature of the writing. Therefore the teacher must make restrictions on topics, and ethical and legal responsibilities clear to learners (Peyton, 2000).
In DJ the learner and teacher take turns “asking questions, offering opinions, requesting clarification, voicing appreciation, or expanding on something [written]” (Denne-Bolton, 2013, p. 2). This interaction simulates oral conversation and, as Peyton and Staton (1991) highlight, emphasizes the dialogical nature of reading and writing.
Limited Error Correction
Since the teacher is a participant rather than an evaluator in a written conversation, error correction is not stressed (Peyton,2000, p. 2). However, the teacher can provide some discrete methods of correction in case the learner expects mistakes to be pointed out. In these cases, Linnell (2010) and Peyton (2000) have some suggestions, for example, teacher modeling [i.e. recasting] corrections in a reply. If the learner wrote, “I went to villago mall wqith my brother at Friday.” The teacher could reply with, “I
went to the park with my wife on Friday.” Another way to correct is by writing a “P.S.” at the bottom of a journal entry (Peyton, 2000).
The teacher should not share journal entries with other learners because confidentiality encourages risk-taking and expressive writing. But if the teacher attains the learner’s permission before- hand, Longhurst and Sandage (2004) note that, reading an entry out loud in class can be beneficial because the teacher’s request [to read the entry to other learners] itself is a form of encouragement and an affirmation of the learner’s thinking (p.72).
Dialogue Journaling and Second Language Acquisition Theory
Dialogue journaling encourages second language acquisition by providing three ideal conditions. First, since the teacher is able to tailor responses to provide understandable yet slightly challenging reading texts, the dialogue journal is a good venue for comprehensible input (Linnell, 2010, p.24). Krashen’s input hypothesis asserts that one condition for language acquisition is exposure to comprehend- sible input, i.e., language that is under- stood but “a little beyond” competence Krashen, 1982). Second, since the learner and teacher are conversing, albeit through writing, about authentic topics, the dialogue journal is a good place for the negotiation of meaning—clarifying, checking comprehension, paraphrasing (Linnell, 2010). This helps the learner to notice gaps in his or her abilities, and therefore, according to Long’s (1996) interaction hypothesis, aids in facilitating language acquisition.
Third, because the writing topics are self- selected, the learner is interested. And because the writing is uncorrected, the learner’s confidence is nurtured, and the learner feels comfortable to experiment with language. According to Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis, language acquisition is aided when a learner is motivated, self-confident and feels safe to take risks (Krashen, 1982).
Overview of Penzu Classic’s Free Journal
Even though it is free, the journal is secure and user-friendly. It is protected with two passwords. Learning how to use its features takes very little time. To illustrate, in order to create a journal entry, the learner logs in and then is brought to a writing pad ready to be filled with words. By selecting the coloured cube icon, a primary school learner can write in a kaleidoscope of colors, revealing emotions or modeling patterns. By selecting the bulleting, indenting, aligning, and numbering tools, an older learner can fashion outlines, essays, letters, poems, lists—a variety of texts.
Similar to creating a journal entry, other features are also straightforward because of their intuitively labelled icons. For example, to share a journal entry, the learner selects Share (the envelope icon) and then enters the teacher’s email address. To open a shared journal entry, the teacher selects Recent Entries, and then selects the shared journal entry. To comment—or dialogue—on a shared journal entry, the teacher selects Comments (the speech bubble icon) and then types a message appearing in a speech bubble above the journal entry.
No tool is perfect, and Penzu Classic is no exception. I found three shortcomings that I hope will be addressed in the near future. First, while there is a free Penzu app, DJ is not yet fully functional on mobile devices. As a result, DJ is limited to desktop and laptop computers.
Second, there are no painting tools, e.g., a freehand pencil, eraser or brush. Such tools would more effectively include very young children and those with limited literacy skills. As we know, these learners often use illustrations either as a compliment to their writing or as an alternative to writing in their journal entries. Another related flaw is that there are no drawing tools for diagrams, flowcharts, graphs, equations, or symbols. Without these, applications in subject areas like science and math are restricted. How can a primary school learner describe photosynthesis without diagramming it, or a high school learner ask questions about a quadratic equation without writing the equation?
Third, it is not possible to dialogue directly on a journal entry; dialoguing must take place above the journal entry in dialogue bubbles. Providing feedback, particularly through recasting, would be more effective if it was located next to the errors, rather than above the journal entry in speech bubbles. However, with Penzu Classroom, another kind of account offered by Penzu Classic, the teacher is able to write directly on the journal entry—but Penzu Classroom has an annual teacher’s fee of USD 50.00.
Providing three conditions that are conducive to language acquisition, dialogue journaling as an authentic, communicative technique is one way to supplement the teaching of writing skills to non-native learners. I’s free journal, although not without flaws, is an easy-to-use tool to facilitate secure DJ on laptops and desktop computers.
Denne-Bolton, S. (2013). The dialogue journal: A tool for building better writers. English Teaching Forum, 51(2), 2-11. Retrieved from https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/51_2_3 _denne-bolton.pdf.
Holmes, V. L., & Moulton, M. R. (1997). Dialogue journals as an ESL learning strategy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(8), 616-621.
Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Retrieved from www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf.
Liao, M. T., & Wong, C. T. (2010). Effects of dialogue journals on L2 students’ writing fluency, reflections, anxiety, and motivation. Reflections on English Language Teaching, 9(2), 139-170.
Longhurst, J., & Sandage, S., A. (2004). Appropriate technology and journal writing: Structured dialogues that enhance learning. College Teaching, 52(2), 69-75. Retrieved from http://elibrary.bigchalk.com.
Long, M. H. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie and T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 413-468). New York: Academic Press.
Linnell, K. M. (2010). Using dialogue journals to focus on form. Journal of Adult Education, 39(1), 23-28.
Peyton, J. K. (2000). Dialogue journals: Interactive writing to develop language and literacy. ESL Resources. Revised. ERIC Q&A. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Edu- cation. (ED450614). Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED450614.pdf.
Peyton, J. K., & Staton, J. (1991). An introduction to dialogue journal writing. In J. K. Peyton & J. Staton (Eds.), Writing our lives: Reflections on dialogue journal writing with adults learning English (Language in education series, 77) (pp. 1-3). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents; National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. (ED333763) Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED333763.
Putney, J. (1991). What are dialogue journals? In J. K. Peyton & J. Staton (Eds.), Writing our lives: Reflections on dialogue journal writing with adults learning English (Language in educaiton series, 77) (pp. 3-10). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents; National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. (ED333763) Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED333763.
Rokni, S. J. A., & Seifi, A. (2013). The effect of dialog journal writing on EFL learners’ grammar knowledge. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 9(2), 57-67. Retrieved from http://www.jlls.org/vol9no2/57-67.pdf.
Errol Pitts has been teaching EFL and academic preparatory math, mostly with post-secondary and adult learners in international settings, for over 13 years. He has an M.Ed. and a B.Ed. from the University of Manitoba.