Creating a more productive dialog journal through task-based checklists

Elliot Patton, Kansai Gaidai University


Quick guide

  • Keywords:  Dialog journal, writing, tasks, organization, feedback
  • Learner English level:  High beginner to advanced
  • Maturity level:  University
  • Preparation time:  30 minutes to prepare a sample journal entry, time to provide feedback, 15 minutes to prepare and print the checklist
  • Activity time:  Approximately 90 minutes
  • Materials:  Notebooks, pens, paper, paste

Dialog journals, notebooks used to establish written communication between teacher and student, are an excellent addition to any writing class. A common issue, though, is the tendency for a student, at a loss for what to write, simply to chronicle the previous weekend’s meals and shopping experiences. This results in writing that can make productive dialog difficult. One alternative is to provide a directive prompt, but this takes away from the freedom a journal provides. Perhaps the simplest compromise is to paste into the journal a student-generated checklist of writing tasks that can be completed in the order the student chooses. This allows students to engage in a wide range of useful writing tasks while feeling free to write about what they wish.

Step 1: Before students begin creating entries, prepare a model journal entry they can use as a reference. This is my normal format for a high-intermediate university writing class:
Left-hand page: This space is reserved for other course-related assignments, such as vocabulary lists.
Right-hand page: Dialog journal. Length requirements vary by level; for a high-intermediate class, I would expect at least 100 words per week. I also request that students leave room for me to write comments.
Step 2: Based on your writing goals for the class, make a list of 10 to 15 possible tasks to suggest to the class. Students may approve or reject these as well as provide their own. Potential tasks include expressing an opinion, describing a photo, describing a process, writing a movie review, and drawing a manga.

ProcedureStep 1: Introduce the model journal to the class and provide guidelines.
Step 2: Allow students class time to create their first entries (30-45 minutes). For the first topic, I suggest assigning a brief self-introduction.
Step 3: Collect the journals at the end of class. You can collect journals either weekly or biweekly. I try to keep them for no longer than three days. The amount of feedback rests upon the level and size of the class. For large classes, feedback can become incredibly time-consuming, so you may wish to alternate the weeks students submit their journals.
Step 4: Return the journals, allowing students time to read comments.
Step 5: Now, the class can determine the remaining tasks. Write two to three journal task suggestions on the board. Put students into groups and ask each group to brainstorm five to six tasks.
Step 6: Ask groups to suggest tasks for the whole class. I like to create a checklist on a projection screen during the class as students make suggestions. The result should be a list of 15 to 16 tasks from which students can choose.
Step 7: Make the list into a checklist by putting a box beside each entry for students to check upon completion and a line on which they can write the completion date. Before the next class, print and photocopy checklists for each student.
Step 8: Have students glue the lists into their journals.

Students seem to enjoy the gentle prompting the checklist gives them, and they also appreciate the freedom to complete whichever task they choose. If you need to conserve class time, you can simply have students handwrite the checklist in the journal. As an alternative, some instructors may prefer an electronic dialog format, such as a blog. I myself have incorporated message boards and blogs into previous courses. Notebooks, however, have their advantages: I appreciate the accessibility of paper for Japanese first-year college students, who often lack computer literacy. I also appreciate the creativity allowed by the medium; many student treat their journals like scrapbooks, filling them with comics, photos, and stylized writing. I hope that the small addition of a checklist can improve the functionality and productivity of your students’ journals without sacrificing enjoyment.