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Encouraging the Free Development of Ideas in Journals
Not the Place for Error Marking, Says SFSU's Amy Shipley

Amy Shipley, ESL/EFL Instructor at the American Language Institute, of San Francisco State University, participated in a recent TESL-L discussion about ways to use journals in teaching English. She contributed her remarks for the following ESL MiniConference Online article.

I like the journal idea because it is a great way to get students to think more about their ideas/opinions or an author's ideas/opinions, but more and more I hear people using journals as a way to correct the student's grammar (I'm referring to all levels of ESL, not just elementary). While I agree that accuracy is important, I do not agree that grammar correction should be a part of its evaluation.

By correcting ss' grammar in their journals, we lead the ss to believe that their structure is more important than their ideas, causing them to worry so much about their accuracy that they cannot tap into their creativity. My question is: how can one form a sentence correctly if they don't really know what their ideas are? If we want our students to be fluent writers, we need to promote their idea generation, not their sentence formation. I believe it is premature to focus on grammar in a journal entry. Correction should come later once ss have formulated their ideas and written them in a more formal writing assignment.

Single/double entry journals, and dialogue journals are wonderful tools to help ss begin processing their thoughts. Yet, a teacher's response to a journal should be ONLY comments about the ideas and questions to help the ss think about their subject in a deeper way. Questions and comments will help the ss go beyond superficial thinking and probe deeper into their subject matter.

I never grade a journal either, although I will give a plus, check or minus depending on how much effort they seemed to put into writing it (two sentences or two pages). I don't care if it's neat or not (just as long as I can read it). To me, since a journal is the first step to the rather messy "writing process" and not to the cleaner "written product" it doesn't have to be neat. Once the Ss understand the writing process they don't worry about neatness either -- they just enjoy writing it and getting my reactions to their ideas.

I made some comments about using journals in the ESL writing classroom and wanted to add some additional thoughts about them.

I think double entry journals are good for writing reactions to readings and lectures. Ss can write the author's or lecturer's ideas on one side and their reaction/response/questions to it on the other. The T can pose comments and ask questions to help them analyze the material more critically.

Dialogue journals between the T or the other ss are also helpful. I've found that journals between ss can help them learn to ask questions and probe deeper into a subject when they write their own entries. One need not sacrifice the privacy of journal entries with this method either. I usually pair up the ss and have them correspond only with each other (and the T). I tell them that their journal is a private correspondence between their partner, themselves and me. Any other "journal sharing" is to be done orally. I've found that if the ss write their thoughts down first, they are better able to articulate their ideas in speech -- and talking about it helps them clarify their ideas even more! This clarification is noticeable in their formal papers.

I've used topical single entry journals in my classes, too. I usually limit the journal topic to something that will help them process their ideas for their next paper. Giving the ss a very general topic first helps them to internalize and identify with the more specific topic of their next paper. And yes, I also think having them read their own journal silently before freewriting/brainstorming or writing helps not only to remind them about their ideas, but to establish the reading-writing connection.

By Amy Shipley, ESL/EFL Instructor
American Language Institute
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, California

2002 ESL MiniConference Online