Notes on Using Dialogue Journals

by Sylvie Kashdan
February, 2006

MS Word .doc version (72 kb)

In this article I will discuss one of the methods that Kaizen instructors have found quite helpful for assisting adult immigrants and refugees with visual limitations in learning English, including learning English literacy.

Is Literacy Important for New English Learners With Visual Limitations?

Definitely yes! Assisting such adults in developing English literacy is extremely important for two reasons:

First, it is very important that these students not be cheated out of their right to learn reading and writing at the same time as listening and speaking, the same way that all the fully-sighted students are currently taught, since this is now considered the most effective way to teach and learn a new language. And my experience has convinced me that the vast majority of immigrants and refugees who are blind or have low vision are fully capable of this given the appropriate assistance and encouragement.

Second, only if we can make literacy accessible to visually-impaired and blind immigrants and refugees can we help them develop their full potential as independent adults in this culture. This is as true for those who are primarily concerned to be independent in their homes as for those who want to succeed in other educational endeavors.

In their fine book ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success (Heinemann, 1998), Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman note that when teaching a new language, it is important to remember that lessons will be learned more easily and more readily if they have meaning and purpose in the students’ current lives. So teachers need to utilize students’ background knowledge and interests and give students choices as they involve them in authentic speaking and listening, and reading and writing experiences. All four of these need to be understood as integrated aspects of the language process, not as discrete skills separated from each other. They are all part of a developmental learning process that can continue throughout a person’s life.

With this in mind, teachers must work on developing interesting reading material for adult students based on their own specific past experiences, current activities and concerns.

Hands-on and interactive activities are important for helping all students to internalize the new language by providing them with physical associations to assist in remembering, and providing them with nonverbal ways of responding even before they can do so verbally or in writing. Such activities are particularly important for students who have difficulty seeing pictures and graphics. They can also provide necessary context as well as pleasure, and can be less stressful than rote exercises and tests that end up registering failure for many. They can, therefore, contribute to the progress or growth of learning more effectively.

Since one of the main purposes of learning a new language is to be able to communicate with others, teachers also need to utilize methods and design lessons that engage students in social interactions, and in that way, enable them to develop, express and share their ideas.

Hilary Stern-Sanchez noted, in her presentation titled Teaching Multi-Level ESL Classes (Idaho State A.B.E. Conference, August 1, 1994) that both dialogue journal writing and language experience stories are natural social ways for new English learners to learn to communicate with the teacher and to share their personal experiences. These methods also provide non-threatening settings in which to develop literacy skills, through the use of regular transactions with the teacher, within meaningful and authentically communicative contexts.

Over the years, I have found both dialogue journal writing and language experience stories to be effective techniques for assisting adult new English learners who are blind or have low vision. Both can be particularly helpful in creating meaningful reading materials and writing activities that deal directly with the specific experiences, hopes and concerns of these students.

What are dialogue journals?

Dialogue journals are individual notebooks that students are given for writing short notes or letters to the teacher.

The teacher begins by giving the students notebooks and helping them to write their names on the covers and to possibly decorate the covers in any other way they wish.

Before beginning to use these notebooks, the teacher explains to the students that these notebooks are called dialogue journals. The students will be asked to write in the dialogue journal notebooks every time they have a lesson.

When students write in their dialogue journals, they should think about trying to write in English to express their ideas. Dialogue journal writing is a way to begin practicing communicating in English. It doesn’t have to always be standard or “correct” usage. they don’t need to worry about correct spelling or grammar. This kind of writing offers opportunities to experiment with writing in English, and opportunities for the teacher to respond back to them in writing with her own reflections on what they have written.

The students should always be informed that the main purpose of the dialogue journals is to help them practice communicating directly with the teacher in English. It is important to emphasize that their writing in their dialogue journals will not be used for any other purpose, such as grading. And, it is also important to assure the students that the teacher will never share whatever they write in the dialogue journals unless students explicitly give permission.

The focus in dialogue journal writing is on communication, so the teacher does not directly correct any non-standard usage. Instead, she models standard syntax and spelling. Students are encouraged to read over the teacher’s responses for models of standard ways of writing.

If students continue to worry about spelling or grammar structures, they can be encouraged to try the experiment. They should also be informed that the more they read and write all sorts of things the better their spelling will get. They should begin by worrying only about getting their ideas written down; then if they want, if they are using large print they can circle words, or if they are using braille they can list the words they are not sure of on a separate page, and check their spelling later after they finish. And this will not be the only kind of reading and writing they will be doing; it is just the beginning.

Approximately 15 to 20 minutes can be set aside in each lesson for students to write in their dialogue journals.

Students write their journal entries on topics of their own choice.

The students write something on one page in their notebook, and the teacher writes a response on the facing page or the next page. The journal entries are similar to a series of brief notes or letters to each other.

The teacher’s response can be short if the student’s entry is short, or long if the student’s entry is long and the teacher wishes to write a long response.

The teacher reads the entries and responds within these guidelines: she neither criticizes content nor does she correct spelling or syntax.

The teacher’s response should have three parts or elements.

The first part of the teacher’s response is based directly on what the student has written. The teacher writes a small response of one or more sentences based on the student’s topic, using some of the key words that the student has used, while being careful to model standard English syntax and spelling.

In the second part, after the direct response, the teacher asks an authentic question—not one she already knows the answer to, but one she really would like to know the answer to.

In the third part, the teacher shares a personal experience or makes a relevant comment that adds information.

The first part of the response primarily serves the purpose of modeling standard written English usage. The second and third parts of the response continue the train of thought and extend the dialogue.

Then, students read the response or are helped to read the response by the teacher. Most students are willing to try this way of writing to the teacher, and are eager to read what she writes in response.

Next, students write a response to the teacher’s questions and comments, or may start a new topic. In this way, the journal becomes both reading material and a context for writing, and thereby links reading and writing in a meaningful way.

But, sometimes a student may begin by being reluctant to write anything. If this happens, the teacher can write, “How can I answer you if you don’t write?” or something else to that effect. This will usually elicit a conversation that can be encouraged into writing, either through the teacher writing it down or allowing the student to write herself.

Students can be encouraged to make and keep a written list of topics they want to write about. These might include such topics as: I get really angry when…, I’m most happy when…, etc. Then when it’s time to write dialogue journals, they will have plenty to write about (Freeman and Freeman, 1998).

Each student writes at her own level and the teacher answers back at a level appropriate to the student.

Students who are at the beginning language proficiency level may make designs or drawings with pieces of cut paper, cloth or objects such as buttons, HighMarks or 20/20 pens, or crayons. They just need to put something in their dialogue journal notebooks every time they have a lesson, so the teacher can respond in some way and get to know them.

When the teacher responds to a graphic or collage, she may simply do this by writing brief labels for the parts or the whole, often with some guidance from the student.

For students whose English proficiency level is low, the teacher may need to take some lesson time to ask what the student intended by a graphic or written entry before she is able to respond.

Intermediate and advanced level students may write about their personal lives, general cultural or other questions, or commentaries on how the class is going.

The teacher will be able to read over intermediate- and advanced-level students’ entries outside of lesson time and write her response before the next lesson.

Then, during the next lesson, the students read over the teacher’s response to them or are helped by the teacher to read the response over. Only after the students read and understand the teacher’s response are they asked to write in their dialogue journals again.

Dialogue journal writing offers a context in which adult students can experience teachers less as authority figures who will judge their shortcomings and lack of abilities and more as facilitators and partners in learning. This helps students to develop self-esteem, and encourages them to believe in the self-fulfilling prophesy that they will be successful learners. See J. Kreeft, R. W. Shuy, J. Staton, L. Reed, and R. Morroy, Dialogue writing: Analysis of student teacher Interactive writing in the learning of English as a second language (NIE-G-83-0030). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics (1984), (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 252 097). Dialogue journals provide reading lessons each day, and they are meaningful because the topics are chosen by and of some interest to the students. They are conversations between readers who are also writers, each writing for the other, and each reading what the other has written.

Pamela J. Farris notes in Achieving Adult Literacy (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1992) that it is important for teachers to give adult students authentic reasons and opportunities for learning and practicing reading and writing. If they are not provided with meaningful reading material that both interests them and that is seen as relevant to at least some of their most significant needs, very many will become discouraged and bored. This at least partially accounts for the fact that three out of five fully-sighted adults enrolled in basic literacy programs drop out before receiving even 12 hours of instruction. A number of studies of the high drop-out rate for adult basic education programs have found that the lack of relevant reading materials is often cited by those leaving such programs as the major reason for their decision to withdraw.

The literature provides some inspiring stories about struggling students who became prolific and enthusiastic English learners with the safe space of their dialogue journals to practice in. The noncompetitive, nonjudgmental, risk encouraging context of a dialogue journal can encourage students to experiment with language usage, and thereby increase their communicative capacities. It also provides an authentic reason for using language and therefore is more motivating than abstract drill practice. Many teachers have found that dialog journal writing, even on the most basic level, can help the development of English proficiency.

Literacy Challenges and Possibilities for Immigrants and Refugees
Who are Blind or Have Low Vision

Blind and low vision adult students who have not yet become proficient readers and writers in accessible formats may be even less willing to engage in more than the minimum amount of study or practice with reading material that they experience as boring or irrelevant. Some are hesitant to learn literacy with braille or large print because they are concerned that using these formats will stigmatize them as “abnormal” and “weird,” and will make them less acceptable to those who do not have visual impairments. They may feel embarrassed about using braille or large print, and therefore be hesitant to engage in sustained reading and writing in these media. Unfortunately, their perceptions of the negative attitudes towards those who are blind or visually impaired are not far off the mark, and have been varified by a number of researchers, such as Allport (1958), Monbeck, (1975); Scott (1969).

The reluctance of recently blinded adults to learn braille literacy can be greatly exacerbated by the overwhelming focus on the mechanics of the code and tactile reading methods in most courses. As noted by Evelyn J. Rex and Cheryl Richesin, in their 1996 article, “Report on a Review of Textbooks to Teach Braille to Blind Adults” in Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Special edition on Literacy (May-June 1996)
most available braille instructional texts sorely neglect the teaching of cognitive literacy skills. In addition, most texts lack cultural sensitivity, diversity, practical rehabilitation application, and information about skills of daily living.

Adult students who are blind or have low vision may not feel they have the option of dropping out of classes or discontinuing individualized lessons in reading and writing in accessible formats or adult basic literacy, when they are enrolled in these as part of their rehabilitation program. They may fear that the support of the rehabilitation agency will be discontinued if they do not at least go through the motions of completing the course of study they have been told to take. Nevertheless, the lack of relevant and meaningful reading material may make it more difficult for them to become fully engaged in learning, and may leave them with little motivation for continuing to develop their literacy after completing the program.

Immigrants and refugees who never learned any literacy in their countries of origin may lack confidence in their ability to become literate in English. Those with visual impairments may have even less confidence in their ability to succeed. They need to know that other adult immigrants and refugees with visual limitations who have come to this country without any literacy have learned to both read and write. And, most of all, they need to experience literacy as useful, informative, interesting and empowering, rather than just something someone else wants them to do.

However, it has been my experience that very many immigrants and refugees with visual impairments, like other adult literacy learners, can be inspired to continue to practice their newly developed literacy beyond the instructional context in other areas of their daily lives. This is most likely to occur when they are provided with authentic, learner-contextualized materials and activities, clearly relevant to their needs and interests.

See: “Creating Authentic Materials and Activities for the Adult Literacy Classroom, The Impact of Use of Authentic Materials and Activities”, NCSALL Research Findings, FOCUS ON BASICS Vol 6, Issue C, Sept 2003, Curriculum Development

Very many of those who were literate in their first language before losing vision may also believe that learning both a new language and new ways of reading and writing will be too difficult for them. They need to be reassured that their former literacy skills will be carried into the new language and the new media, and will help them learn relatively quickly. Once a person has learned to read in any language or any medium, whatever the language or code (be it in print or Braille) once she or he has made the connection that symbols represent sounds, words, etc., then the process of learning to read in a new language or code is somewhat easier than and different from the process of learning to read for the first time.

Penelope A. Zago, in her article “Weaving the Cloth of Literacy: The Relationship between Braille and Reading,” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Special edition on Literacy May-June 1996, used a beautiful metaphor to describe the relationship between the reading tool and the process of reading and/or writing. She says, “For students who use braille, literacy is more than just mastering the braille code.” “Running lengthwise over the loom, the sturdy warp threads are the foundation for the cloth to be woven. The weft threads give design and color as they are carried in and out across the loom. The shuttle is the tool that weaves the two threads together. In the context of the metaphor, the warp threads are prior knowledge, the weft threads the reading content, and the shuttle is braille, the tool for bringing the two together.”

Those who learned to use braille or large print in their first language may understand that it could be easier to learn the new language if they learn reading and writing in English at the same time as listening and speaking. However, even for these adult students, learning all four communication modes simultaneously may be greatly impeded if they are instructed in reading and writing in English with lessons that contain cultural assumptions and references that are not understandable to them or deal with topics that are not of interest to them.

In most programs developed to assist proficient English-speaking visually-impaired and blind people, the assumption that all students have a good grasp of oral English can make it quite difficult for new English learners to acquire functional literacy. Those students who have not yet developed the capacity to fully understand spoken English have great difficulty comprehending the meaning of oral instruction in the Braille code, or for learning English literacy with braille, large print or a computer. The assistance of competent bilingual interpreters is both costly and not a good substitute for students learning through developing their own communication capacities. It is therefore difficult for these students to effectively become authentic readers and writers using accessible literacy skills, unless they can learn these in conjunction with learning English.

Nevertheless, many adult new English learners with visual limitations are highly motivated to learn reading and writing in English because they clearly understand that their full integration into U.S. society is dependent on developing literacy. They know that their ability to be independent adults depends on their acquisition of the specialized skills required to perform the literacy tasks that they need to live, learn, and work on a daily basis.

However, I and others have observed that directing these immigrants and refugees to attend programs designed for fully-sighted new English learners before or while they are receiving rehabilitation services is not generally a good solution to the problem, for a number of reasons.

First, the instruction that many fully-sighted new English language learners receive in schools and adult ESL programs is often experienced as frustrating, disempowering, and even irrelevant to the needs of daily life. Although the drop-out rates are not as high as for adult basic literacy courses, the difficulties that immigrants and refugees have in high school and adult ESL programs are significant. See Guadalupe Valdes, Con Respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools (New York, Teachers College, 1996); Jim Cummins, Negotiating Identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (Ontario, California, California Association of Bilingual Education, 1996); Ofelia B. Miramontes, Adel Nadeau, and Nancy Commins, Restructuring Schools for Linguistic Diversity: Linking decision making to effective programs (New York, Teachers College Press, 1997); Maria Brisk, Bilingual Education: From compensatory to quality schooling (Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).

It is generally recognized that one of the main reasons adult immigrants and refugees want to learn the new language is to be able to communicate with others and understand their communications orally and in writing. Nevertheless, many teachers in mainstream settings are too overloaded with large classes to give individualized assistance. Instead they instruct their students through fragmented rote methods, which do not provide the necessary living context for learning to effectively understand and interact with others in the new language. Since blind and low vision students need more real life context especially for learning literacy, rather than less context, these methods are particularly disempowering for such students.

In addition, staff in programs designed to help fully sighted immigrants and refugees usually have little or no familiarity with the possibilities for, or abilities and needs of people with visual limitations. Although they are often sympathetic, they are generally not aware of how to assist visually-impaired or blind new English learners, or prepared to help them in appropriate or effective ways.

Moreover, the methods used in such programs are often ill-suited to the needs of these students because the overwhelming majority of them are heavily reliant on teaching English and other new skills through utilizing pictures, standard size print materials, and other vision-based learning experiences. Blind and low vision new English learners do not truly benefit from lessons centered around learning to identify the features in pictures they can’t see, or to recognize bathroom or exit door symbols, or traffic and other such signs they don’t usually see in the environment, or from listening to descriptions while others are learning how to interpret graphs, maps, the special formatting and English contractions in phone book listings, news paper advertisements for jobs, or medical appointment cards, etc. Moreover, this emphasis in the mainstream programs both leaves out some of the knowledge that most visually impaired and blind new English learners need most, and greatly burdens these students in acquiring functional literacy.

But, by far the greatest obstacle is posed by the widespread belief of sighted instructors and other staff, that it is impossible or too onerous to help these students to learn to read and write. The visually-impaired and blind students, their families and friends, and instructors all often believe that oral proficiency is all that is realistic for them.

In my experience, the best way to circumvent and surmount these problems and help immigrants and refugees with visual limitations develop proficiency in oral English and literacy at the same time, is to teach both in conjunction with and through the use of accessible formats. Lessons should not be focused primarily on teaching how to use the braille or print codes, but rather on helping the students to actively acquire and construct the knowledge that is relevant to them.


To read more about dialogue journal writing, see:

Dialogue Journal Writing with Limited-English-Proficient (LEP) Students, ERIC DIGEST prepared by Joy Kreeft Peyton, Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 22nd Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037 (Eric Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics).

Achieving Adult Literacy by Pamela J. Farris (Bloomington, Indiana, Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1992).

Journal Writing and Adult Learning by Sandra Kerka, ERIC DIGEST No. 174 (Clearinghouse on Adult, Career and Vocational Education, 1996, Document EDO-CE-96174)

Breaking Ground: Teachers Relate Reading and Writing in the Elementary School, Edited by Jane Hansen, Thomas Newkirk, and Donald Graves (Heinemann).

Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education: Workshop Materials and Handouts by Constance Weaver, Western Michigan University, Lorraine Gillmeister-Krouse, Soulanges Elementary School, Grace Vento-Zogby, Sauquoit, Valley Elementary School (Heinemann, 1996).

Open to Interpretation: Multiple Intelligences Theory in Adult Literacy Education: Findings from the Adult Multiple Intelligences Study by Silja Kallenbach, World Education, and Julie Viens, Harvard Project Zero (NCSALL Reports Number 21 May 2002, Harvard University Graduate School of Education, 101 Nichols House, Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138). (Dialogue journals are mentioned as useful learning tools.)

Adult Multiple Intelligences: MI Basics by Julie Viens

Integrating Reading and Writing into Adult ESL Instruction by Dan Rabideau, Literacy Assistance Center, New York City.

Writing Our Lives: Reflections on Dialogue Journal Writing with Adults Learning English, Joy Kreeft Peyton and Jana Staton, eds. Prepared by the National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. A publication of the Center for Applied Linguistics. (Number 77 in the series Language in Education: Theory and Practice.)

Copyright © 2006 Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations

CITATION: Kashdan, S. (2006). Notes on Using Dialogue Journals. Workshop document, Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations; Seattle, U.S.A.

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for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
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