Dialogue Journal

editorial board


cooperative learning

dialogue journals

administrator's challenge

tutor's challenge

EAL home

Using Dialogue Journals to Encourage
Reading and Writing in Family Literacy Programs

Laurie Elish-Piper
Northern Illinois University

Family literacy programs are becoming increasingly popular in the United States as literacy educators strive to assist low-literate adults and their children develop their literacy abilities (Morrow, Tracey, & Maxwell, 1995). Family literacy programs range from programs that provide direct literacy instruction and services to parents and their young children, to programs based in libraries or schools that provide workshops which meet for a limited number of sessions (Nickse, 1989). The suggestions for dialogue journals in this article focus on long-term family literacy programs which provide direct services to both parents and their children. Modifications may be made, however, to accommodate the needs and formats of other types of family literacy and adult literacy programs.

Dialogue Journals in Family Literacy Programs
Many adults who enroll in family literacy programs identify establishing social connections with other adults as a major motivation for participating in a family literacy program (Elish-Piper, 1995). In addition, their desire to improve their own literacy skills and support their children's literacy and learning are also major factors. Dialogue journals provide a meaningful vehicle for personal, real-life literacy interactions which help adult learners accomplish these major goals. Staton (1987) described dialogue journals as "...a genuine conversation, written rather than spoken, a means by which individual students at any age can carry on a private discussion with their teacher" (p. 49). Dialogue journals are similar to personal letters wherein two interested writers discuss recent happenings, share thoughts, and establish bonds of trust and friendship. Dialogue journals provide many benefits to learners, including (a) writing for a real audience, (b) focusing on communication and meaning, (c) receiving regular written response, (d) establishing the social aspects of literacy (Bode, 1989; Gambrell, 1985).

Dialogue journals can be used in family literacy programs in the following ways: parent teacher dialogue journals, parent-parent dialogue journals, and parent-child dialogue journals. This article provides a brief description of each type of dialogue journal, including suggestions for implementation and associated benefits.

Parent-Teacher Dialogue Journals
Parent-teacher dialogue journals provide daily letter writing exchanges between adult learners and their teacher. To begin parent-teacher dialogue journals, the teacher writes a personal letter to each parent. The letter can be written in a new spiral notebook so ownership of the journal is established, and all entries are organized in order. The teacher's letter takes on the form of a friendly letter, complete with the date, greeting, and closing. The body of the letter should include the purpose for dialogue journaling, background information about the teacher, and several open-ended questions to get the dialoguing started. These questions may include, "What would you like me to know about you and your children?," "What are your goals for this program?," and "What types of things would you like to learn about in this class?" (Elish-Piper, 1996, pp. 29-30).

Here is a sample dialogue journal entry [sample 1] written by the teacher.

After discussing the purpose and benefits of dialogue journals, the adult literacy teacher presents the letter in the dialogue journal to parents during class time and asks parents to spend a few minutes reading and responding to the letters. The teacher circulates around the room to assist parents who are having difficulty reading or writing their responses. As parents write their entries, the teacher can help parents focus on meaning and ideas without undue concern for spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics by using prompts such as, "Spell it the way it sounds," and "Focus on your ideas first." These prompts reinforce that the main goal of writing is to communicate ideas. In addition, when the teacher reads a learner's entry, incorrect spelling and punctuation are not marked wrong, but rather the teacher models correct spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics in his/her response.

By setting aside approximately ten minutes at the beginning of class, the teacher and parents can engage in dialogue journal writing on a regular basis. A modified language experience approach may be necessary for some parents with extremely low literacy levels. In this situation, parents may need to dictate their entries to the teacher or read their entries to the teacher so he/she can transcribe them. Parent-teacher dialogue journals are most beneficial when implemented on a regular basis. If time permits, dialogue journaling during each class period will provide many opportunities for parents to use literacy, practice writing, and develop close relationships with their teachers. Some teachers may find that once a week is more realistic for their classrooms. The most important consideration is that for each entry a parent writes, the teacher responds.

Teacher response in a dialogue journal is not akin to simply writing, "Nice job" or "Good ideas" in the margin. Response in dialogue journals refers to writing a letter back to the parent. The teacher's response may answer questions posed by the parent, relate similar personal experiences, raise new questions, provide clarification, and share insights.

Teachers should select the dialogue journal format that would work best in their situation. If more than one format is used, it is recommended that you use a different journal for each.

Parent-Parent Dialogue Journals
Parent-parent dialogue journals allow adult learners to engage in meaningful dialogue with peers in the family literacy program. This type of journal allows adult learners to establish social relationships and friendships as they develop reading and writing skills. Parent-parent dialogue journals can also help welcome new participants into programs. As most programs have open enrollment policies which allow new participants to enter the program at any time, it can be difficult to establish a sense of classroom community. By using parent-parent dialogue journals, new participants are welcomed into the program, friendships are fostered, and personally meaningful uses of literacy are provided on an on-going basis.

When a new class member arrives, this new class member is paired with an established class member. The established class member begins the dialogue journal process by writing a welcome letter to the new class member. The letter may contain information about the program, classroom procedures, purposes of dialogue journals, and a personal introduction.

The teacher is encouraged to consider common characteristics when partnering two parents. For example, the age of their children, their goals, or the neighborhood where they reside may provide a sense of familiarity to help parents feel comfortable dialoguing. While parents' literacy levels are an important consideration when selecting partners, they should not be the only consideration. For example, if two parents have extremely low literacy levels, many of the negative aspects of ability grouping come into play. Likewise, if the parents' literacy levels are so different that communication is difficult, the experience can become a chore rather than a motivating, personal literacy activity.

Some teachers may wish to implement parent-parent dialogue journals in another format which does not focus on welcoming new participants into the program. For example, teachers may wish to ask parents to select partner teams and engage in dialogue journal writing. Teachers may provide class time for partners to read and respond to entries, and they may also encourage partners to write over the weekends or on non-class days to provide real-life "homework" involving reading and writing.

Parent-Child Dialogue Journals
Parent-child dialogue journals provide a vehicle for connecting literacy activities from program classrooms to the homes and lives of families. To establish a sense of ownership, parents and children can be invited to decorate their dialogue journals. They may choose to draw, attach photographs, make a cloth cover, or personalize their dialogue journal cover in any way they would like.

Prior to writing the first entry, family literacy teachers may wish to discuss developmentally appropriate expectations for children's literacy development. Look here [sample 2] for a sample list of ideas to share with parents of emergent readers and writers. By sharing information on how literacy develops, low-literate parents are empowered to be more involved in their children's literacy development, as well as their own (Rosow, 1996).

Parents typically do the first entry in the dialogue journal. The emphasis should be on the positive, and parents may begin the process by writing something positive about the child. For an example, check out this parent-child letter [sample 3].

When first implementing parent-child dialogue journals, parents may find it helpful to write entries during adult education time. By setting aside five to ten minutes, parents can seek the assistance of the teacher if needed. The teacher can encourage parents to write or draw about happy news, family events, special occasions, family memories, school issues, and special projects in the family literacy program. With a focus on the positive, both parents and children will look forward to writing and reading dialogue journal entries, and positive attitudes toward reading and writing will be encouraged.

In family literacy programs which have parent-child interaction time, parents and their children may read and share their dialogue journal entries during class time. Teachers in programs that do not have this type of time may wish to encourage parents to share their journals at home as a type of real-life "homework."

Dialogue journals are natural vehicles for developing and promoting reading and writing in meaningful, personally-significant contexts. The three types of dialogue journal presented in this article are just a few ways that dialogue journals can be implemented into family literacy programs. Teachers may wish to combine, modify, or design their own type of dialogue journals to match their students, program goals, and program format.

[ article . sample 1 . sample 2 . sample 3 . references ]

acceptance date: 10/23/96