While cleaning out my file cabinets, I came across a bundle of personal letters I had written to my parents from college many years ago. I use the word personal advisedly because my letters were not very personal. I monotonously listed what I’d done during the week but avoided mentioning how I felt about life, the problems I faced, and anything else my parents really might have wanted to know. I can only guess that my letters are typical of a male college student’s — at least back when they wrote letters home.
These letters contrasted sharply with other personal messages that I’ve saved. Far worthier of saving were those that my wife and I wrote to each other shortly after we were married. We kept a small notebook that we passed back and forth each day about topics that were much more than love notes. We were surprised that it was easier to write about what worried us than to try to talk about it. We were having a written dialogue. Not surprisingly, this form of writing is called the dialogue journal.
Dialogue journaling is said to have started the 1970s, when an elementary-school teacher in Los Angeles wanted to know more about her pupils than she could possibly discover during class time. She got hold of a bunch of those little blue books used for exams and gave one to each pupil, telling them to write to her whenever they found time. They could write about school, friends, or problems; ask questions; or complain about anything on their minds.
The students wrote at least a half-page per day and turned in their booklets before they went home. The teacher took the journals home and wrote back to her pupils every night. She discovered that these dialogue journals were not only useful for getting the students to write but were also a gold mine for instruction. She learned what they didn’t understand, what they didn’t like about school, who was bullying them, and much more.
Notably, she made no red-pencil corrections of their misspellings and grammatical errors. Instead she made sure to use their own words and constructions as she modeled acceptable usage. She read their complaints about things like spending too much time studying India, but, more important, she read about how her students felt and thought about the social problems they were having with their peers. Her answers ranged from explanations about the class to advice to how to deal with friends and foes.
The dialogue journals provided feedback about how the teacher could do a better job of teaching the classroom topics, a continuous learning process for her.
Subsequent research on the effective use of dialogue journals began to spread, and today they are commonly used by teachers all over the world in their everyday courses, in second-language instruction, and in courses for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Since there is never enough time for teachers to learn what individual students need most, a few years ago I thought I’d test the dialogue journals in one of my graduate courses. In my seminar in sociolinguistic field methods, I felt I had given pretty clear oral instructions and written handouts to cover the necessary ground. But apparently I had not been as clear as I imagined.
In their dialogue journals, my students pointed out many things that they didn’t understand and wanted to know more about than I had talked about in class. Since I wondered why they didn’t mention these questions during class, I asked them in their journals and found their answers instructive. Their most common response was that they were too embarrassed to expose their ignorance in front of their peers. They knew that the stakes are high in grad school, and they worried that such admissions might somehow count against them. They were quite able, however, to admit their weaknesses to me in the privacy of this personal journal, just between the two of us.
A common objection to using dialogue journals in the classroom is that it takes too much time to write back to every student. Teachers who use them disagree, saying that the journals not only provide useful monitoring of their teaching effectiveness but also reduce the amount of classroom time that would otherwise be spent reteaching what they believed they had already taught.
And this practice is not limited to the classroom. As I noted above, dialogue journaling can also help marriages get off to a good start … and stay that way.
Roger Shuy is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Georgetown University, where he created and led its doctoral program in sociolinguistics.