Dialogue journal writing with elementary school English learners

Henri Giroux (2006) states that every educational act is political and every political act should be pedagogical. Critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970; Giroux, 1981) demands the questioning of deep-seated assumptions and myths that legitimize hegemonic practices. Literacy can be used to maintain the status quo through controlling what language minorities, and other students, read and think (Baker, 2011). Through the lens of critical literacy, literacy is seen as a liberating force rather than a way of maintaining hegemony. Alma Flor Ada (Ada, 1987), inspired by Paulo Freire, distinguishes the personal interpretative phase as one of four phases in the creative reading act. Ada points out that the process of personalization of stories may raise children’s self-esteem. Students are made to feel that their experiences and feelings are valued by the teacher and by other students. Writing is an almost perfect format by which personal stories can be composed and shared. Dialogue journals in particular reinforce the importance of the personal narrative enhanced by an authentic purpose and audience.

Demographic shifts over the last couple of decades have seen the number of English learners in our schools grow at a rapid rate. In California around 43% of school students speak a language other than English at home; 22% of California’s public school students are classified as English learners . As more and more teachers are faced with the task of supporting the literacy development of English learners, the more we learn about the specific needs of this population. It is now known that nonnative English speaking children are capable of much more than is generally expected of them (Samway, 2006). English learners can use symbolic imagery and knowledge of environmental print to express complex thought a long time before gaining proficiency in English. “Young children can write before being able to read, write before being orally fluent, and use drawing to explore their thoughts; this is true for both native and nonnative speaking children” (Samway 2000, p.26).

While good teaching practices for native English speakers are often relevant for teaching English learners, they are insufficient to meet specific linguistic and cultural needs (De Jong & Harper, 2005). Teachers of English learners need to be aware of the stages of language development and be aware of the similarities and differences between first and second language acquisition. If we rely too much on the similarities we may overlook the impact of differences between L1 and L2 learning on effective linguistic acquisition. Teachers also need an understanding of the ways in which reading and writing in a second language draw upon previous experience and exposure to print, and other forms of literacy. Waiting for well-developed oral skills before the introduction of explicit literacy instruction may underestimate, and thus limit, what Els can do. Linda Harklau (Harklau, 2002) challenges assumptions she herself previously held in regards to second language acquisition and the importance given to oral communication, and states that we need to understand why applied linguists seem much more likely to ask how students ‘learn to write in a second language’ and not how students ‘learn a second language through writing’. Harklau (2002) asserts that dialogue journaling is a classroom genre illustrative of the significant social and cognitive value to be found in dialogic written communication. Harklau writes with second language learners in mind and identifies two major advantages to using text based communication: a) the possibility for learners to interact without the pressure of face to face communication, “allowing them to slow the pace, make exchanges reviewable and self-paced, and to put contributions in editable form”; b) writing may be a more culturally compatible option for many second language learners in US schools to communicate with teachers and other students. Harklau’s work targets secondary English learners but the points she makes are equally valid for students in the younger grades.

It is essential that teachers recognize that the linguistic forms a student brings to school are intimately connected with loved ones, community, and personal identity (Delpit, 2006). To paraphrase Cummins (1999), if the mother tongue is not supported, leading to the rupture of relationships with family as well as dismissal of the child’s experience up to then, we are contradicting the very essence of education. Jacqueline Woodson (Woodson, 2003) explains, “It tells its own story, our language does, and woven through it are all the places we’ve been, all that we’ve seen, experiences held close, good and bad”. Linda Christensen (Christensen, 2009) states that in a social justice classroom, personal narrative is the heart of the class. She goes on to say that students’ stories build community and connect their lives to the curriculum. Christensen details her work in a high school language arts classroom where narrative writing is explored at length, and where students may “challenge the myths of society, […] to find […] new directions for action”. It is clear that for children in the early elementary grades, writing as an act of social justice will look very different. Supporting home languages, however, is a critical aspect of social justice for children of all ages.

Paulo Freire (Freire, 1970) states that our ontological vocation is that of becoming more ‘fully human’. Writing helps us better understand who we are and helps us understand this ‘ontological vocation’. Through writing we learn more about ourselves and our place in the world. Writing is an active, personal, theory-building, theory-testing process that facilitates the making of meaning (Samway, 2006). Writing assists with community building. We write in order to express ourselves, make connections with others, and better understand the worlds we live in, both real and imagined (Meier, 2004). Independent writing puts narrative power in the students’ hands and allows them to dictate how they wish to communicate and what stories they would like to share. Meier (2004) states that we must fight the urge to simplify literacy education and therefore make it mechanical, rote, and geared toward low-level and short-term memory. Critical educators never stop questioning the role they play, the information they disseminate within the school structure, and the pedagogical decisions they make. They take genuine interest in their students, in their students’ lived experiences and in all that makes them distinct. Writing forges new relationships between the student and the text; between the students themselves; and between the students and the teacher. Writing will always reflect social influences and its use will differ according to need. Writing is both a tool for understanding and a tool to express beliefs. Opening ourselves up to the myriad of ideas writing produces ensures our growth as educators and as human beings.

Ada, A. F. (1987). Creative Reading: A Relevant Methodology for Language Minority Children.

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (5th ed.). Bristol, UK ; Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Christensen, L. (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: re-imagining the language arts classroom (1st ed.). Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publication.

Cummins, J. (1999, 2003). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? Retrieved from http://langpolicy.saschina.wikispaces.net/file/view/CumminsENG.pdf

De Jong, E., & Harper, C. (2005). Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough? Teacher Education Quarterly, 32(2), 101–124.

Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Harklau, L. (2002). The role of writing in classroom second language acquisition. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11(4), 329–350. doi:10.1016/S1060-3743(02)00091-7

Meier, D. R. (2004). The young child’s memory for words: developing first and second language and literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Samway, K. D. (2006). When English language learners write: connecting research to practice, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Woodson, J. (2003). Who Can Tell My Story? In Dana L. Fox & K. G. Short (Eds.), Stories Matter (pp. 41–45). NCTE.



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