Combining Literacy Skills and Community Building

A shared reading journal strategy encourages rich conversations that support differentiated instruction and social and emotional learning.

February 16, 2021
ciricvelibor / iStock

These days, many of us are struggling to stay on top of our reading, both personal and professional. Our workloads are often overwhelming, and precious time with books and articles is often a casualty.

But educators aren’t the only ones struggling to adapt to new literacy norms—many kids are, too. Some don’t have a quiet place to read, others are unengaged and unmotivated, and still others are just plain tired or depressed.

In the face of this crisis in reading, teachers need reliable methods that attend to social and emotional learning and cultural sensitivity while being flexible enough to work in multiple modes of instruction—synchronous or asynchronous, in person or remote.

It’s worth exploring a versatile approach called the reading conversation journal (RCJ) that engages students in reading in a thoughtful, personal way that works well in a virtual environment.

What a Reading Conversation Journal Is and How It Works

Reading conversation journals are rooted in the notion that literacy growth and development are energized and amplified through carefully crafted, deliberate talk between student and teacher that unfolds—sometimes over the course of an entire academic year—ideally in an online document. Teacher and student write back and forth to each other, but the student leads the conversation, while the teacher coaches with deliberate, calculated comments and questions, providing literacy instruction based on the student’s individual interests, needs, and developing skill.

The RCJ model adapts the usual side-by-side approach by shifting individual conferences online and takes it up a notch because resources from the internet can become part of the conversation. Within an RCJ, teachers can spontaneously recommend books; suggest articles and infographics related to student interests; share YA novel and movie trailers; post music videos, commercials, how-to tutorials, and read-alouds; relay author interviews and related book and genre lists; offer multilingual novels and book translations; and steer readers toward online libraries and book clubs, fan fiction, reviews, and Amazon previews.

An RCJ is a powerful literacy tool, but it can also double as a check-and-connect SEL mechanism. I’ve found that over time, students often reveal social, emotional, and mental health struggles in their RCJ, as well as things that are affecting their learning success or focus in school (e.g., bus, cafeteria, or hallway problems; name or pronoun changes; parental or sibling concerns; or frustrations with other classes).

The Instructional Benefits of the RCJ

RCJs create opportunities for one-on-one conversations with students, even if those conversations are asynchronous. Students can share what they think about what book they’re reading and how those books make them feel, directly with their teacher. That deep thinking helps make them comfortable with the very act of talking about books, which is of course crucial to literacy.

There are other benefits, too.

Equity: Any given class can be populated with a combination of ELLs, students with special needs, and students with different literacy skill levels. RCJs allow all students the opportunity to grow and develop academically, socially, and emotionally, at a pace that works for them.

Differentiated instruction: With digital conversation journals, teachers can read students’ work any time, but the data they get from the journal can inform more formal one-on-one conferences, resulting in conferences that are more focused and characterized by more deliberate teaching tactics.

Easy record keeping: Digital reading journals can function as a running record for each student in any classroom. Information from them can document how specific readers are progressing toward IEP or 504 learning objectives; be shared with parents who are curious about what their children are reading and how their writing is progressing; and be folded into responsive teaching practices.

Authentic reading and writing instruction: When literacy teachers feel limited in the classroom, often citing state and district testing mandates and curricular guides, student writing and reading assignments tend to follow suit, resulting in assembly-line assignments culminating in bland five-paragraph response essays. RCJs counter that by encouraging choice and creative commentary, which increases motivation. An RCJ can even operate as a yearlong reading response essay with multiple thesis statements, multiple texts, multiple genres, and hundreds of chances for precise, differentiated reading and writing instruction.

Getting Started

Teachers can ask students to write in the journal daily, every other day, or once a week. If the writing is happening in the Google Classroom, teachers can view live writing, quickly scroll through an entire classroom full of journals, and even watch volume increase and revisions happen in real time. (Be sure to have students write their newest entry at the top of the document so you don’t have to scroll to find it.) Hold virtual writers accountable by saying things like, “Kamal, I don’t see you in your journal” or “Alina, you have only written one sentence. Can you look over the questions I asked and see if you can elaborate a bit?”

Here are some things to remember as you start your digital reading conversation journals in your class.

Respond regularly: Regular writing is key, and so is regular teacher response. Don’t let too many days go by without responding to what students are writing. This is ultimately a conversation, so treat it like one.

Ask questions to promote thought and exploration: Questions allow students to think more deeply about what they are reading and promote more writing volume. Asking questions about how readers are feeling, what they are learning, and where they are headed is an important part of the RCJ process. Questions can be chosen depending on the skill level of the reader.

Share your own stories: Share stories about yourself in the digital exchanges you have with your students so that your human, personal side emerges and reveals itself. This builds deeper, more meaningful relationships and trust in any kind of classroom.

De-emphasize grading: The response writing should have the feel of a conversation—casual, continuous, intimate, organic. If students are thinking about earning a grade (or the criteria on a 10-point rubric), they are less apt to talk freely, and they are much less likely to say or realize anything interesting.

Allow the conversation to wander: Reading conversation journals give students space to talk to a caring adult about the things that excite them, the things that get them out of bed each day, and their passions, beliefs, and struggles. Let the conversation veer into the realm of movies, video games, sports stars, or fan fiction. Also, in these tangents, students might reveal information that could help you better differentiate instruction or understand their learning style and classroom goals. Moreover, tangents might be where students reveal details about their home life, language needs, physical disabilities, classroom seating preference, reading or writing limitations and history, and emerging beliefs and philosophies about culture and lifestyle choices.

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