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September 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 1

Building the Habit of Writing

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Every year in the first week of my English class, some students inform me that writing is too hard. They never write, unless an assignment requires it. They find the writing process painful and difficult.
How awful to be able to speak in a language but not to write in it—especially English, with its rich and enormous vocabulary. Being able to speak but not write is like living in a mansion and never leaving one small room. When I meet students who think they can't write, I know I have a mission to show them the rest of the rooms. My task is to build fluency while providing the opportunity inherent in any writing activity to boost the moral and emotional development of my students. One great way to do this is by having students write in a journal in class every day.
Writing ability is like strength training. Writing needs to be done daily, just like exercise; just as muscles grow stronger with exercise, writing skills improve quickly with writing practice. I often see a rise in student confidence and performance after only a few weeks of journal writing.

The Habit of Reflection

Expressing oneself in writing is one of the most important skills I teach to strengthen the whole student. When my students practice journal writing, they are practicing for their future academic, political, and emotional lives. They build skills so that some day they might write a great novel, a piece of sorely needed legislation, or the perfect love letter. Every day that they write in their journals puts them a step closer to fluency, eloquence, and command of language.
Journal writing connects students with their emotional selves and core values. Through writing, students become aware of the relevance of their belief systems. Through writing, they begin a healthy habit of reflecting on moral values as they consider problems and issues that come up in their studies and in their daily lives. I have found that students want to discuss topics that touch on important moral questions.
Framing discussions about literature, social studies, and science in personal and moral terms opens up exciting opportunities for student growth. Well-phrased prompts help students use writing for personal reflection (see “Suggested Prompts,” p. 76).

Benefits of Journal Writing

I have enjoyed journal writing since I was a young child. Journals have been my place to work out problems, reflect on gratitude, and explore my own ideas and feelings. When I began teaching, it seemed natural to incorporate journals into my curriculum. Journal writing has been an even greater boon to the success of the whole student than I'd hoped. Clinical evidence shows that daily writing practice helps students succeed in all areas of school writing. Studies also show that students gain psychological benefits from such daily positive journaling tasks as gratitude lists and reflections on pleasant memories.And the sense of community that journal sharing time builds is priceless; it creates bonds and helps students understand one another in a way no other activity does.
  • Journals provide an opportunity for reflection. Students can get bogged down in their busy lives. Journal time is a rare moment of retreat to reflect on the moral aspects of an issue, or to relate what they're learning to their emotional and social lives.
  • Journal writing improves essays. Students gain fluency by writing daily. The quality of their academic writing improves because the muscles of original thought and the fluency of ideas have been exercised through daily writing practice—just as when the time comes to run a 10-kilometer race, an athlete is glad he spent time in the gym lifting weights.
  • Journals can reveal trouble. Through reading journals, I have found out about serious student problems. I am bound by law to act when I suspect abuse or danger. Journals help me know how to reach out to students.
  • Journals help students and teachers bond. Through reading their journals, I've learned which students like poetry, which like to tell parakeet jokes, which secretly think they're too skinny. Insight into students' lives helps me relate to all of my students in a more personal, helpful way.
  • Daily journal writing is an excellent way to begin class. In my classroom, students must be seated and writing in their journals by the time the bell rings. Students come in to my classroom, look at the board for the topic, and sit down to write for 5–10 minutes. This routine allows me to introduce students to the thought processes that I want to explore with them during the day's lessons—and I don't have to say a word.

Seven Ground Rules

  • Date every entry. This helps students and teacher keep track of assigned topics. I also tell students that when they are as old as I am, they will be interested in knowing the dates of their middle school journal entries. Students like the idea of keeping a kind of time capsule.
  • Don't waste paper. Students must write on the backs of pages, fill up all pages, and skip just one line between entries. This saves me time when reading journals because I have fewer pages to flip through—and it also saves resources.
  • Write in pen—any color, as long as it's legible. This inspires a bit of fun, because students aren't allowed to write in colored ink for any other assignment.
  • Write without ceasing. Spelling doesn't matter; no stopping to cross words out. It is amazing what will appear on the page when a student writes without stopping to edit. Students often derive the most original insights for a paragraph or creative writing assignment from a journal activity.
  • Journal notebooks are only for journal entries. No other schoolwork may go into them.
  • Journals are private. Students don't have to read aloud or share from their journals unless they want to. I keep this rule out of respect for my students, but they almost always do want to share. When we read aloud from journals, I always have to quit long before students are ready.
  • Then again, journals are not private. I tell students that if I read in their journals that they are hurting themselves or someone else, or that someone is hurting them, I will inform the school counselor and other appropriate authorities. However, I encourage them to write about any kind of serious trouble they're involved in.
  • Journals are graded. It's important that the students write in journals for an audience, and to earn points toward a grade. I cope with the task of reading journals by only reading for content, not correcting spelling or grammar, and just writing a few brief responses to each student.

A Way Out for Tyler

An experience with a 7th grader named Tylershowed me how powerful daily writing practice can be in a student's life. Tyler's self-esteem was among the lowest I've ever encountered in a student. He earned low grades in all of his classes and referred to himself as “stupid.” He was angry and combative with classmates, and they pegged him as a loser.
Tyler read on grade level, but he complained bitterly about writing assignments. When I tried working with him one-on-one, he was reluctant and belligerent. I was at a loss as to how to help him succeed.
Then I checked Tyler's journal in the middle of the semester. I had been assigning “show not tell” writing prompts to encourage students to use sense imagery to describe common experiences. In the less formal arena of journals, Tyler let himself loose on language. His were easily the most descriptive journal entries in the class for these assignments.
I taught a poetry-writing lesson using students' journal entries. Students circled their favorite phrases and words in their entries, then arranged those lines to form free verse poetry. To my surprise, Tyler agreed to read his work aloud. His poem about a camping trip with his dad earned a round of healthy applause from his classmates. It was good, heartfelt work and everyone knew it. Tyler smiled quietly, and sat a bit straighter in his chair that day.
Students produced 10 poems apiece and compiled them into handmade books along with artwork and photographs. In a school contest, Tyler's poetry book won first place. With his permission, I sent his poetry book to the District Writers Fair. It won third place in its division. The award was a personal triumph for Tyler as well as an honor for the school.
Tyler's self-perception seemed to change with each writing victory. His performance improved in other assignments. He became more willing to try new things and experienced increased social success with his peers. Witnessing Tyler's growth over the course of 7th grade was a joy and a gift to me as a teacher.
Journals have helped many of my students, reluctant and enthusiastic alike, unlock their potential as writers. When students open their journals to read my comments, I encourage them to flip through the pages. “Look how much you have written,” I say. “Now you are truly writers.” Nobody argues with me, not even the ones who let me know on the first day of school that they couldn't write.

Aims of Education - Building the Habit of Writing

Aims of Education

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.


Suggested Prompts

Suggested Prompts

  • Write about a time you helped someone. How can you help others today?

  • Reflect on the life of Abraham Lincoln (or another hero). What can you do to be more like him or her?

  • Write a list of things, people, and places for which you are grateful.

  • Write about a time you needed forgiveness.

  • Write about a time when someone was a good friend to you.


End Notes

1 Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377–389.

2 This name is a pseudonym.

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