Building Relationships and Understanding with Dialogue Journals: One Entry at a Time

by Brennan Cruser and Stacey Ross

Image of spiral notebook with letter from teacher to student opposite a letter from student to teacher.

Teachers of young children share conversations all day with their students. What if you could capture some of those conversations and provide a space for a one-on-one discussion with each of your students? Dialogue journals provide a space to connect teacher to student as students connect pencil to paper. The journals are ongoing, interactive writing housed in a shared notebook, folder, or spiral, that create a record of written conversations between student and teacher. Fitting naturally into reading and writing workshop, dialogue journals offer a chronological record of student growth over time. It is a physical tool as well as an artifact, granting the students and teacher the freedom to read and write through its pages.

Building Relationships

One of the most beneficial aspects of dialogue journals is the role they play in our relationships with our students. The individual communication back and forth provides an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation that is oftentimes impossible within the confines of the regular school day. As you can see in the example from Sadie’s journal above, we can share information about ourselves, inquire about the students, and make connections through our entries. Building relationships with students gives us insight into their passions, interests, worries, and concerns. When we know our students well, we can provide targeted lessons building upon their strengths.

Encouraging Elaboration

Dialogue journals also provide an opportunity to encourage elaboration. An authentic audience allows for questioning the writer to provide more information. The back and forth nature of dialogue journals helps young writers consider which details should be included to make things clear, interesting, and personal. Questioning provokes our students to elaborate more in their responses. In the picture, Sadie is asked, “What ‘out of the box’ monster behavior do you think is clever?” As a class, we had just analyzed many children’s picture books with monsters as main characters. The children penned the term “out of the box” to describe how the characters didn’t act the way they thought monsters should act. This question encouraged Sadie to recall the “out of the box” characteristics and think critically about what she thought was clever. These conversations about reading were a scaffold to Sadie as she began writing her own story about a monster.

Cross-Curricular Reflection

Using dialogue journals for cross-curricular reflections is a great way to formatively assess students’ understanding of content. In our letters to the students we can question and prompt students to respond in a way that shares their content knowledge.The ways children respond allows us to assess whether additional teaching is necessary to provide more understanding about content. Dialogue journaling is a way for children to naturally apply their thinking, which, in turn, inspires the future reading and writing mini-lessons for our language arts units of study, as well as science, social studies, and math.

Record of Writing Progress

Dialogue journals provide a record of writing progress over time. It can become a great conferring tool inside your classroom as your students are trying new ways to express themselves. Their approximations inside this tool provide insights into future individual lessons, small group strategy lessons, and potential whole class mini-lessons. For example, we use the “gems” from one student’s dialogue journal as a mentor text for other students to consider. In our mini lesson we will name what we see in the mentor text in order to push other students’ thinking. As we do this, we empower the writers in our classroom and motivate them to stretch themselves.

The dialogue journal entry showcased above allowed us to better understand Sadie’s experiences and probe for understanding, keep a record of progress, and make connections with her. Further, by sending the dialogue journals home with students periodically throughout the year, parents are afforded a glimpse into the classroom and their child’s learning. Sending dialogue journals home for summer will strengthen home-school connections, and summer journaling with parents gives an authentic purpose and audience for children to grow their writing and thinking. These countless benefits make dialogue journals a worthwhile element in any classroom reading and writing workshop.


Stacey Ross and Brennan Cruser have a combined total of 38 years of teaching experience in public elementary schools. They completed their graduate degrees together in Language and Literacy at the University of Texas. Stacey and Brennan co-teach a 2nd grade classroom in Austin, Texas. They also co-author a blog:
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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


One thought on “Building Relationships and Understanding with Dialogue Journals: One Entry at a Time

  1. My wife and I wrote a whole, full-color book about Dialogue Journals, called The Best Kept Teaching Secret” from Corwin (Daniels and Daniels). Labor of love after using the strategy with students K-12.

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