I used to use journal prompts as a quick and easy center, or in my morning work rotation. Over time, I started to only use prompts during the first couple weeks of the school year when we weren’t quite into our regular routines and I needed something students could easily do without having to spend too much time on procedures and expectations. Then, those journals would sit in the students’ desks for months at a time before I thought of and found a way to grab them back out again and have students work in them once more. It wasn’t an intentional change; I just struggled to fit journal prompts in with all of the other expectations and writing time focused on our curriculum and genre expectations.
I love teaching writing within our workshop model, and I believe students should have continued and regular practice writing different genres and writing through the writing process. But, I’ve also not been happy with my students’ writing performance, and have felt like I haven’t been the best writing teacher that I know I can be. So I’ve done some reflection and research over the last few months. The large majority of my writing as an adult is to respond to someone, to inquire about something, to write as a self-reflection, or to share my opinions (though often not-prompted). While teaching students to write within varying genres is important and needed, so is learning to respond to various prompts in various scenarios because that’s how writing will likely be most relevant to students’ lives. I had forgotten that, and let my focus on the standards and their dictated skills be the path for my writing time. While writing for various purposes certainly contains journal and prompt writing, my focus remained on the big three writing genres (expository, narrative, and persuasive). I’m bringing our journal time back into my classroom.
THE RESEARCH on WRITING PROMPTS
The What Works Clearinghouse published Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers (summarized on Reading Rockets here) and within that details what is needed in an effective writing system. While the main focus (because it has the strongest evidence for improving student achievement) is on writing through the writing process through varying genres and purposes, there is also support for prompt writing and intentional daily writing, especially digital publishing. Recommendation #3 is to teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing and word processing. By using digital journals, students will be applying their spelling and sentence construction skills in meaningful ways while building their skills with typing and word processing. Recommendation #4 is creating an engaged group of writers with a recommendation to give students choice in their writing. These recommendations support digital journals and I’m looking forward to using them in my classroom.
WHY DIGITAL JOURNALS
I’ve noticed over the years that my students don’t respond as well in written formats as they do orally. They also struggle immensely when I ask them to publish their writing, despite increasing use with technology. I try to have my students use computers regularly, and we’ve increased students’ publishing with technology, but it just isn’t enough time to teach them everything they need to know. My students are used to using phones and tablets and aren’t fluent with keyboards, and don’t yet know their way around word processing software and tools. They’ll have to publish their writing in a high-stakes testing environment, and the little typing practice and digital publishing experiences they’ve had previously just aren’t enough for them to build the knowledge and comfort they’ll need to succeed both on the test and in an increasingly digital, unknown world. The best way to change this is by giving them continued practice daily, in stress-free ways. Digital journals give students that practice, in a low-stress environment.
JOURNAL PROMPTS IN MY CLASSROOM
My students will have 5 prompts during the week and will choose 3 to respond to during Must Do/May Do time (after we’ve scaffolded through the process and expectations). I will set aside 20 minutes a week (to start- we’ll see if I’ll need more) to conference with students on their independent responses and answer any questions. My focus on this time with my students will be on a few key skills: learning typing through daily use, responding to a specific topic and sticking with it, expanding on ideas, and using word processing tools.
I will build my expectations, procedures, and routines during the first few days of school with my free Anytime set. We will begin by writing one completely together as a shared writing activity so students become familiar with the process of going to Google Classroom to access the link and become familiar with its setup. As we go on, I’ll continue to gradually release the responsibility to students beginning with writing while scaffolding tech skills through students navigating and responding independently. We will focus on writing in complete sentences using PQA and writing strong paragraph responses.
My students will complete their journals in Google Slides that I’ll assign through Google Classroom, but they’re also able to be used with Powerpoint. I tried to make it as easy as possible for people to customize it to meet their needs so I included two formats: monthly Google Slides files with each prompt included and ready with text boxes; and, images ready to be added to either Powerpoint or Google Slides. I find it easiest to add the images and text boxes and make the week’s Slides as we go on, but you might find it easier to modify the included month version. If you need assistance assigning these with Google Slides, my Video Introduction to Google Classroom may be helpful for you.
I’ve created digital writing prompts for the entire year! Each month includes 30 different prompts, allowing you to pick which prompts work best for you and your students. The bundle includes sets for September through May, and the bundle includes a bonus set that can be used within June or as extra prompts during the year. That gives you 340 different prompts for the year! Because there’s so many prompts, you can also use these as homework assignments (if students bring devices home). They’re also perfect for writing tasks during e-learning days. E-learning will be new to us this year so I’m excited to know that I can have an assignment ready to go that’s meaningful and that students already know the expectations well.
NON-DIGITAL JOURNALS and WRITING PROMPTS
In the past, I had done journals as morning work and centers. I would tell students their prompt, or write it on the board, and they would complete it in their spiral-bound journals. I would read them every few weeks and would try to leave a little response. It wasn’t fancy, and I didn’t love it. But, it got my students writing in new ways and practicing much needed skills in non-stressful settings. I’m disappointed I abandoned this so many years ago, but I’m happy to bring journal prompts and writing back into our days.
To find the prompts each day, I used these journal prompt calendars I made many years ago. There’s 30 prompts for each month, organized monthly, so if you’re not of today’s, you can just grab tomorrow’s. They’re pretty much the same prompts as the digital journals so either one will be your go-to for journal writing for the year! My Journal Prompts & Papers also features 40 different lined writing pages with thematic and year-long accents. These are perfect for publishing writing tasks by hand. Another idea is to set the prompts and papers, along with regular lined paper, in a writing center and you’re set for the year! Students would have tons of writing ideas to choose from, and would have different papers to choose from. Just click on the image below to take a closer look at this set.
Whether you choose to do journal writing prompts digitally, or in papers or notebooks, don’t forget about this much-needed low stress writing practice for students.
To read more about how I work with writing in my classroom, also check out my post on the RAFT Writing strategy. I use it to help build my students’ experience and exposure with different writing types and genres. I also use it as a strategy to help my students be successful with the writing expectations on their state test. Click the image below to head to that post to check it out.