Journal Writing as a Tool to Enhance Adult Literacy Processes Vinitha Joyappa


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Journal Writing as a Tool to Enhance Adult Literacy Processes

Vinitha Joyappa

Graduate student

College of Education

Northern Illinois University


511, Normal #305

DeKalb, IL 60115




(815) 753-9272 (Office)

(815) 756-8780 (Home)


The links between journal writing and the learning process have been well documented in the literature on adult literacy. This article is based on the author’s experience as a literacy tutor with an adult learner. The article explores the ongoing process of journal writing in relation to the complex dynamics of literacy acquisition for adults. The student’s progress is viewed in the larger framework of his life and learning history. The gradual expansion in length and breadth of the journals as well as increased self-confidence is documented. The article draws on previous research, includes a transcript of an interview with the student and several journal entries. It recommends that literacy tutors try introducing journal writing with their adult students.

Journal Writing as a Tool to Enhance Adult Literacy Processes

Within each of us is a story to be told, a story to be shared, if only with ourselves. It is a story as old as time and as new as you. By looking inward we

are better able to look outward and understand the world we have created for ourselves and the life we live within that world.”

-Joyce Chapman-

The journal was something I hadn’t done before. I don’t get excited about too much but . . . for me it’s interesting. Being adults, you have to want to learn, not like a kid. As you get older you have to want it or it won’t get done.”

- Bob, literacy program participant -

The History and the Challenge: A Reluctant Writer and a Tutor

As a volunteer with a local community college’s adult literacy program, I work one evening a week with a person we’ll refer to as Bob. Bob is a local resident in his fifties. He quit school in eighth grade decades ago and decided to sign up for the adult literacy program last year. He tested at the third grade reading level when he began this program in May 1999. Last summer we worked mainly with the textbook provided, with Bob reading a series of lessons, doing homework exercises from his book followed by review and more reading each week. We also started some writing activities based on the book.

Our beginning sessions demonstrated the challenges that writing presents for Bob. Clearly, he resisted writing. He was more comfortable completing written exercises at home. Our sessions fell into a pattern where we read, reviewed words and discussed material in class. He completed exercises at home. In an interview Bob mentioned that he had always been told he was no good as a student. A “math teacher sent me out of class, calling me dumb.” (Link to: Part 1). Bob never forgot these words. After he quit school in eighth grade, he barely read anything other than comics. He says he hardly ever wrote anything, figuring that “there was no sense writing if you couldn’t spell.” (Link to: Part 1). He invented some strategies to get by on jobs he held. He usually concealed the fact that he was “illiterate” from co-workers.

About seven months ago, I decided to innovate and introduce journal writing. I based this on my own positive experience with journals and knowledge of adult learning. Maintaining a critical logbook for a philosophy class was a remarkable experience for me. We responded to the class and texts and explored a variety of issues relevant to our life-worlds. I believe that adults often learn best within a real-life context. The richness of their own lives provides that context. Sophisticated readers/writers possess skills to comprehend most of what they encounter; underprepared readers/writers need extra tools (e.g., journals) to make better sense of learning.

My challenge was to enhance Bob’s reading/writing skills by introducing journal writing as a learning tool. My purpose was to use the journal as a creative outlet to expand his reading and writing skills. He picked themes and topics significant in his life. The idea was to write one journal entry a week. No other structure existed beyond these broad and loose guidelines.

The Research Base

Previous research advocates using journals while working with adults, regardless of skill level. Palmer, Alexander, and Olson-Dinges (1999) investigated journal writing as a medium to increase reading comprehension, writing performance, and self-esteem of an undereducated adult female who had learning disabilities. Bardine (1996) proposes using journals with adult literacy students. He claims that it is an effective tool to introduce adults to writing, while simultaneously dealing with reading, self-esteem, and confidence levels. He advises teachers to be bold and experiment with assignments, ask students for input, be patient with writers, and not assign grades. Also, Wedman and Martin (1986) explore the links between journal writing and student teachers’ reflective thinking, emphasizing the associations between writing, thinking, and reading.

Kerka (1996) speaks of the long history of journals and diaries as a means of self-expression. She writes that “several themes prevalent in adult learning – coming to voice, developing the capacity for critical reflection and making meaning – are reflected in the way journals can be used in adult education. Journals are useful learning tools in a variety of adult education settings. Dialogue journals for example have become popular in adult literacy and English as a second language classrooms” (p.1). Kerka cites research indicating that journals provide safe space to practice writing without

restrictions of form, audience, and evaluation. For adult basic education/ESL learners, journals are a non-threatening way to approach writing. Garland (1999) experimented with journals while working with single parents on welfare reading at around the fifth grade level. She worked with the assumption that each student possessed a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her aim was to use this knowledge base to get the adults more actively involved in their own learning. Garland recommends journal writing as a way to “shift students’ attention away from what’s wrong with them and to emphasize what’s right” (p.7).

A Journal a Week

Bob has been writing in a journal for the past seven months. The original plan was to write a journal entry a week. The journals are in addition to the regular homework from the textbook. Initially we discussed the types of topics Bob might consider. I suggested themes from daily life such as hobbies and interests, a pleasant memory, or any other experience. Bob used to ride motorcycles, and he enjoys cooking and traveling, themes he thought he could write about. The project got off to a slow start. The first journal about his favorite season was only a few sentences (Link to: My Best Season). Subsequent entries got progressively longer. Bob wrote about being stung by a bee (Link to: Untitled), a motorcycle event (Link to: The Toy Run), renting a farmhouse (Link to: The Bee House) and a trip he had taken with his family years ago (Link to: Branson). During this time I encouraged him to read material beyond our text. He started reading the travel section in a newspaper and also recipes and some sports news.

Bob’s writing is small and neat. I complimented him on his early work and told him that he was a good writer. I discovered in our recent interview that he did not fully believe that. He says, “after being told I was no good for so long, I didn’t know what to believe.” (Link to: Part 2). Bob has very rarely missed our sessions. He is punctual and usually completes homework. But the journals have been somewhat sporadic. We are far from the goal of weekly entries. On the positive side, his journals have expanded significantly in terms of length, word usage, and creativity (Link to: Branson; My Trip).

Experience with my freshmen developmental reading students taught me that seizing on grammar and spelling errors inhibits people from writing. Providing feedback on two levels is helpful for students. First we went over Bob’s journal, and I provided feedback on ideas and concepts. Next we looked at the mechanics and did some editing. Poor spellers are not necessarily bad writers. As he reveals in his interview, “I loved writing but saw no point in writing with my poor skills” (Link to: Part 1).
The Turning Point

Earlier this year Bob won a trip to the Bahamas in a sweepstakes contest. Before leaving he indicated that he would write about his trip, and he even bought a new book. This initiative was a big turning point. We did not discuss the journal much before he left. When he returned he had a few pages written. They were the longest entries he had ever written (Link to: My Trip). He says he didn’t stay with his plan to write something each day. He is still writing about the trip from memory.

A qualitative difference exists between his most recent entries and his first ones. He uses more words, writes longer sentences, and is bolder with ideas. For example, his first entry on his favorite season consists of five short sentences. The last entry is chronologically organized, with more complete sentences and exploration of ideas. He writes that they “did all our documentation and boarded the ship ready for six hour cruise” and about relaxing “in the breeze of the ocean” (Link to: My Trip). He says the confidence to sit down and write makes him feel like “a better person.” He finds journal writing “interesting” and believes there is a connection between writing and reading. (Link to: Part 3). He says that when he writes he can now visualize the words, something he could not do before. Reading gives him the ability to put more words down on paper.

Outcomes of Journal Writing

During the past several months Bob ran into three people he knows who do not read or write. He encouraged them to sign up for the literacy program, though he says they have not yet done so. On one occasion he mentioned that he learned more during the past year than in all his school years. He says he is using his reading skills on the job more than ever before. Recently he took the Slosson Oral Reading Test (SORT). He has jumped a grade level from last year and is now reading at fourth grade level. He was very encouraged by the results. He is proud of the fact that he did not drop out of the program. Assessing the impact of just the journals is not possible, but I am positive that they contributed to his improved skills. He reads more now and appears to be more confident. He is enthusiastic about the fact that he can write grocery lists by himself.

As a tutor I have gained immensely as well. Initially I was sometimes disappointed at our slow progress. I found it hard to fathom why Bob did not want to write much. Now I understand the anxieties underprepared learners grapple with. The recent interview with him helped put things in perspective. The journal has been a good learning experience. As a teacher I am thankful to celebrate small victories.

Implications for Literacy Tutors

Bernstein (1998) states that life writing, where students think and write about transformative experiences, can be a vital part of engaged learning, particularly in the basic writing classroom. She explains that sometimes instructors avoid assigning life writing; however, that shuts down room to facilitate potentially powerful writing experiences for students. In the future I intend to introduce life-writing activities with Bob. Writing a journal about self-selected books is another idea I hope to try. Bob has just chosen and started his first whole book for outside reading. Our next activity will be journal entries about this book and other reading material he chooses.

Literacy tutors might consider the possibility of introducing journal writing along with regular learning activities. Journals can be used beneficially in tandem with other learning experiences. Journals add a component to learning that is meaningful for adult learners. Writing journals links their lives to the literacy process. Revisiting and writing about relevant life events validates their experiences in their own eyes. Learners begin to view themselves as players with an active role in their learning. Literacy acquisition becomes a far more interesting and meaningful experience for adults when they are actively engaged in the process.


Bardine, B. A (1996, March/April). Using writing journals with adult literacy students: Some options. Adult Learning, 7, 13-15.

Bernstein, S. N. (1998, May). Life writing and basic writing. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 25 (2), 122- 125.

Chapman, J. Journaling for joy: Writing your way to personal growth and freedom.

Garland, R. (1999). What’s right rather than wrong. Focus on Basics, 3(D), 1-7.’sarticle.html

Kerka, S. (1996). Journal writing and adult learning. (ERIC Document 399 413).

Palmer, B.C., Alexander, M. M., & Olson-Dinges, C. M. (1999). Journal writing: an effective, heuristic method for literacy acquisition. Adult Basic Education, 9 (2),


Wedman, J.M., & Martin, M. W. (1986). Exploring the development of

reflective thinking through journal writing. Reading Improvement, 23, 68-71.

Transcript of interview with Bob

Part 1

“As a boy I worked on our family farm, learning by doing. I went to a country school that had eight classes in a one-room school house. I couldn’t catch on fast enough with books. My parents couldn’t help much. Education wasn’t so important to them, not as much as the farm. That farm was our livelihood. I repeated third grade. Fifth grade was in the town school; I repeated that grade as well. I was a slow learner. One teacher said to me, ‘I’m ashamed we have the same last name.’ I have never forgotten that. I started skipping school during the eighth grade. They called other parents but not mine. When my dad found out he asked me if I was staying or quitting school. I quit. I was interested in reading during the school year. I loved writing but saw no point in writing with my poor skills. I liked Geography, English and Math. The math teacher sent me out of class, calling me ‘dumb.’ Once I quit school I stopped reading, except maybe comics. I couldn’t read that well anyway. I never wrote anything. I figured that there’s no sense writing if you can’t spell words correctly.”

“Then the farm went under. I worked a series of outside jobs. The better jobs needed some reading. I worked on the railroad for thirteen years and was a foreman for five years. I tried not to let anyone know I was illiterate. I carried a dictionary but was often in a bind, unable to spell. If I knew partial spelling I guessed the rest and tried to look up the word. To write work reports, I kept a copy of all previous reports and took words out of those. I went through old files. These were my survival techniques. To fill out job applications, I wrote out information on the back of business cards and carried those with me. I had it down where I knew what they were asking for. You learn to invent ways. I worked in factories but didn’t like factory work. In the summers I looked for outdoor work. I left my foreman position in 1992.”

Part 2

I wanted to try writing for a long time but was too embarrassed. My wife and kids encouraged me to join the (adult literacy) program. It took a lot of courage to approach those people. Here in the class when you first asked me to write in the journal, I was scared. I hadn’t written much outside of a letter. Even when I was in the war in Vietnam, I never wrote home. Mom and I communicated through tapes. I would record what I wanted to say and mail it home. With homework and these journals, my wife helped some with spelling. No, I did not believe you when you told me I had nice handwriting and that I was a good writer. I didn’t know what to believe after being told all those years that I was no good. I remember that now I have written journals on a vacation we took years ago, my bee-house, the Indian motorcycle, and my trip to the Bahamas. The experience is a little different now. Before I would write a letter, correct it, and make a copy. Now I can start and use the same piece of paper to finish it.”

Just by doing the words in the books we’ve read, I can figure out more like brass has an ‘r’ in it and copper has ‘er.’ Now I have a teacher, a book, and homework. I have more confidence on the second book. I love fixing meals and like reading recipes and anything on motorcycles. I try to read magazines and articles in the Midweek on Wednesday nights.”

Part 3

The experience with the journals? Interesting, I like it. It makes me feel like a better person. I feel I have enough confidence to sit down and write, makes me feel good. I ran into three people over the last several months who can’t read. I encouraged them to sign up for this program but they haven’t yet. About the connection between reading and writing, when I’m writing something now I can see the word. I couldn’t before. Reading gives me the ability to put the word on the paper when I write. I still prefer reading to writing. No, I am not really motivated to read more as I write more, but writing helps me explore words. I don’t have to go and ask someone to write a grocery list for me now. It’s fun creating a grocery list and put it on paper.”

The journal was something I hadn’t done before. I don’t get too excited about too much, but like I said, for me it’s interesting. Being adults, you have to want to learn, not like a kid. As you get older you have to want it or it won’t get done. With reading and writing, it changes your vocab, you talk more intelligent. Vocab expands even in your speech I think. My buddy went through this program and he talks more intelligent now, than choosing and searching for words.”


My Best Season

Spring it is warm out. I can mow the lawn. And plant the graden. Ride my bike till dark. I like spring.


I was 9 years old. I was stung by a bee. In the back. I like the honey but I don’t like the stinging of the bees.

I want to buy the new car. I seen in the book at work. No one likes it but me. I think it is a good looking car. And I am going to buy it.

The Toy Run

In 1993 i went on my first toy run. The toy run is a motorcycle event. For toys and food for children. My first run 200 or 300 motorcycles show up. Then in 1997 i made my last run. In 1997 10,000 motorcycles show up. All the money is for make a wish foundation.

The Bee House

I was about seventeen and I rented a farm house. It was in the winter when I rented the house. The house was warm. And the winter was cold. Well spring came and it got warm. One morning I got up out of bed. I went downstairs for coffee. And the whole living room wall was covered with bees. Honey bees. So I called the landlord. He called a bee exsterminator to kill all the bees. I spent all day long cleaning up the bees in the house. The bee man said the whole wall was full of honey. The bee get in but not out. It was bad.


We lift home in the morning. We drove to Merenak Caverns. We stopped and walked through the caves. It was very dark. The kids loved it. But I did not. My wife did not like it at all. She is not a cave person. Then off to Branson. And stopped in Springfield. Had to get a new tire for the camper, Which blew out along the road. Then off to Branson again. We camped at a campground. Then in the morning we went to the Silver Dollar City. The wife and kids loved it. We walked all day from one spot to the other. We had lots of fun for three days. Then we had to go back home. We never forgot it. And hope to return someday. It was a trip. I loved it.

My Trip

Well Saturday the 4 of March. I order a new car a 2001 P.T cruiser. Then on Wednesday the 8 we left for Florida. At 3:00 pm we got in Florida. My wife’s mom and dad pick us up. We spent the night at her folks. At six the next morning we left to get on the ship Discovery from the dock in Fort Lauderdale. We did all our documentation and boarded the ship ready for six hour cruise. The first thing onboard we were sent to the dining room for a buffet breakfast. My wife pours a glass of water form a bottle sitting on our table only to find out later it was $2.75 a bottle, but the breakfast was good. After breakfast we did a little exploring of the ship and played bingo, had a drink and just relaxed in the breeze of the ocean. About two in the afternoon we reached Freeport, Bahamas. After debarking we got a cab only to find out it was the wrong one and spent the next hour getting to the hotel that should have taken fifteen minutes. Finally made it to our hotel, got checked in and set up the plans for the four day we would be there.

The first night we took a cab to jokers wild night club for a show of fire eating, nature dance, sword swolling, walking on glass, eating glass and other entertainment.

The second day we went on a tour bus to the gardens and shopping. Stayed at the hotel and rested that evening.

The third day was another day of shopping and somehow missed our bus to the glass bottom boat. Luckly a city bus stopped, we explained our problem and driver (took) us the beach we were to meet the boat. We got there right as the boat was about to leave. This was the best part of the trip. We saw lots of coral and some colorful fish.

The fourth day we were pressed for time. We went on a tour bus to the caves, then walked th...... some swamps, to the beach. We were only there a short time but really enjoyed it. This was the day we had to be at the dock to catch the ship back to Florida.


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