Creating Strong Writers One Day at a Time

By on February 1, 2016

As a teacher who cares deeply about helping students develop into strong writers, I have spent over a decade perfecting a daily writing routine I call the “J.” I have taken the practice of daily journal writing and added more structure and a few new expectations of my own. Many teachers across the nation have expressed interest in my writing routine, so I am using this eCoach post to talk about it. As always, I will present practical strategies to get you started immediately.  

Although I don’t feel compelled to make an argument for journal writing (after all, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t like journaling), I will say that the “J” and Peer Review has made the greatest impact on my students’ ability to write well. My “J” exposes students to a wide range of texts that I don’t have time to teach. It also gives them a place to explore their ideas and to take some risks with their writing. Lastly, daily journal writing creates opportunities for students to write creatively--something I know is important but is often overlooked due to what students are expected to do on high stakes exams.

Let’s get them writing!

Identify a Time to Write
Journaling can happen at the beginning or end of a period and can happen multiple times a week. I have my students write nearly everyday. I block out 8-20 minutes per day for the "J." Most of the time I only need 8 minutes, but some days require a mini-lesson or background information before writing. Other days, students want to write longer and fill multiple pages. You will have to see what works for you. 

Get Notebooks
Each student needs a 70-100 page spiral notebook. Buy them for your class (they cost about 15 cents a piece), or you can have parents buy them. I have done it both ways.

Set up a Table of Contents
I project this image while my students make their Table of Contents (TOC). I handout rulers and take this opportunity to teach a mini-lesson on how to use them. (Insert smiley, slightly shocked emoji).

I recommend reserving the first two pages in your students’ journals to the TOC. I do not have students write on the backside of the TOC, so they need at least 50-70 lines for their titles. I have them use lower case Roman numerals (i, ii, and iii) to number the TOC.

Page numbers, titles, writing types, and dates are very important to this yearlong project. I want students to learn the features and language of different writing types, and I want them to easily find and reread entries they have written throughout the year.

The Go Public column is for sharing journal entries. I ask students to read one entry to the whole class each grading period. Students draw stars or use checkmarks in this column to mark entries they would like to share with the class. My school has trimesters, so my students share three times a year. When I first started the "J," I asked a few students to share every day, but the process took too long and I found the same students would share.

My problem: I wanted to hear from all of my students not just a few. I think it is good for students to publish their writing. My solution: I asked my classes for help. They came up with the idea of having everyone share once a trimester. The key is student choice. Students select what they want to share from the list of texts they have written. They are expected to stand and face the class and read one entry. I have done this for three years now and the students seem to really like it. The process is fair and by the time I ask students to read from their journals, they have at least 20 entries from which they can choose.

The last column is the Eval (or evaluation) column. This column is for me. After I assess their journals, I write their scores in this column. You can find my assessment tips toward the end this post.

This is an 8th grade TOC student sample.

What do they write?

My students write about everything. We write poems, opinion pieces, odes, responses to current events, reflections, biographies, etc. Recently, I have been asking students to incorporate images with their writing. This isn’t an everyday expectation, but I like assigning journal topics that require the blending of images and text.

Here are a dozen or so topics to get you started. I have added some of my favorite journal topics to this presentation. Feel free to use this Google Slide presentation or copy and paste them into your own presentations. 

Assessment Tips (Make it easy to grade)

  • Make the journal 100 pts.
  • Deduct 5 points each time students do not meet the following expectations:
    • maintain a complete, well-organized TOC
    • write neatly all the time
    • use pen throughout the journal (no pencil)
    • title every entry
    • number every completed page
    • match TOC page numbers to journal entry page numbers
    • meet the page length requirement for every entry

For major mistakes, consider doubling or tripling the deduction. For example, if a student has completed only half of his or her TOC, I might take off 15-20 pts. Another example is a student who rarely writes to the page length requirement. I would take 15-20 pts. off for not meeting the page length requirement. 

It should only take 20-30 seconds to grade one journal. Sounds great doesn’t it!

Make up work is easy, too. If a student misses a "J," they do not have to make it up unless they want to. Although this doesn't seem like a good idea, many students do not take advantage of the "if you miss you skip" policy and those that do miss typically make up the writing because they like it.

Please add your comments below and send this to all of your teachers friends who teach writing. The "J" is an amazing tool to teach writing and it is easy to do. Like us on Facebook and follow my Instagram #dailyliteracytips. 

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Literacy Standards In Action

We've mapped our literacy lessons and reading, speaking, and writing skills to state standards, Common Core, and NGSS. The standards are "the what" to teach. Our lessons are "the how" to meet the expectations defined by the standards. Click on the links below to view our quick reference table that maps standards to literacy lessons.

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
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