Talking with the Author

Encourage your class to interact with complex texts through dialectical journal writing.

By Noel Woodward


Teacher writing with students

I was introducing the dialectical journal to my class when one of my students raised his hand and asked, “What is a dialectical journal exactly? I mean, what does dialectical even mean?” I opened my mouth, ready to respond, and nothing came out. I knew my purpose in using a dialectical journal in class, but when it came to actually defining what it was, I drew a blank.

After some poking around on the Internet and a few discussions with other teachers, I’ve come to think of the dialectical journal as a way to foster discussion with a text. Learners are using the text and their own writing to conduct an intellectual investigation in order to respond to an essential question. The journal is a method of discourse and a step toward extended written response to a text.

Journaling as an Interaction with the Author

A dialectical journal provides a powerful opportunity for readers to interact with the text directly. The typical dialectical journal I’ve seen used in English classes has at least two columns. The column on the left is meant for direct quotes from the text and the column on the right is reserved for commentary. While the two-column form is the most common, personalizing is definitely not out of the question. Consider adding a third column with a related question. Track a character’s experience with that column, or relate each quote to another text.

In order to complete the dialectical journal, readers must not only dig deeper into the text to find relevant quotes, but they also need to respond to those quotes with well-thought-out commentary. Options for commentary can be connected to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Ask your learners to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the text. Journaling provides an opportunity for readers to write back to the author, and a chance to prepare for activities and assignments planned for your unit.

Preparing Pupils for Involved Writing Tasks

Use the essential question for your unit as the focus for the dialectical journal. With the essential question as your focus, students look through the text to find quotes that are related to the essential question and comment not only on the quote itself, but also on larger questions related to essential themes. With a greater understanding of themes, learners can move on to other tasks.

In particular, a dialectical journal is a practical tool to assist your students with writing essays. Since they have already sifted through the text and written original commentary, they are halfway there when the time comes to respond to the text in a longer format. Use the same essential question as your essay topic and allow writers to reference their journal while writing.

Scaffolding Journal Entries

Often, instead of analyzing, synthesizing, predicting, or evaluating a quote, class members will summarize a quote. While summary can be useful, a greater depth of understanding and discourse can be gained from a dialectical journal. When first introducing a dialectical journal, it is best to scaffold the process.

  • Step 1: Model an entry. Choose a strong quote and demonstrate how to write commentary for that quote.
  • Step 2: Choose a relevant quote and ask partners to work together to write the commentary. Share out responses.
  • Step 3: Have small groups or pairs choose a quote and write commentary. Share out responses.
  • Step 4: Invite individuals to choose their own quote and write their own original commentary. Have them share their work with a partner and then share a few out to the class.

At this point, writers should feel ready to add entries on their own. Journal entries can now be assigned as homework, or as individual class work. When the journal is complete, learners will have a record of quotations and their own thoughts about an author’s work that they can reference for a variety of purposes.

Journaling Tips and Ideas: 

Types of Journal Writing

Broaden your journal knowledge with this resource. Learners examine different types of journal writing as well as the positive effects of written response. The lesson provides examples of dialectical journal prompts for other core subjects.

Dialectical Journal Printable

This worksheet offers a dialectical journal that could be used for a variety of different texts. While basic, this printable provides ample space for quotes and commentary and includes a focus question broad enough to cover many texts, yet complex enough to encourage original thought.

Literary Elements of Mystery

With a focus on mystery writing, this lesson employs the dialectical journal to help readers understand the structure of a mystery story and apply that understanding to their own writing. The lesson provides a dialectical journal with a particular focus on literary elements.