Dialectical Journals and Reading
By Joan Whetzel
Dialectical journals, or reading response journals, create a way for readers to become more involved in what they read, whether it's books, poems, plays, or short stories; even newspapers and magazine articles. Dialectical journals are a double-entry style log. Readers record directly quoted or paraphrased passages from the reading material in one column and their responses (emotional, logical, analytical) to the material. These journals makes it easier for readers to become more involved with the story and the people in it. They create a link between the reader, and the story and its characters, and this link leads to greater retention of the material for the readers.
The purpose behind dialectical journals is not for readers to mimic what they think their teacher's or peers think. It's for each reader to take away his or her own meaning from the reading material. When readers have a dialogue with the reading material; the story speaks to them and they respond. Their responses could include anything from personal ideas and feelings to class lecture notes and ideas from class discussions. The idea is for readers to allow their personal lives to bring meaning to the reading as well as letting the reading bring meaning to their lives. There are no wrong answers here. As long as the readers understand the story and glean some meaning from it, they tend to retain the material longer and learn to enjoy the experience of reading.
Setting Up a Dialectical Journal
Dialectical journals begin with a composition notebook or spiral notebook. Binders with loose leaf paper don't work well because papers tend to get lost or removed, whereas bound notebooks keep all your notes together. Split each page into three columns by drawing 2 lines down the center with a pencil and ruler. Make the right and left columns wide and the center column narrow.
Label the center column "Chapter / Page" and record the location in the reading material where the quoted or paraphrased passages may be found. The center column can be omitted for newspaper magazines and internet articles that are not paginated (split into individual pages with page numbers).
Label the left-hand column "Quotes" or "Passages." Write portions of paragraphs from the reading material, quotes, class notes, or anything you find interesting about the reading material. You should include 1 to 2 passages for every 20 to 40 pages of reading. Ideally they should be passage that really intrigue you or make you think. The choice of passages is all yours.
Label the right-hand column "Note Taking", "note Making", or "Responses." Here you're going to write down why you think quote or passage is interesting. Responses to your chosen passages should be detailed. You might compare story events to actual historical events, ask questions, illustrate the meaning you gain with metaphors, or draw correlations between the story and real life. Or you might discuss the author's literary devices -- a figure of speech, narrative style, plot mechanism, the passage's tone -- and how they give specific meaning to the passage. You might even ponder the character's viewpoint.
Your Passage Choices
You may choose to quote a passage or record a quotation from one of the characters. Always use quotation marks, whether quoting a character's dialogue or simply quoting a passage. Quotation marks indicate that these are someone elses words, not your own. If you're paraphrasing or summarizing a particularly long passage, quotation marks are not generally required since you are writing down the passage in your own words.
The best passages are the ones that really make you think or that produce a strong emotional response. Be sure to include enough of the sentences surrounding your quote so that a person who may never have read the book could understand the context of the passage.
In your response to the passage, discuss what you did or didn't like, what seems confusing or odd, what the passage means to you, or personal connections or similarities with your own life. You might also make predictions about where the story is going or what might happen next, or ask questions for which you need answers, for which you need to read further to gain understanding, or for which you need to investigate further in other books, on the internet or by talking to others. Discuss the author's use of symbolism or any significant details that may point to motivation. Whatever ideas come to you go into this column, especially ideas that relate to this passage.
While keeping a dialectical journal, remember that the your responses and discussion of any passage may take up more than one page. So take this into account when setting up your journal. Every time you begin an entry for a new passage, allot several empty pages for the previous entry -- about 4 or 5 should suffice -- before beginning the new entry so that you can add to your responses to the previous passage entry. And remember, since these are your interpretations and your responses to the reading, there are no wrong answers. All the answers are right because they are yours.