Double-entry journals: a flexible reading comprehension tool

Most of my students are required to read at least one unabridged book every year as part of the curriculum. These students are at least at a B1 level, but differences in language and comprehension skills within the same group of students are not uncommon. As a complement to small-group guided reading sessions or literature circles, I have found double-entry journals especially useful as a flexible tool that adapts to each student’s performance level in a very efficient way, working just as well with short stories or other types of text.

Double-entry journals are typically made up of two columns: students select a quote they find relevant from the text and write it down on the left column, and then they write their personal response to it on the right one. Students are given a number of options to guide their reactions and make them as varied as possible. For example:

  • Personal reaction (How do you feel?)
  • Personal connection (“This reminds me of…”)
  • Is there a good idea in it?
  • Any questions about one of the characters? Or the narrator? Perhaps the plot?
  • Make a prediction about what is going to happen later in the book.
  • Explain any previous reference to something that has already happened in the book. Does it clarify things?
  • Is there any word you have learnt in the passage that you particularly like? What about the style?

Double-Entry Journal

In all of these cases, students are encouraged to interact with the text at different levels, making reference to other passages in the text itself, or setting up connections between the text and the world or between the text and the students themselves. And perhaps most important for us here, students can complete the task successfully at their own language level. The following are examples of journals that students from the same group are currently working on as they read “King of Shadows” by Susan Cooper:

Flexibility is, therefore, what makes double-entry journals ideal for EFL students:

  1. Students are allowed to interact with the text in a way that is relevant to the reader.
  2. Several comprehension skills which are usually transferred from L1 can be demonstrated at various levels despite proficiency limitations. Even fairly complex ideas can be explained in a communicatively efficient way in fairly simple English.
  3. The fact that students can work at their own performance level encourages student motivation and a sense of accomplishment. It also promotes writing fluency.
  4. Apart from personalised feedback from the teacher, double-entry journals can be the starting point for reading circles and shared orally with other students.

I have also noticed that students writing a double-entry journal tend to be more careful with their reading, going back and forward more often or looking up certain words to clarify something that has particularly caught their attention. They also make use of context clues more often, which results in a reading experience that is far more precise and enriching. Finally, if you want to implement double-entry journals, I recommend starting with short texts first and modelling the process until students are familiar with the procedure.

Double-Entry Journal

“The Lost Thing”

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan is the story of a boy who finds a strange creature which no one seems to notice in a grey, alienated world. His quest to find the ideal place for the thing raises several questions about belonging and social awareness, with an ending that will bring about mixed feelings and a variety of different meanings.

Not only does the quirky story get the students working with the language while boosting their critical thinking skills, but it is also flexible enough to be used with different proficiency levels and at different levels of interpretation. I have been using it with B1/B1+ teenage students, and it has always effectively engaged them in ways that promote reflection and meaningful language learning.

Both the book and the 15-minute long Oscar award-winning animated film version have been used in the following lesson, although it can be easily adapted to be used with only one of them:

1. Show students the cover of the book and its title and ask: “Have you ever lost anything?”; “What was it?”; “How did you lose it?”; “Did you find it?” Ask them about the pictures on the cover and what they find special about them. Have them guess what the story might be about.

The_Lost_Thing_cover

2. Read the book aloud, stopping to show the pictures, ask questions, and clarify vocabulary as needed.

3. When the narrator and the lost thing are about to enter the place they are looking for, close the book and ask students what kind of place they think would be the best for the lost thing. Discuss and write down the main ideas.

Eventually we found what seemed to be the right place, in a dark little gap off some anonymous little street. The sort of place you’d never know existed unless you were actually looking for it.

I pressed a buzzer on the wall and this big door opened up.

4. Students are given several sentences from the book for them to put in the right order (see worksheet below.) Most are fairly clear, and a few could belong to different parts of the story. Tell them that they will be checking their answers as they watch the film version of the book.

5. Stop the film at the same point in the story (11:10), check the order of the sentences as a whole group, and remind students of the main ideas in the discussion held before. By now, they should be more than ready to watch the end of the story.

6. Discuss the ending and the students’ predictions:

  • What did the story make you think about?
  • Do you like the ending?
  • Is it a happy ending?
  • What does being “lost” mean?
  • What does belonging mean?
  • Why did no one seem to care about the lost thing?

7. Ask students to find things that are “lost” or “do not belong” in their houses or in the street. Students write a story from the point of view of the thing itself or using a third person narrator, describing how the thing made it to that place, its present, and its possible future.

The last time I taught this lesson I brought a lost, striped (and clean!) sock to model the process, but the lost things the students shared in class were far more interesting: a floppy disk, a seashell sitting in a garage, an old shoe buckle, a sticker from an old favourite band, or the pictures of a confusing street sign and a broken printer lying next to the wrong rubbish bin. The engaging, creative stories that the students wrote based on their “lost things” remain among the most memorable pieces of writing.

The Lost Thing.doc

Image credits: www.thelostthing.com and www.shauntan.net