Education, Illustration, learning, Literacy, writing

The Limits of Primary Writing Journals

Two years ago this April, I wrote a post for The Educator Collaborative’s Community Blog that articulated my feelings about the need for educators to offer their student writers more “freedom” in their compositional work. It was called “Math, Literacy, and the Need for More Blank Paper,” and, upon rereading the post, I’m happy to report that I still stand by everything I wrote about the use (and misuse) of both time and tools within a large number of classroom writing communities.

This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it offers solid evidence that I’m not entirely insane or impulsive or irrational. (Not, at least, when it comes to my thoughts about writing.) But if we’re talking specifically about tools, I must be candid in admitting that the ubiquity of a certain type of writing tool–including micro-manage-y* graphic organizers and the ever-popular primary writing journal–continues to make my heart sink and my stomach to get all wonky. I understand the intent of these tools, and occasionally use them myself in my work with students. Tools like these, we all know, act as organizational “scaffolds” for students, freeing them up to focus more effectively on the content of their writing. While there is most certainly a place for many of these tools in classrooms, the fact remains that in over-relying on these kinds of tools–or in using them too frequently– we are essentially under-relying on students to make the intentional decisions about craft, content, and organization that is so central to the act of composition. In short (and to echo my Educator Collaborative post), we are robbing students of their compositional freedom.

This is particularly the case for our youngest writers, who too often are directed to write only–or even mostly–in their primary writing journals. (And why wouldn’t they be? They’re cute, they’re readily available, and they keep students’ writing neatly bound in one compact, easy-to-manage place.) In order to demonstrate how a tool such as this can severely limit the compositional decision-making that is essential to developing writers, however, I have created an interactive visual via Thinglink, which can be accessed here.

It looks like this but with these cool dot-thingies on it. (SOURCE:


In my upcoming book from Stenhouse (due to drop in late spring/early summer), I devote an entire chapter to “rethinking and revising” the tools we use to teach student writers, including pre-fabricated tools like those mentioned here. Until then, I would encourage those who are interested to visit my Thinglink about the primary writing journal, to peruse this brief but important post by Dana Murphy on the Two Writing Teachers blog called “Rethinking Graphic Organizers for Writing,” and–most importantly–to consider how the tools we use in our classrooms might help or hinder our students as writers.

As always, your feedback is welcome!


*Yes, I just made up that word.

4 thoughts on “The Limits of Primary Writing Journals”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly, Shawna! Over-relying on notebooks and graphic organizers for our youngest writers means we are “…under-relying on students to make the intentional decisions about craft”. Love that! And I can’t wait for your book to “drop”!


  2. youre in good company; the word dates back to at least 2010, and i have found no shortage of uses: “Also, I am almost positive that this game is not that micromanagey because in Neverwinter Nights 2, etc they at least follow…”

    you did invent it– but theres prior art 🙂


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