The Reader-Response Journal: A Dialectical Approach to Learning about Literature

Dec 04, 2020 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


Who is Gail Ledbetter? She is a recent U. S. Air Force wing mom, retired homeschool mother of four, and accidental author of Timeline of Classics: Historical Context for the Good and Great Books. After a friend loaned her a copy of Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, she knew that she had found the most important piece that had been missing from her homeschool. She went on to become an accredited IEW Online Instructor. Learning and teaching IEW’s writing methods gave her the clarity, skills, and confidence to coach her children through high school and college. These days, Gail focuses her attention on supporting families through the Timeline of Classics Podcast. In today’s blog post she reminisces about reading to her young children and describes how she began her own approach to dialectical journaling, which she calls reader-response journaling.


Forged There Forever
By Gail Ledbetter
Don’t you remember it like it was yesterday? The moment your overly tired, squiggly toddler finally melted into your lap to read a book? Board books, picture books, cloth books that are washable … any kind will do. If you could get them to sit still long enough to capture their attention, you’re well on your way to an overdue nap! Those are the days any parent longs for.
The most memorable times we spent together with each of our four kids usually centered around books. It was the most natural thing in the world. In 2019, we became a military family when our oldest daughter joined the U. S. Air Force. On her last night at home before leaving for Basic Military Training, we sat around telling funny stories, eating her favorite made-to-order recipes, playing board games, and crying a lot. But when her daddy brought out her favorite, worn out Little Golden Book and read it to us, the night was over. Time for bed, just the same as when she was a toddler. Not only had that Little Golden Book been etched in our hearts and minds when our kids were young, but now it was forged there forever. The first hundred times, with delightful giggles. This time, with heavy tears.

So, how do you go about etching a great work of literature into the hearts and minds of your students after they pass the toddler stage of life? For years my kids and I did it quite naturally, not realizing the huge impact this would have later. Emergent readers and writers love drawing and doodling with their new school supplies. Just as the oldest child had a pencil box, composition books, markers, and scissors, so younger siblings had what they needed to do school. So, at read-aloud time, we would settle in with a book, crayons or markers, and stuffed animals … just the right audience for story time!

My kids and I read countless books together and filled dozens of composition books when they were young. We simply read a chapter from a chapter book. I asked a few questions, recorded what they remembered about the chapter, and then they took over with crayons and markers. We did this for years.

It wasn’t until our oldest daughter was in high school that I made a discovery: The journaling we were doing was a real thing! Lesha Myers, beloved IEW author and high school English teacher, described something called dialectical journaling in her presentation on literary analysis ( I was speechless! Intuitively my kids and I had been doing a similar version of this type of journaling on our own. I had been modeling a system of thinking about literature without even realizing it!

When I began teaching literary analysis, my students and I developed a simple method for journaling about literature. We focused on vocabulary study, outlining each chapter and searching for “notable quotes and literary devices.” The process of annotating a book can be as simple or as complex as you make it, but you must insist on reading the unabridged paper version of the book … with pen in hand, of course! Attending to detail in this manner really slows down the brain, improves comprehension, and lays a solid foundation for Socratic discussion and essay writing.

I have seen variations of journaling used by classical schools, colleges and universities, as well as homes like mine. Literary greats, like Mortimer Adler, C. S. Lewis, and others, agree on the importance of annotating and journaling through a book. Learning to interact on a deeper level with an author and his text is a skill that is essential to meaningful reading. It should be our utmost goal to teach our students to read, analyze, think, and discern. Traditional worksheets cannot accomplish this.

I hope you’re inspired to go and mark up a book! Teach your students to do the same. You’ll never regret the time you spend preparing minds to discover the great power of literature. Journaling through literature is a fantastic way to accomplish just that.

If you visit Gail’s website, you will notice a couple of free downloads that will help you as you begin to discuss literature with your students. One is a reader-response journal completed for C.S. Lewis’ book The Magician’s Nephew. The second is a sample of her book, Timeline of Classics. Be sure to check out both of them.

Other helpful links include the following:

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