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Malaysian Online Journal of Instructional Technology (MOJIT) December 2004 ISSN: 1823-1144

Vol. 1, No. 2, pp 14-23

The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills
Rafiza A Razak & Adelina Asmawi Department of Language and Literacy Education Faculty of Education, University Malaya Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia adelina@um.edu.my Abstract This article is a literature review intended to show the benefits of the use of dialogue journal through e-mail technology to improve students writing skills in the English Language and how its application can enhance the teaching and learning of the English Language in the Malaysian secondary schools. In addition, this paper also discusses the potential of e-mail, and how it can be an attractive teaching and learning medium that can help generate interest among the students and help improve their learning. Reviewing the literature, not many studies have been conducted to ascertain the potential of the use of dialogue journal through e-mail, particularly in the Malaysian context of educational language research. There are many research opportunities for us to explore to understand the benefits of such technology in enhancing the students interest, the level of studentteacher interaction and standard of writing in Malaysia. INTRODUCTION Writing is an important component of the Integrated Secondary School Curriculum (KBSM) English syllabus. The Malaysian Minister of Education states that at the end of the Secondary School English Language programme, students are expected to be able to write and understand written English in the school and in real life situations outside the school (MOE, 1991). Thus, in order to develop acquisition of the target language, the skill of writing needs to be emphasised. Due to the current shift in educational paradigm, materials for teaching writing skills vary from the conventional textbook to computer technology. The emergence of the Internet as a medium for teaching and learning is an important revolution in education. Educators are greatly inspired to apply the new technique in the teaching and learning of the English Language. An example is the use of Internet in teaching and learning English in Japan. According to Trokeloshvili & Jost (1997), the use of Internet for this reason is gaining popularity in universities across Japan. The introduction of the Internet, has brought many changes in instructors approach to English language teaching, with the most significant changes occurring in writing instruction. At the beginning of the 1990s, many writing instructors moved their classes from the traditional classroom to the computer room. Leu (1997) suggests that students need to be exposed to the new composing, comprehension and response abilities resulting from new combinations of media sources on the Internet. With the technology, students nowadays are able to experience written communication interactively with teachers and friends via e-mail. Research done by Staton et al., (1988) on dialogue journals shows the potential value of teachers e-mail correspondence with their students. It provides the opportunities for teacher and students to get to know each other in new ways, to develop greater rapport and mutual understanding and to expand and deepen the communication they have.

MOJIT

The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

El-Hindi (1998) discusses the constructivist opinion, which advocates the significant role of e-mail. In his discussion, students are given the opportunities to interact with others as they construct knowledge about the world and about themselves. This notion is supported by Vygotskys (1978) ideas about the significance of social dialogue. He supports the dynamic social process of learning where the teacher in dialogue with a student can focus on emerging skills and abilities. In e-mailing, the teacher and students become partners in acts of cognition as they engage in meaning-making via communication. This process is a dialogic one and it benefits both teachers and students as they learn from each other in the social process. LEARNING MODEL Vygotsky (1978) came up with the Zone of Proximal Development which supports the notion of dialogue journals. This zone is defined as the distance between the actual development levels as determined by independent problem solving and potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. The Four-Stage Model of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) by Vygotsky (1978) is described in Figure 1.
Recursive loop Capacity Begins Zone of Proximal Development Capacity developed

Assistant provided by more capable others Parents Teacher Experts Peers Coaches Time Stage 1

Assistance Internalization, provided by the automatization, self fossilisation

De-automatisation: recursiveness through prior stages

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Figure 1: Four-Stage Model of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978)

Within the neo-Vygotskian framework, learning and problem solving are context-bound processes and this implies that the level of understanding or success of problem solving that an individual achieves in specific settings is reckoned to be partially a function of those settings as dynamic contexts for cognitive activity (Mercer, 1994). The neo-Vygotskian framework incorporates elements of post-Vygotskian research concerning language use as well as teaching and learning in social context. One of the important concepts is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The concept of ZPD postulates that learning achievements are, at least in part, situational determined. Thus the actual and potential levels of achievement of an individuals cognitive potential and learning strategies are reflective of the strength of the cultural framework which supports it. It is therefore pertinent for us to focus on the processes of learning and instruction as well as look at the relationship between teachers and learners (Mercer, 1994) if we want to improve our practice. The significance of ZPD means that tasks assigned should be built upon the knowledge and skills students already possess. Ideally, the tasks should be pitched at the i + I (a level higher)
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The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

of their potential language development (Krashen, 1985) to ensure they are difficult enough for new learning to take place. CONSTRUCTIVIST THEORY Constructivist theory of learning emphasises the creation of a conducive learning environment. It encourages the learner to construct his own perception of reality based on his or her experiences and beliefs as well as through negotiation with others. Constructivism focuses more on context and the learning process. Constructivists believe that there is a real world that learners experience and meaning is imposed on the world by the learners, rather than existing in the world independently of them. They also believe that there are many ways to structure the world and there are many meanings or perspectives for any event or concept (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). One context that provides students an authentic way to communicate is with e-mail technology. ElHindi (1998) discusses the constructivist view that supports the significant role that e-mail can play in providing students with opportunities to interact with others as they construct knowledge about the world and about themselves. Driscoll (1994) supports the notion and explains that computer offers an effective means for implementing constructivist strategies that would be difficult to accomplish in other media. According to Jonassen (1994), meaningful construction of knowledge has to be facilitated by a learning environment that provides ample avenues to interact with real-life situations through contextualised tasks that simulate real world contexts. Hence, the assigned task should focus on creating content related construction of knowledge rather than mere reproduction of knowledge. Driscoll (1994) has compiled five constructivist conditions for learning. The first one relates to providing complex learning environments that incorporate authentic learning. The second one is providing for social negotiation as an integral part of learning. The third condition involves reviewing content in a variety of ways and at different times to ensure learner understanding. Being aware of ones own thinking and learning processes is the fourth condition. The last one emphasises student-centred instruction. The second and fifth conditions are relevant to this paper. The second condition stresses on the opportunities for social negotiation as an integral part of learning. Bruner (1996) explains that learning is a communal activity or sharing of culture. In other words, collaboration between learner and teacher provides a way for learners to share their understanding with others and to have others do the same with them. This provides multiple perspectives to learners and a social negotiation process between learner and teacher which may result in better teaching and learning. The fifth condition is to emphasise student-centered instruction. Hannafin (1992) describes this as having the student as the principal arbiter in making judgment as to what, when and how they will study or gain understanding. Central to this concept is student ownership in the learning process how students take charge of their own learning. Additionally, the constructivist viewpoint strongly suggests the value of social interaction that is fostered by e-mail. El-Hindi (1998) provides an excellent discussion on how Internet connections are compatible with constructivism. E-mail partnership gives the students opportunities to build reality as they come to know themselves and the world of others. E-mail is one of the many technologies that promote computer-mediated communication (CMC).

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The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

COMPUTER-MEDIATED COMMUNICATION (CMC) CMC covers a wide scope of functions ranging from computer conferencing, bulletin boards, electronic mail and others. However, the focus of this topic is on e-mail features that enable communication in written form. E-mail is asynchronous, allowing interaction at different times. The rationale for using computer-mediated communication is indicated by Warschauer (1995) in his study on motivational aspects of using computers for writing and communication. He claims that electronic communication facilitates communication, gives students a sense of achievement, empowers students and enhances learning. Other specific benefits of CMC are: CMC Facilitates Communication CMC provides better opportunities to explore, discover and appreciate interaction. Through this technology students and potential learners can be encouraged and motivated to share their experiences and learn from others in a very unthreatened manner. The availability of such technology fosters autonomy, equality and learning skills among ESL learners. Since the action of writing is a common requirement and tasks in learning, Berge & Collins (1995) believe that opportunities afforded by CMC can increase the awareness of its capabilities to practice and enhance ones writing skills. Realising that they cannot assume the readers know matters specific to their culture or, for that matter, what is on their minds, students will have to clarify and explain better. This encourages them to develop and revise their opinions or ideas and express themselves in a lucid and appealing way. Thus, instead of writing to the teacher merely for assessment purposes, writing now takes on its actual function, to communicate. Ortega (1997) adds that computer-assisted discussions motivate students to explore and broaden their linguistic resources to meet the requirements of actual communication in a social context. As they attempt to negotiate meaning, their discussions will inadvertently involve expressing their opinions, clarifying and requesting for confirmation. Consequently, the amount of writing will increase as the students weigh other opinions and consider whether to incorporate these ideas with theirs. Such intensive discussions are bound to motivate students to discover self-expression while assessing the substantial amount of input. Frequency in writing and virtual community feedback will encourage them to experiment with language and more complex forms of writing. Kelm (1992) further observes that computer-assisted discussion relieves students from the stress of contributing immediately to discussion. Hence, the students can determine when to respond as they prepare to do so. They can take their time to read comments, revise and edit, type responses and send their replies only when they are satisfied with their writing. CMC Empowers Students As the students desire to communicate, the responsibility to learn is more naturally placed on the learner. This will encourage them to take the initiative in determining their learning paths. As they take hold of the direction for discourse, they gain a sense of personal power. They believe that computers can help them to overcome their sense of helplessness as they can rely on their virtual correspondence. The feeling of isolation often associated with individual writing is thus assuaged, as help is accessible anytime, anywhere. Once bonds are formed, the students find more courage to speak up. Furthermore, teacher talk inevitably transforms the teachers role from the sole information provider and channel of knowledge to a facilitator and guide. Hence, the transformation of roles, facility in communicating and student empowerment will create a better learning environment where students are more creative and independent. This conducive environment opens diverse avenues for practicing English.
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CMC Enhances Learning CMC also addresses a major problem in our schools. Students only write when asked to in classes and examinations. They are not interested or motivated to write outside such requirements or routines. With CMC, particularly e-mail, it can be more inviting for students to write. Writing will then become a purposeful learning experience. They will be involved more in active and interactive learning, dealing with issues and people from the actual world. CMC can be used to transform students perspective on knowledge acquisition as a functional and relevant quest that will enrich and help them in the future. Intrinsically motivated, students are more likely to remember information from past and present learning experiences and relate them for future use. As such, the quest for knowledge is redeemed from the domain of merely passing or scoring in examinations which defeat the purpose of actual learning. This supports the attainment of knowledge through thoughtful learning as proposed by American psychologist William James, in Perkins (1992). He claims that The art of remembering is the art of thinking.When we wish to fix a new thing in either our mind or a pupils, our conscious effort should not be so much to impress and retain it as to connect it with something else already there. The connection is the thinking; and if we attend clearly to the connection, the connected thing will certainly be likely to remain with recall (p.10) Since electronic communication has the potential to increase the amount of interaction that encourages brainstorming, reflecting and revising of ideas, Warschauer (1997) suggests that electronic communication can even function as a precursor to oral discussions or as a prewriting activity easing oral interaction into writing output. Benefit of Using E-mail in ESL Learning A number of researches have noted several benefits of using e-mail in language classrooms. Warschauer (cited in Lee, 1998) presents three benefits of e-mail. He states that e-mail can promote real and natural communication. Through e-mail, students are able to communicate with native speakers or other English learners worldwide. This provides authentic context for communication. Besides that, e-mail also facilitates independent learning which is essential in second language (L2) writing. Furthermore, e-mail stimulates students interest in communicating as they feel they have an authentic audience who will respond to their writing. In short, e-mail promotes opportunities for communication, collaboration and information. Belisle (1996) mentions that e-mail enables a teacher to interact with a student or group of students on any given assignments without having to meet one another. Through electronic mail the feedback and responses between teacher and student is not limited to the classroom. He adds that students sometimes find it difficult to meet the teacher for consultation because of shyness or lack of time. Therefore, the teacher can give out his or her e-mail address for them to write in with any questions or comments. This way, the students can express their thoughts and communicate with their teachers more easily. Gonzales-Bueno (1998) conducted a study on e-mail dialogue journal on her Spanish students. Her findings reveal that e-mail dialogue journal serves as a tool for students to practice English Language and communicate without the fear of making mistakes. This is because mistakes are tolerated and the emphasis is more on content and development of ideas. She reports that the students journal entries show an improvement in the quality of the target language produced compared to the ones done with paper and pencil. The students also enjoyed the activity as they received positive
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The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

feedback entries sent, and showed confidence in presenting ideas as their entries were not graded or judged. Research on E-mail in the Teaching of ESL Writing Goodwin et al., (1993) conducted a study on the usage of e-mail to enhance writing ability. Their study aimed at highlighting e-mail as a means of providing instruction to learners preparing for intensive English study in the United States. The project was conducted between English Programmes of the Latin American Scholarships Programme of American Universities (LASPAU, now known as the Academic and Professional Programme for the Americas). E-mail was used for delivering English Language instruction to LASPAU scholars prior to their arrival in the United States. Results showed the parties involved recognised the potential benefits of e-mail in providing a head start for the language students. Another research on e-mail use in the virtual ESL and EFL classroom was done by Nagel (1999). His research was to show the effectiveness of using e-mail compared to academic writing by investigating how e-mail functions as an instructional tool. From the results, he concluded that email exchange strongly motivates participation in classroom activities. In another study, Rob (1996) conducted research on e-mail key pals with his students in Kyoto Sangyo University and he reported that having electronic pen pals is a highly motivating way to promote in reading and writing practice. He mentioned that an e-mail key pal provides students with opportunity to really use the language outside the classroom context. The activity also enhanced students writing ability as they experiment and practice using the language. Liao (2002) generates similar findings when she conducted an e-mail key pals project with her students in Sophomore EFL Writing at National Chung Hing University (NCHU). Her findings indicate that e-mailing improves EFL learners writing abilities as it provides practice in reading and writing using the target language to express ideas and opinions to real audience. Dialogue Journals Dialogue journals are written conversations in which a learner and teacher or other writing partner communicate daily, weekly or on a schedule that fits the educational setting over a semester, school year or course. Many teachers have found that the activity is interactive and plays an important part in their classes (McKeon, 1999). Learners write as much as they choose on a wide range of topics and in a variety of genres and styles. The teacher writes back regularly, responding to questions and comments, introducing new topics or asking questions. The teacher is an ongoing participant of a written conversation with the learner rather than an evaluator who corrects or comments on the quality of the learners writing. Topics and types of writing may be specified and some corrections may be given by the teacher. Nevertheless, the primary goal of the writing is communication. Dialogue journals not only open new channels of communication, but they also provide natural contexts for language and literacy development. When learners write with their teachers, they have opportunities to use English in a supportive, non-threatening interaction with a proficient English speaker. Since the interaction is in written form, it allows learners to write in purposeful ways and provides a natural, comfortable bridge to other kinds of writing. Spack & Sadow (1983) advocate that dialogue journal writing as an effective teaching technique worth trying out in the ESL
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The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

classroom, for it would also provide opportunities for students to engage in real communication with an authentic audience. Furthermore, Bacon (1995) suggests that dialogue journals be used in classrooms as students would have the opportunity to use a variety of linguistic functions including complaining, questioning, promising and instructing in contrast to the conventional writing assignments. In traditional essay writing, students merely use a restricted number of forms, usually narrative, descriptive and persuasive. Teachers control essay content and development by assigning topics and then making corrections and comments based on the form of the writing. However, dialogue journal writing contributes some new insights into the writing classroom where students are free to react either positively or negatively to any topic of their interests. The content may be totally open, or loosely focused, with the objective of helping students direct their ideas in a coherent manner. Hence, dialogue journal can help student-writers to organise their thoughts as well as discover their true writing power and abilities. Dialogue Journal via E-mail McKeon (1999) suggested that dialogue journal via e-mail provides students the chance to think critically about themselves by reflecting on their interest, activities and issues of importance to them and writing about them to an authentic other. This promotes the development of critical and creative thinking skills. The students are able to apply skills such as generating ideas, making generalization, drawing inferences or conclusions, arranging and sequencing. One of the objectives of the Integrated Curriculum for Primary/Secondary Schools (KBSR/KBSM) is to develop the students ability to think critically and creatively as well as to make decisions and solve problems. The skills help them to better understand the language. Dialogue journal via e-mail gives students a chance to make public their individuality. The students are initially unfamiliar with their partner and want to share knowledge about them in order to establish relationship with the person. El-Hindi (1988) further describes how in the process, classroom walls dissolve as literacy is used to establish relationship. From another perspective, children learn how to conceptualise their experiences and understand their worlds through interactions with adults (Halliday, 1973). Classroom teachers may consider using e-mail to exchange dialogue with their own students in order to foster personal self-knowledge and provide individual attention. Peyton (2000) strongly suggests that dialogue journals demonstrate a special role relationship between teacher and student contributing to a sharing of knowledge possibly unparalleled in other classroom interactions. Studies on Dialogue Journal Writing via E-mail Several research studies have been done on the usage of e-mail dialogue journal writing as a tool to teach writing in ESL and EFL classrooms. Nevertheless, there are few documented studies that focus on dialogue journal writing as such possibility or technique is quite new to language instructors and researchers. This is especially so in Malaysia as there seems to be very limited experimental studies on the usage of e-mail dialogue journal writing as a tool conducted among secondary school students and undergraduates. One study on dialogue journal writing via e-mail was conducted by Wang (1998). The study is on the effectiveness of electronic mail as a tool for dialogue journal writing. The subjects for the study were six respondents, randomly chosen English as Second Language (ESL) students in their intermediate-level reading and writing class in the American English Institute. The six students
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The Use of Dialogue Journal Through E-Mail Technology in Developing Writing Interest and Skills

chosen were asked to write dialogue journal to the instructor using e-mail for nine weeks while the rest of the students in the class wrote dialogue journals to the instructor using paper and pencil. She reported that students writing e-mail dialogue journals used more requesting functions than those in the paper group; they produced more language functions per writing session; and their e-mail communication was more spontaneous. An experimental study was done by Stewart-Dore (1996) on dialogue journal with his students at Miyazaki International College. He asked his students to write dialogue journal to their secret assigned partners. His findings show that the students enjoyed the activity and their journal entries revealed improvement in terms of writing fluency. He mentioned that as the students continued exchanging e-mail messages, they tend to write longer as mistakes were tolerated and they had more ideas to share with their partners. Another study was carried out by Belisle (1996) on first and second year Japanese English majors at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute (MFWI). His findings showed that e-mail enabled an exchange of dialogue journals between teacher and students. He further reported that e-mail dialogue journal writing enhanced communication between the teacher and the students and interaction was not limited only to the classroom but was expanded outside the classroom setting. The writing activity also builds students confidence as mistakes were tolerated. Gonzales-Bueno (1998) conducted a study on e-mail dialogue journal on her Spanish students. Her findings revealed that dialogue journal writing via e-mail could serve as a tool for the students to practice using the English Language and communicate without fear of making mistakes. This is because mistakes are tolerated and the emphasis is more on idea development. She reported that the students journal entries showed improvement in the quality of the target language produced compared to the ones done on paper. The students also enjoyed the activity as they received positive feedback for each entry sent and were confident in presenting ideas, as their entries were not graded. CONCLUSION The studies done on dialogue journal via e-mail reveal that e-mail dialogue journal is able to serve as a tool for developing students writing abilities and initiating their communication skills. In addition, it can be an interesting, motivating and meaningful writing activity as it exposes students to authentic discourse. The non-threatening and interactive form of writing encourages students to express their communication intents. Nonetheless, there are very few studies done on dialogue journal writing via e-mail especially in L2 writing classrooms. Most of the studies are also not done in the Malaysian educational setting. Hence, more research should be carried out specifically on Malaysian schools to promote the use of technology specifically dialogue journal writing via e-mail to upgrade English language teaching and learning.

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