6 Types of Journals in the Elementary Classroom

6 different types of journals


Last week I posted an article on the 5 signs your journals could be falling short in the classroom. Be sure to check that out if you didn’t get a chance to read it yet.

5 Signs Your Journals are Falling Short

One of the signs was “using journals just for language arts.” Don’t get me wrong, journals are great for language arts. I found journals were very useful in other subjects as well.

I will share 6 types of journals that I have used in my elementary classroom. My favorite kind of notebook to use for primary journals is the one with space at the top of the page to draw pictures and wide dotted lines like this one.

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1. Let’s start with language arts.

My students wrote in their journals every morning when they arrived at school. They knew they had to get their journals out and begin writing after they put their things away and got ready for the day. Sometimes this was difficult for my first graders, especially in the beginning of the school year when they hadn’t been writing many words yet. I let them draw a picture at first, and they had to tell me something about that picture.

For instance, one of my students drew a picture of a person outside playing,   so I asked the question, “Who is this?” as I pointed to the picture. My student answered,”That’s me.” I said, “Great! Tell me what you are doing in this picture.” The student said,”I’m playing.” I said,”You look like you are having fun, tell me what you are playing.” The child said, “I’m playing ball,” although she didn’t draw a ball, so I said, “What do you think you could draw to show me you are playing with a ball?” She said, “a ball.”

I always praised my students for answering me and I tried to lead them to the next step without telling them what to do. This gave my students the confidence they needed to write or draw in their journals every day, and to elaborate on their thinking.

Consistency is key! My students knew that I expected them to attempt to write or draw in their journals every morning. It was part of their morning routine, so they knew what to anticipate, and the assignment became much easier as the year went on.

Beginning of the Year in my first grade class

writing about the first day of school

End of the Year

First grader's journal entry about the parts of a plant


Okay, so you may be asking yourself,”When should I insist that my students start actually writing words?

That’s an excellent question! Once my students started learning their sounds, I asked them to label their pictures.

Let’s take the previous example of where my student drew a picture of herself playing with a ball. I asked her to write her name above the picture she drew of herself. Then I asked her to write the sound ball starts with, and any other sounds she heard in the word, next to the picture of the ball.

After students started showing where they could label their pictures, I  had them say a sentence about the picture. This student said,”I like playing with my ball.” I said, “I love your sentence! Let’s try to write the sentence under your picture so everyone can see what a great sentence it is.” I helped the student write the sounds she heard.  We also talked about putting a finger space between the words as she wrote.

I told my students to think of the words as cars and that we didn’t want our words, like cars, to crash into each other. They loved that analogy.

This scaffolding helped my students not to fear journal writing. We can’t just give our babies a writing prompt and expect them to be able to write.

My parents loved reading their children’s journals throughout the year. I told my students to write a note to their parents for back to school night and then I told the parents to write back to their children. The kids loved reading what their parents wrote back to them.

I showed my parents the journals every time I conferenced with them. They loved reading what their children wrote, and they got excited to see the progress they made.

Some of the parents told me that they saved these journals for years. In fact, I still have my own children’s journals and we have enjoyed going back and reading what they wrote in first and second grade.

2. Math Journals

I found that math journals were a great way to see how my students were processing their math skills. I liked using them in my guided math groups because I could work with a small group of students at a time and I actually saw how they were thinking when I asked them to respond to a math problem or a math question. These journals were very helpful with students’ individualized learning.

Demmelearning states:

“Writing about math processes and creating diagrams and pictures stimulates different pathways of the brain, more than computation in isolation will do. A math journal provides students of all abilities and ages with the flexibility to examine and express their mathematical reasoning.”

It is a wonderful way to incorporate math and writing. I gave my students the opportunity to solve word problems in their math journals. I watched them as they were thinking and working problems in their notebooks. They liked working in notebooks because I told them that is where we practice and it is okay to make mistakes. I explained that is how we think through math problems. Working in these journals gave my students confidence in trying to work through their math problems.

First Grader's math journal

K-5 Math Teaching Resources States:

“While students learn how to “do” math, they must also learn how to articulate what they are learning. It is important to provide many opportunities for students to organize and record their work without the structure of a worksheet. Math journals support students’ learning because, in order to get their ideas on paper, children must organize, clarify, and reflect on their thinking. Initially many students will need support and encouragement in order to communicate their ideas and thinking clearly on paper but, as with any skill, the more they practice the easier it will become.”

I also liked their idea of open ended tasks in the journals:

“A Kindergarten students’ attempt to record her thinking early in the school year in response to the task: Vanessa had 5 cupcakes. Some were chocolate. Some were vanilla. How many were chocolate? How many were vanilla? Three months later this student completed a similar task: Cameron had 6 buttons. Some were green. Some were purple. How many were green? How many were purple? On this occasion the child’s written representation  is more detailed and clearly demonstrates her developing understanding of addition. Although she repeats some number sentences, her drawings show all possible combinations of the six buttons.”

Check out the pictures of these problems here.

Here is a short video I found on the TeachingChannel of a kindergarten class using math journals.

3. Reading Journals

I loved using journals in my reading groups! This was a great way for students to respond to what they were reading. My students always enjoyed drawing a picture of their favorite part of the book and writing about it. They knew there was no judgement on their responses. Sometimes I told them to draw a picture of their favorite characters and write what they liked about them. These journal entries lead to some rich discussions about the books the students were reading. Reading journals gave my students the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions.

Reading journals were also a great place to do a retelling of a story. I could tell if my students comprehended the story they read, in addition to if they could sequence the stories.

Again, just like the math journals I used, these reading journals were great for individualized learning. I had some higher level readers that began reading chapter books in my first grade classroom. They read a chapter and then wrote about it in their reading journals. I also told them to list any words they didn’t understand, and we discussed the meaning of the listed words.

In Living Life Twice, the author states:

“Journals assist teachers to gain insights regarding student comprehension of major ideas and concepts Written responses give us clear and powerful insight into how students are constructing their knowledge of language. When we ask students to write in response to what they’ve read, we not only get to see what they’re thinking about, but the writing is tangible evidence of how they’re learning to spell, punctuate, and put ideas together. “

“Journals can reveal what lies in the heart and mind of the reader. We may witness examples of student writing that illustrate powerfully how strongly a child has connected with a story. ”

Sometimes I used the reading journals to review skills. For instance, if we had been working on -at words, then my students wrote words with -at in their notebooks.

I also used reading journals for homework for my first graders. My students read at home or they could be read to for 10 minutes, and then they drew a picture and wrote a sentence about the book they read.

The students and the parents much preferred reading journals over worksheets. My parents said it encouraged more discussion of the books that were read at home.

4. Social Studies and Science Journals

Once I saw how successful my other journals were, I decided I wanted to try journals for science and social studies. I found that they worked well with my students. I actually called them, “unit journals” because we always discussed what unit we were studying.

One of their favorite activities was to listen to a song about what we were studying and then respond to it.

An example is when I played our Quality Student song about good behavior and then my first grade students responded to the song.

First Grade Social Studies Journal

Another idea I got from  using my unit journals was to create big books that the students could enjoy during literacy groups. They practiced reading and reviewing units we had studied!

For instance, when we studied community helpers, I told the students to journal about what community helper they wanted to be when they grew up. Then I decided to create a big book with their entries.

community helper writing Community Helper Big Book

It helped my students to draw images, such as the needs and parts of a plant. They loved drawing in their unit journals and then writing about it.

First grader's journal entry about the parts of a plant

5. Thinking Notebooks

I came up with this idea for homework. I wanted my students to do something meaningful and where they could make purposeful connections. I told them they could write about anything that we were studying that week. They had all week to work on it and they shared them on Fridays.

Some of my students shared the math objectives we worked on such as creating  math equations or writing their own word problems. Some students wrote about our unit of study, for instance, a student wrote about George Washington. Others wrote about books that they were reading.

This was an example from one of my higher level students. He was working on double digit addition.

Reading and Math Journal entries


One of the things that I loved about thinking notebooks was that my students could work on their individualized method of expression without pressure or judgement.

I was amazed at what they wrote in their notebooks!

Parents loved the thinking notebooks because they talked to their children about what they were working on in the classrooms each week. This allowed parents to help them with their notebooks.

6. Quality Student Journals

The last journal I wanted to share was my quality student journal.

My students took turns taking home our classroom mascot, Quentin and his journal. Quentin was a penguin and the students loved him! I still have students that I had in previous years comment on how much they loved taking Quentin home, and writing in his journal.

They wrote about their adventures with Quentin and filled the journal with places they took him, the things they did, and the books they read with him. It was so cute how some students even had their parents take their pictures with Quentin and glue them in the journal.

These  children  shared their journal entries every morning as part of our morning circle time.  It was great how the students asked questions about Quentin’s adventures!

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As you can tell, this was definitely one of their favorite journals!

first grade boy reading a journal entry

I know this is a lot of information about journals, however, I hope you can use some or all these ideas in your classrooms.

Please share your own experiences and ideas on journals you use.

Please share this post on social media and lets start a conversation about journals!

Check back next week when I will share my vocabulary journal.

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