Practice makes perfect, and that's especially true with writing. The more practice kids get, the better writers they will become.
Although a grade would never be put on the journal writings, they would be a good way to spot individual writing problems, such as capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure problems.
You could use a writing journal entry as a way to teach revision, or as a spring board for a long-term writing project.
Personally, I like to think of writing journal time, just like your would think of a D.E.A.R. (drop everything and read) time. A time for students to just chill out, relax, and spend some quiet time doing something productive. It could also be used as a literacy station.
It doesn't need to be long, I think 10-15 minutes for elementary age kids is going to be about tops. Some kids are going to be slower writers than others, so I think it's important not to push a page amount in the time. As long as everyone is writing (or thinking), then you're good.
Some days you might just want to let your kids just write whatever is on their mind, but most the time, your going to need prompts. Sometimes you might want to use a theme for a bit, or use single words, a set of words, sentence starters, or have kids write about a topic they have discussed in class.
Let's say the presidential elections are coming up. For the weeks leading up to the election you might want to use the election as your theme. Then come up with some prompts that go with that theme. Examples:
- Write a poem about the word Freedom and what it means to you.
- If you were running for president, why would people vote for you?
- When you think of the elections, what color do you think of? Why?
- Write a story using the words, government, president, voting.
- Make a list of 15 things you would do if you were president.
I saw some awesome booklets of themed writing prompts in a teacher store some months ago. Each booklet contained 50 prompts, ready to tear out and laminate and use. That is, if your willing to drop $16 for each one. Personally I felt that was a bit much to pay for something I could so easily create myself.
There are tons if ideas online that you can simply type into a Word document, print on some heavy cardstock (use different colors if you want to be cool like that), and laminate if you want them to last for more than one school year. I plan to make at least 2 or 3 copies of each page so that I can organize them in various ways, such as by theme, type of prompt (list, poem, story, etc.), as well as offer a set to the kids to use at a literacy center.
Here are a few places online that I have found with prompts to get your started. This site has some good ones, but some aren't kid friendly, or might need to be revised a bit to make them kids friendly. Lots here too, but again, your going to need to use some discretion. Tons of kids friendly ones can be found here. And also some interactive writing prompts can be found here.
Pictures also make great propmts that can be as open or closed ended as your would like them to be. Give kids a picture and ask them to discribe it, write a poem about it, use it as their story setting, etc. A good source for pictures, other than Google Images, would probably be Flickr, and their creative commons area.
I plan to have my students make their own journals out of scrap paper (if you can get your hands on some colored and decorative paper (like what people use for Christmas newsletters), even better) and cardboard. I haven't come across any tutorials that I really like just yet, so I plan to do a little experimenting and make my own. But if you want one now, just google it.
Personally I think I rather write in something I made, and I think kids would agree. Also, I would keep the journals small, to allow students to fill them faster. There is nothing like the feeling of completing a notebook or journal and then getting to start over with a new one.
Give them something fun to write with too. Various colored ink pens, colored pencils, markers, crayons, feather pen(cils), and gel pens are way more interesting than plain old pencils. Rotate them frequently and you'll find your kids getting excited about writing, just because they get to write with a purple pen.
If your students need a little more encouragement, inspiration, or motivation, put some of the books from the Amelia's Notebook series and Max's Logbook, both by Marissa Moss, in your classroom library. I loved the Amelia's Notebook series as a girl, and often tried (and failed) to keep a journal just like Amelia.
Also keep a journal yourself. Write responses to the same prompts you give your students and share your writing with them. Seeing you write will show them that writing is something important and worth while. Show them that even as an adult, writing is something that needs to be practiced.
Lastly, just remember that this should be something fun for your students. Your goal is to get them writing regularly, as well as stop and think deeply about a given subject. Give constructive feedback, and even more encouragement and praise, and you'll create writers for life.
P.S. Got non-writers? I love the idea of a color journal. Or have them draw a picture, or narrate something for your to write down. Just because you can't spell your own name yet, doesn't mean you don't have something to write.