Our students have varying abilities. It surprised me to learn that even the best readers in our classroom struggle with writing, so keep that in mind. The varying levels we use for journals are:
The students are not aware of these terms or "levels," but it helps me keep track of their progress from the beginning of the year and allot the appropriate journal for their level.
An assessment at the beginning of the school year should take place. A good assessment I use is to ask students to write about their summer or their thoughts for the upcoming school year. I'm not so worried about "spelling," but more about drafting a complete sentence that shows thought and planning.
For the practicing and beginning levels, we use this style of journal found here. It is basically a "draw and write" journal. The difference between practicing and beginning levels, is that I photocopy or print a sample journal page for the practicing to help students on a more 1:1 basis to work up to having a whole composition booklet. I learned this strategy after students would be "off and running" with their journal and misuse it or not understand the style of writing it was intended for.
The advanced style of journal I use is a standard composition notebook for students who can write longer paragraphs and have no interest in illustrating their journal writing. This is usually 2nd - 3rd graders and some 1st graders. Usually this is the journal all students want by 2nd grade, but if someone had a preference I would certainly let them have an illustrative one and just write more on the next pages.
I have a basket in the classroom of journal prompts. I have students write "Topic: ____" and address what the topic is for the entire page. Some days, I prescribe a topic to get them thinking. Most often, students want teacher prescribed topics, but as you know we get busy! Having a basket handy will help for these moments when you simply can't think of one or are in the middle of something else. There are several websites with journal prompts! I make sure to use the State Standards and use a plethora of prompts to support a variety of writing styles (not just narrative).