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Writing Letters in the English Language Classroom

by Betsy Gilliland |

The winter holidays often bring with them greeting cards from friends and relatives living near and far. One of the things I like the most about these cards is the letters some people include, telling about their family activities over the past year. These letters relate stories of travel, major achievements, and anecdotes about children’s favorite pastimes. I think I enjoy receiving these letters because it is often the only time in the year when I actually get written letters from my friends. The rest of the time, we share our news via social media or email, neither of which has the physical presence of a real written letter.

In some sense, letter writing is a “lost art” in the era of email and instant messaging. Not only are these high tech forms much more ephemeral, but they are also usually quite short and serve a primarily functional purpose of conveying one point or asking one question. I feel like longer letters are a way to share experiences and reflect on issues that matter.

There’s no word count or character limit, so a written letter can explore ideas from multiple angles, present the writer’s impressions and perspectives with depth and detail, and engage readers in a more personal way. In addition, letters sent in the mail are fun to receive and hold the potential to be kept as a remembrance in ways that emails and text messages are not.

Where to Find Letter Writing Partners

Multilingual learners of English may enjoy corresponding regularly with people from different places and generations. There are services that allow language learners to find writing or conversation partners (this site lists several), which might work for individual learners or a class of adults. If you have younger learners, you might instead coordinate an exchange between classes, either at your school or with another teacher’s classes in a different place. This site offers some suggestions for teachers of school-age students, but you might also want to network on MyTESOL to find fellow TESOL members whose students could become your students’ pen pals.

Other audiences for letter writers include senior citizens, who may be retired and have free time and may be less familiar with technology (this site and this site make connections with elders in the United States), and members of the military, who are often posted far away from home and love to receive friendly letters in the mail (this site offers some advice on writing letters to the military, as well as some recommended sites for finding pen pals in the U.S. military). Both seniors and military members can offer your students opportunities to learn about very different lives and experiences.

Teaching Suggestions

Begin With Genre Study

When introducing the concept of letter writing to your students, you may want to begin with a genre study so students learn about the purposes of writing letters and the structure of letters, as well as the ways that the genre may vary depending on its purpose and audience. The Systemic Functional Linguistics teaching and learning cycle (beginning with text deconstruction to understand how the genre is structured, followed by joint construction and independent construction as students learn to write within the genre) can help students learn both the requirements of the genre and its variations.

Some things to take into consideration are

  • common ways of starting and ending letters,
  • the difference between friendly and business letters, and
  • how to appropriately address the recipient (whether they are someone the writer already knows or not, and what their relationship is with the writer, among other factors).

Personal Letters

Personal letters are probably an easier way to start, since students are likely more familiar with activities like writing about themselves and their hobbies. Some features that should be discussed as students learn to write personal letters include the following:

  • Introducing oneself to a new reader (in a first pen pal letter, for example)
  • Telling about daily routines, preferences, and hobbies
  • Relating a story about a memorable activity or event
  • Asking questions to learn about the recipient
  • Answering questions from an earlier letter

Personal letter-writing units might include writing thank you letters for gifts or to guest speakers or hosts of field trips. Students might also enjoy writing letters with compliments to their classmates: have a class mailbox where students can drop their letters, then deliver them and let students read their letter (assign recipients to ensure everyone gets a letter). This activity can be a good way to boost students’ self-esteem and to practice positive affirmations. This resource packet from the U.S. Postal Service includes a letter template and other teaching ideas.

Business Letters

Business letters are another important real-world aspect of letter writing. Students might write letters to local companies or organizations to request information about a product or process. High school and college students can practice writing letters to ask about careers they find interesting. Another important type of business letter is the complaint letter, which adult learners in particular may need to write to a landlord or other service provider when things go wrong at home. These letters can lead to positive outcomes in students’ lives, making them a valuable form of written text.

Integrating Letters With Curricula: Literature

Letters can also be integrated with other aspects of the curriculum. For example, there are many ways to build connections with literature through letter writing:

  • Give advice to a character in a book: Students might consider a dilemma or problem faced by a character and then write a letter to that character, suggesting an option for resolving the problem. This is a great way to make personal connections to literature study, too, as students may have had experiences that allow them to write from a position of authority on the subject.
  • Write in the voice of a character: As a way to help students develop empathy and understand different points of view, students might write letters as if they were a character. These letters could be addressed to other characters in the story and describe events that happened in the narrative, or they could be extensions of the story, writing about what happened before or after the time of the narrative.
  • Retell the story in epistolary form: More advanced writers might rewrite the plot in a series of letters between characters. As with the previous activity, students need to put themselves into the shoes of the characters and think about how they would speak and what they would say to each other.

Integrating Letters With Curricula: History and Social Studies

History and social studies also serve as forums where students can demonstrate their content knowledge through letter writing. Depending on the course content, these letters may be imagined historical dialogues or current arguments with a real-world application.

To show understanding of not only the facts but also the personal qualities of historical figures, students can write letters from the perspective of someone living at a point in history. They could choose the recipient of their letter to be someone that person would actually have written to or someone living in a different historical period. In the latter case, they would need to think about what the writer’s worldview was in comparison with the intended recipient’s understanding.

In a social studies class, students might argue for a perspective on a current issue by writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper or to the school principal or city mayor. Beyond just showing their knowledge, these letters can have real-world impact in helping residents of the city or administrators of the school know what multilingual learners of English—an often overlooked population—are thinking.

It is up to you to decide, based on your knowledge of our students, whether these letters are handwritten or typed, whom they are addressed to, and what the stakes are. In what other ways have you incorporated letter-writing into your teaching? Share your ideas in the chat!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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