When I was in the 4th grade, our teacher came back from a trip to Europe with an awesome idea — our class was going to have pen pals in England! She had met a teacher from there and they talked about having their classes learn to write letters while making new friends from one another’s country. I was so excited when I got the first letter from my pen pal, Tanya. She actually sent a picture of herself — she had long red hair, freckles, and blue eyes; so different from what I and most of my friends looked like. For the life of me, I can’t remember what was written in the letter just the thrill of receiving one from another young person who lived in a different country! Our class wrote back but unfortunately after the one exchange of letters from each side, we didn’t receive more letters. It was a great idea with the potential for so much more but just seemed to fizzle out. Clearly, something went amiss in my experience. This isn’t the case for many educators who have endeavored to introduce their students to different cultures, experiences, and values while integrating valuable learning skills through letter writing.
Looking back at my own excitement from writing to a pen pal from “across the pond,” it felt like I was going to be able to travel outside of my classroom walls with a new friend acting as ‘tour guide.’ Granted, our students are digital natives and could easily do an Internet search and take virtual trips around the world. Especially now that most students are remote learning, taking virtual field trips is probably incorporated in many curriculum plans. But with a pen pal, the opportunity for making a new friend and build on that friendship during the school year is valuable. Writing to a pen pal will also help to develop their curiosity for different people, cultures, and traditions.
Another important reason for having a pen pal project is strengthening writing skills. Letter writing hits specific standards of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Writing:
- With guidance and support from adults, produce writing in which development and organization are appropriate to task and purpose.
- With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, and editing.
- Write routinely over extended time frames and shorter time frames for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.
As with most units or long-term projects, start with a class discussion on the what and why of having a pen pal. Pose questions like What could pen pals learn from one another? What could a person learn about you? What would you want to learn about your pal? Why is it valuable to learn about another person’s country, customs, or culture? Why is writing a letter better than texting or messaging on social media? Chart their ideas on your class display panel and post every time a letter writing session begins. If you’re using a whiteboarding application like MimioConnect®, save the results of this initial brainstorming session and assign to each student (set an end-of-year completion date) so they can revisit the chart periodically. This is especially useful if students are remote learning. Build excitement about this yearlong project by having them list their favorite hobbies, sports, foods, places to go, etc. and sharing their lists with a partner. They can revisit their lists as they write each letter.
Because students are writing to a real person, plan mini-lessons on different purposes for each letter such as asking and answering questions, sharing an experience, explaining how to make something, and helping them to build on a subject previously introduced. Lessons can also include setting a tone and conveying warmth. Being able to express oneself in a natural, unique way will help each student find their voice and make this project more enjoyable. With the class, create a checklist of important characteristics of a letter including a greeting and closing, correct capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Share sample letters with the different elements discussed and have students identify them. For students who need extra help with building English language literacy, it may be helpful to have them use templates to complete their initial drafts. As they practice their letter writing skills and become more proficient, their dependency on a template should lessen.
A fun way to start or close each mini-lesson is a read aloud of a book* that features letter writing. As the book is read, use the think aloud reading strategy to point out features of a letter in the book (“Oh, I see that she wrote the date here in the upper right hand corner. I wonder if all letters should be written that way?”, “I like how he used the words ‘Kind regards’ to close his letter. It sounds formal but friendly.”). When students share drafts, choose one or two letters that use ideas in a book read aloud and recognize that while also commending original elements.
After completing a draft of their letters, partners can work together to revise them using the checklist and discussing any suggestions to clarify purpose and express proper tone. Not only are students improving their writing skills, they are also building communication, collaboration, and creative thinking skills, all goals for all 21st century learners. If the class chooses to mail the letters, students are also learning patience. Set a schedule with the other class teacher on how often letters will be sent and when to generally expect letters to arrive. If email is going to be considered, which would result in a quicker turnaround, a biweekly schedule might be reasonable for students to draft and produce clean letters for their pen pals. To ensure student safety, create a zip file of the class letters and send from a class email account. Other things to consider before starting a pen pal exchange:
- Share with parents and adults at home the purpose and goals of writing to students from another country. Listen to any concerns and as needed, obtain permission.
- Talk with students about what information they can share like school name, teacher name, city, and state they live in. Also emphasize the information they cannot share such as last name, home address, personal email, or social media accounts.
- Discuss appropriate topics to write about including favorite games to play, foods to eat, sports to watch, etc. being mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities, as applicable. This is a good opportunity to delve into another country’s cultures as part of a social studies unit.
- Remind students to use appropriate language (avoid slang) and that you will be reading all the letters before they are sent to the other class. Create a word bank for each lesson/topic.
While it is still relatively early in the year, try out writing letters to a pen pal. You may find that you’re able to integrate more than simply language arts and social studies. Depending on the interests of the students and the topics shared, science, math, art, and more might come up. How exciting it would be for each student to make a new friend with the time-tested method of having a pen pal.
*Books/Stories that focus on writing letters:
- A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson
- Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James
- Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
- Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School by Mark Teague
- Kate on the Coast by Pat Brisson
- Sincerely Yours: Writing Your Own Letter by Nancy Loewen
- The Gardner by Sarah Stewart
- The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman by Darcy Pattison
- The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart (new country, learn English)
Resources for finding pen pal programs:
If your class is remote learning and you’d like to learn more about how to enhance an active, virtual class environment, go to mimio.boxlight.com/mimioconnect.