Learning Lessons from Letters

Writing personal correspondence offers children a chance to learn many skills beyond simple format.

By Erin Bailey

girl sitting at desk writing

Not so very long ago, a letter in the mail could've meant any of the following: news of a far-away loved one, a letter from a soldier at war, or a child away from home for the first time. My mother remembers when her father would gather the younger children around the dinner table to hear the news from their soldier brother during World War II. The letter was always read aloud more than once and then passed from eager hand to hand to feel the paper and even smell it. Sometimes the letter was jotted quickly with a stub of pencil on a scrap of note paper; sometimes it was written in neat cursive on translucent airmail stationery. Those letters were a treasure, each and every one.

The Intrigue of Personal Correspondence

For me, letters are part mystery – from where is it postmarked? – and part two-dimensional gift. Finding a real letter tucked between the store fliers in my post box fills me with excitement. There is something special about seeing a friend’s words written in her own hand. However, some say that the postal service is too slow for today's communication; that email and texting have replaced letter writing. In some instances I agree. However, most days, my online inbox is a tad overwhelming and looks very similar to my post box: full of junk mail from people I don't know and companies I never meant to do business with. Wading through it all can take a lot of time.

I was surprised to learn that many children in my class could not recall ever receiving a letter, not counting birthday cards. Even fewer had ever written a letter to someone. When you consider all the lessons that can be sealed into one envelope, you will recognize the shame in this.

Personal Correspondence Hones Writing Skills

Letter writing provides much-needed handwriting practice that has built-in motivation. This activity also helps young writers learn composition, first in their heads, and then on paper. This is a skill lacking in the rapid-fire way that we send text messages and emails. Story writing is often overwhelming to children who think they have nothing to say. A letter, on the other hand, is a non-threatening way to show them that they do have something to write about. For ESL students, writing letters provides practice with the intricacies of a written language and vocabulary in a less pressured activity.

Letters are a natural way to explore writing with an audience in mind. Play around with this by having your class read letters written to a variety of people, such as friends, grandparents, and even strangers. Letter-writing is a great exercise in how to start a conversation and keep it going. Asking yes/no questions doesn’t elicit nearly the information that open-ended inquiries do. This is an important skill in gathering information for many subject areas including science and history.

Foster Anticipation through Personal Correspondence

Believe it or not, there are still parts of the world where computers and cell phones are not commonplace. Letters are still an important method of communication and sharing news. Have your class research mail delivery in a remote locale such as a village in the high Andes Mountains or a poverty-stricken area in India. Perhaps most importantly in this age of immediacy, a letter forces delayed gratification. It takes some time to receive a response, but the reward is worth it.

To help get your class excited about a letter-writing project and maintain their interest, try these tips:

  1. Make it special. Start off by creating stationery using pretty paper, stickers, or a signature stamp made from a gum eraser. A brief lesson in calligraphy will further elevate the special nature of the activity.
  2. Ensure a response. Because children will only want to continue the activity if they receive mail in return, I don’t suggest pen-pal programs for elementary children. Instead, ask parents for a special person in the child’s life who can be depended upon to send regular responses. If needed, elicit help from a child’s former teachers to keep the letters flowing.
  3. Make it regular. Use each holiday on the calendar as an excuse to write a letter. Students can practice summarizing what they learned about Presidents Day or St. Patrick’s Day as a start for each letter.

Certainly, letter writing will never again rival email and texting. But with regular practice, children might actually come to enjoy the anticipation of receiving a piece of mail addressed to them while strengthening other skills at the same time.

Ideas for Extending Your Personal Correspondence Unit 

Applying Letter Writing to Daily Life

This article explores some other ways to incorporate letter writing into the curriculum. It encourages pupils to learn both the friendly letter and business letter formats.

The Mail Race

Used as an opening lesson to letter writing, this activity will get your class excited about waiting for a response letter! Participants write friendly letters to random schools and eagerly anticipate whose letter will receive the first reply.

Word Perfect

Using an article appearing in the New York Times as an attention getter, this resource has middle school learners explore reasons for writing a letter. “Write Grandma a What?” looks at the benefits of a personal note for both the sender and receiver. A list of questions guides the activity.