- Keywords: Writing and reading development, letter writing
- Learner maturity: High school and above
- Learner English level: Intermediate
- Preparation time: 10 minutes
- Activity time: 15-30 minutes
- Materials: Paper and pencil
This activity encourages two groups of students to engage in meaningful written communication without having to coordinate with students from other schools or countries. While it is ideal for the groups to be identical in skill level, lower level students may learn from higher-level students’ usage of English.
Step 1: Select two separate classes at a similar level. It is okay if there is a slight variation in levels (for example, one class is first year and the other is second year). Class sizes should also be similar.
Step 2: Familiarize students in each class with the concept of pen-pals.
Step 3: Students should write their first letter as a self-introduction. The instructor can take this time to teach students about correct letter formatting. I recommend that the instructor also writes topics and useful phrases for letter writing on the board such as, “I am interested in...,” or, “Thank you for your letter.” This first letter should be addressed to “Pen Pal”, while all following letters should use the name of their pen pal. The teacher can allow the students to use a pen name and make up information if they are not comfortable with writing personal information to someone they don’t know.
Step 4: Repeat this for the other class.
Step 5: Once both classes have completed their letters, distribute the letters to the respective classes. Since students will be introducing themselves in their letters, the instructor can read the letters and pair off students with similar personalities or interests.
Step 1: For all following letters, the writing can be done as homework. For lower level students, I give them a time limit of one week to finish. However, students at a higher level can be given a shorter time limit. All letters following the first should be written in response to the contents of the one before.
Step 2: To facilitate continued communication between pen pals, the instructor should continually supply writing ideas such as comments on school events or writing about a topic like a movie they just saw. Letter topics can also coincide with textbook chapters. In addition, class sizes vary so sometimes one student may receive two letters. I usually ask a student whether they are willing to take more than one letter and simply write one letter addressed to two students.
Email-based: many students have said they want to learn how to write emails, so it may be beneficial to do this assignment on a computer. They can learn about email writing while engaging in genuine communication with someone. The teacher can create an email address that the student emails should first be directed to. From that e-mail address, the teacher can then forward emails to pen pals.
The purpose of this assignment is to get students communicating meaningfully with someone they don’t know. Since there is no need for teachers to coordinate with other schools or another teacher’s group of students, it may be easier to implement this than more traditional pen pal activities. My students were reluctant at first, but after the second or third letter, each student began to noticeably have an interest in the letters of their partners. This discovery and willingness to communicate are what I hope the activity spurs in each of my students.