Class secret pen pals

Thomas Amundrud, Ritsumeikan University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Letter/email writing, paragraph practice, cohesion building, writing game
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity level: University(and possibly high school)
  • Preparation time: 5-10 minutes initially, and 10-15 minutes organization time per week
  • Activity time:15-20 minutes, repeated every week or two throughout the course
  • Materials:Pen and paper


A common complaint by both teachers and students about writing classesis that they are quite dry compared to oral communication classes. Initially developed to liven up lower-level university writing classes, this activity enables students to practice paragraph and letter or email writing skills, while also allowing them to exercise their imaginations. Since many university writing courses focus on academic, as opposed to creative, writing skills, this activity can serve as a break from the academic work.


The teacher doesn’t need any materials to start this activity.However, I found it helpful once the letter exchanges were underway to have a “mail bag” inwhich to collect the letters. If you are teaching more than one class, you might find it helpful to use A4 or larger envelopes to separate the letters from each class, rather than carrying multiple bags.


Step 1:After reviewing the basics of letter or email writing structure, tell the students to choose a fictitious name, and have them submit the names to you secretly. Tell them that this is their secret name, and that they should not tell any other students.

Step 2:Before the next class, pair the students. I made a list with two columns, one an alphabetical list of the students with their pen names in parentheses, and the other with each student’s partner.

Step 3:In the next class, give each student their secretpen pal’s name. Instruct them to write a letter introducing themselves. Have them fold the letters and write “To: (their secret pen pal’s name) From: (their own secret pen name)” on the outside. I also had each class write a unique stamp to prevent confusion with letters from other classes. Collect the letters to distributethem in the following class.

Step 4:Before thenext class, collate the letters according to the real name-secret name list you made in Step 2. This can be time consuming, but makes things easier in class.

Step 5:Have students write their letters as a regular warm up activity—I used it about once a week. Use letter exchanges to build on writing skills taught in class, such as paragraph format, different openings and closings, etc. You can also monitor student work during the collection and arrangement stage, and then give feedback in classabout common errors.

Step 6:Finally, for the last day of the activity, have the students write farewell letters. Pass them to the students as usual, then have each student stand and reveal their secret name. This can be quite surprising,since students often choose playful names, either of anime characters, famous people or places, or funny things they like, and so conceal their gender, pastimes,or club activities, etc.


One possible alternativeto actual physical lettersis to use Facebook or other blogging applications that allow fora community of blogs with aliases where students can respond to each other’s blogs without knowing who’s writing, but where the teacher can still limit access to class members only. This would also reduce the organizational time needed every week by the teacher to match names and letters. However, many teachers may still prefer the old-fashioned approach, as it requires no materials beyond pen and paper.


I developed this activity for my pre-intermediate and lower intermediate students as a warm-up and a supplementary activity for letter and paragraph writing skills. Many students enjoyed the regular practice of writing to someone they knew was in the class, even though they didn’t know who it was, and many enjoyed creating their fictitious characters. The final step of revealing each writer’s identity was the most fun, as many students were very surprised to discover to whom they had been writing!