Letters to the future: Tanabata and learning goals

Jacob Schnickel, Jissen Women’s University

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Study abroad, goal-setting, Tanabata
  • Learner English level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: Variable
  • Activity time: 45 minutes
  • Materials: Printed instructions, a lettermelater.com (or similar) account, Tanabata decorations (optional)


This is a simple technique that uses the occasion of Tanabata as an opportunity for students to identify important educational goals and revisit them with an email sent to themselves at a specific time in the future. I use this activity with students who are going to study abroad. Their goals focus on making the most of their time overseas. However, this activity can be used to support students in setting and moving toward a range of goals. Tanabata is a celebration of the annual meeting of two celestial lovers who must remain separated for the rest of the year. For Tababata, people in Japan write their wishes on strips of paper, which they hang from bamboo branches. The results are beautiful: many colorful strips of paper hanging amidst green bamboo leaves. For the activity described here, instead of writing these wishes on strips of paper alone, learners also put them into an email message in the form of carefully crafted goals, which they will receive at a strategically chosen time in the future.



Step 1: Ask students in small groups to discuss their educational goals for the area specified in class. In my class, students talk about how they plan to make the most of their time abroad and describe their ideal study-abroad experiences. 

Step 2: If desired, distribute colored strips of paper and ask each student to write his or her learning goals on one in as much detail as possible. When finished, students can hang the strips on real or artificial bamboo leaves, which can be affixed to the board with magnets. Students could also simply write in their notebooks or on a handout prepared for the occasion. 

Step 3: Tell students they will send these Tanabata wishes—their learning goals—to their future selves at a time when they will be able to revisit the goals, assess their progress, and make adjustments if necessary. I ask my students, who spend at least a semester abroad, to write an email message to themselves about their study-abroad goals and schedule the messages to arrive two to three weeks after they arrive in their study-abroad countries.

Step 4: Explain how lettermelater.com, or a similar website, works. Pass out basic instructions on using the website.

Step 5: Encourage students to set up the email messages as quickly as possible after the class, and follow up with students in subsequent classes to ensure they have arranged for their goals to be sent.



Instructors can put in place an opportunity for students to further process their goals once they have received their emails from the past. For example, students can check in via email or in person with a prearranged partner. They could also send a short self-assessment to the instructor. A third possibility would be to ask students to respond to their goals in a journal.



This is a simple activity with a payoff that goes beyond the space of classroom and the time afforded by the semester. I use this activity on the occasion of Tanabata to help students identify goals for their study-abroad experiences, but it would work well for instructors who would like to support their students in individually developing language skills during the summer vacation. In its most basic form, with no bamboo leaves or paper strips, this activity requires minimal preparation. If instructors choose to take some additional steps, they can create a festive atmosphere. I feel this is a great way to celebrate students’ goals for the future as the semester draws to a close.