Rediscover the Lost Art of Letter Writing

Writers engage with both past and present experiences to compose a letter during Write to a Friend Month.

By Dawn Dodson

Young boy looking into a mail box

December is Write to a Friend Month. During the time of holiday celebrations and recognizing the special people in our lives, taking advantage of the opportunity for old-fashioned correspondence can be a worthwhile tradition at home and in the classroom. Living in the technological age of social media and instant communication, rediscovering the lost art of letter writing is an enjoyable journey. From choosing stationery and writing utensils, to practicing penmanship, how do we connect letter writing to our pupils’ lives? The following is a lesson description with activities to engage learners in friendly letter writing.

Connecting to Prior Experiences

For many of today’s adolescents, communication happens instantly through social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, communication through texting and instant messaging is second nature. An activity to get pupils’ creative juices flowing and to connect modern day forms of communication to letter writing, is to have pupils play a game based on Twitter. The class should be divided into partners, or small groups of no more than three people. Each person in the group is given an index card. On the white board is a list of conversation topics such as retelling your school day, inviting a friend to a party, asking a homework question, or meeting a new friend-to-be for the first time. Pupils choose a topic and using only 140 characters, they convey their message and then pass it to a group member. The group member responds, using no more than 140 characters. Each group member has a turn to choose, write, and respond to the chosen topic.

After each member of the group has a chance to write and respond, a whole-class discussion takes place highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of this form of communication. Working from the list of disadvantages, pupils are introduced to letter writing as a form of communication. I like to highlight postal history, the art of calligraphy, and custom stationery. Examples like Victorian-era Christmas cards, personalized stationery, and the Pony Express all showcase a specific aspect of the purpose and art of letter writing.

Turning Prior Experiences into New Experiences       

In order to stress the importance of letter writing and its historical significance, sharing the letters of John and Abigail Adams can give pupils real-world examples. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an online collection of these letters which are excellent examples of communication. This is a great resource because the letters are organized, easy to access, and provide an image of the real letters as well as a typed, easy-to-read version.  Read a few of these letters aloud with your class. Draw attention to the author’s purpose and audience in each letter. This serves as both a review, and a vehicle for shifting learners' focus from other people's writing to their own writing. The essential question being, for what purposes do we correspond? Then, turn pupils’ attention is back to the index cards. Ask them to compare and contrast the two types of correspondence. Although quick and convenient, what is missing from the 140 character correspondence? Guide class discussion toward traits such as voice and personalization—recognizing handwriting, and formatting of the examples viewed in class.

Writing Letters: Experiencing the Finished Product

Following your class discussion, review the five parts of a friendly letter. Have pupils choose both a person and topic for their own letter. Being the month of December, topics are easy to find. Things like holiday memories, sharing and celebrating accomplishments from the previous year, reminding someone how special they are, or introducing oneself to a new pen pal are all prompts that will offer learners plenty of fodder for personal correspondence. After topics and recipients are chosen, learners draft, revise, and edit a personal letter. Correct cursive penmanship may need to be reviewed and practiced. The final draft of the letter is written on seasonal stationery and a variety of pens can be made available for writers to use in expressing their creative thoughts. Finally, the letters are placed in addressed envelopes and mailed. 

December is Write to a Friend Month. This provides an opportune time to instigate some creative writing assignments. Learning about letter writing is a way to practice writing skills, connect past to present, and to send someone special a holiday message.

Common Core Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.Writing.6.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.Writing.6.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.Writing.6.10 Write routinely over extended time frames for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Lessons that Offer More Experience with Personal Letters:

Writing an Informal Letter

Pupils learn the difference between formal and informal letter writing. To demonstrate their learning, they write a friendly letter using the phrases and components demonstrated throughout the lesson.

Friendly Letter Grade K-6

Writers learn the different parts of a friendly letter in order to write to a special person of their choice. This contains possible modifications that can be utilized for both younger and ELL writers.

A Letter to Sarah, Plain and Tall

This captures both friendly letter writing and point-of-view concepts. Pupils take on the point of view of a book character from the book Sarah, Plain and Tall, and produce a friendly letter to Sarah.

Language Arts Guide

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Dawn Dodson