Snail Mail vs. E-mail: Let the Challenge Begin

Compare past and present forms of written communication with a fable to guide your pupils in discovering the benefits of various forms of written communication.

By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce

Open mailbox

Speed has become the name of the game in so many aspects of modern society. In the fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare," the slow tortoise ended up winning a race against the quick hare because the rabbit was overly confident and lazy. Knowing he could quickly finish the race, the hare dawdled, napped, and ate, while the tortoise plodded his way to the finish line. Slow and steady, the tortoise won the race. This story immediately came to mind when I was considering having my class write letters to send via US Mail. The contrast between snail mail and e-mail is similar to Aesop's contrasting characters; the tortoise and the hare.

Moral of the Story

With all of our speedy and connected communication, it is important that we remind our learners of the art of letter writing. Sadly, in many cases, you may need to introduce them to this activity. Slow and deliberate mail (like the tortoise) has a different effect than the quicker, more cursory e-mail (like the hare.) Begin by taking this opportunity to introduce your class to Aesop's Fables, and, particularly to the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare."


After reading the story as a class, discuss it, including the important aspect of the moral of the story:

  • What is a moral in Aesop's Fables?
  • Why do you think Aesop included a moral in every story?
  • What is the moral of "The Tortoise and the Hare?"
  • Liken this fable to the concept of snail mail and encourage your learners to really experience the process of slowing down like the tortoise, writing a letter, and feeling the reward of their patience when they receive a reply in the mailbox.

How Writing Has Evolved 

Begin with some quick history on writing. Discuss the evolution of written communication, including clay, papyrus, quill and ink, the printing press, the typewriter, and the computer. We have taken ginormous leaps with communication technology in the last fifty years. Highlight this fact by projecting this collection on the history of writing for your class. It offers a variety of fascinating pictures and information about the history of written communication. As a class, discuss the various writing materials, and invite students to share their thoughts. Truthfully, it made me feel a bit ashamed of how quickly we seem to be throwing away thousands of years of written documents in favor of computerized communication.

Cursive or Print?

Another topic to discuss with your pupils is good penmanship, whether printed or cursive. Is one easier to read than the other? Does handwriting or printing make a letter seem more official or formal? In small groups, they can discuss the idea of moving away from handwritten letters toward data transmission like texts and e-mails. Will a message be received differently if it is written by hand, rather than in typed form? Monitor the group discussions and offer some pros and cons for them to debate. After group discussion, take some time to discuss this as a class.

Snail Mail or E-mail?

Do an experiment as a class. Divide your learners into two groups: those who will write a letter to a classmate, and those who will e-mail a letter to a classmate. Give the letter-writing pupils some time in class and some ideas as to what to write about. Or, as a class, you can brainstorm ideas to write about. Once letters are written, have learners address the envelope with the recipient's name and address. Be aware that you might have to demonstrate the proper way to address a letter. You provide the stamps. If possible, walk this group to a mailbox and have them mail the letters themselves. If not, you can mail them. Meanwhile, have the electronic group send an e-mail to a student in the letter-writing group. Again, they must include the same information that the class brainstormed for the letters. After all have received their letter or e-mail, switch the groups and have each child do the opposite of what he did before.

Afterward, have a group discussion to see how the students felt about the process:

  • Did they like/dislike writing the letter by hand?
  • Did they enjoy/not enjoy anticipating a letter coming in the mail?
  • Did they think more about what they wrote when they wrote by hand, than when they wrote an e-mail?
  • Do they want to delete the e-mail?
  • Do they want to throw away the letter?
  • Did the fact that the e-mail is easily deleted make it easier/harder to write?
  • Did the fact that the letter will be held in someone's hand make them think more/less about what they wrote?
  • What are some pros and cons of e-mailing? Snail mailing? Is there a place for both?

Leaving a Legacy 

In present day, e-mails can relay important ideas immediately, but what will be available as a reference point for future generations? It is highly likely that with a simple delete, much of our written correspondence will be gone. After discussing the importance of historical documents, share some examples of important letters from history with your pupils. Explain that using a quill and ink took much more time than even a ballpoint pen because the author had to dip the quill into a container of ink in order to write. The ink dried quickly, and then he had to dip again to write more. This might explain why some old letters are so difficult to read. However, taking the time to decipher these old letters has shed some interesting light on history.

Here are a few examples of historically interesting old letters that you can share with your class:

  • President Abraham Lincoln grew a beard because a young lady encouraged him to do so by letter. Both her request and his response are included on the following site; Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Grace Bedell.
  • A stunning letter from an ex-slave to his former master which, when first featured on Letters of Note, was read by millions of people in a matter of days. Read this letter, titled "To My Old Master" to your class for an incredible glimpse into how letters can illuminate history.
  • The correspondence between Winston and Clementine Churchill is fun to read in order to get a glimpse of a wonderful love story. It is also of interest on this website because the actual letter, written with a quill and ink, are shown.

Letters of Note is a wonderful resource of letters from the past that will intrigue your pupils. The site has a letter of advice from Ronald Reagan to his soon-to-be-wed 26-year-old son, a note from 18-year-old Keith Richards, who writes to his aunt after meeting Mick Jagger, and a wonderful letter from Fiona Apple, on the subject of love.

Books that Motivate Letter Writing

  • Share the book, Snail Mail My Email: Handwritten Letters in a Digital World with your class. Show them pictures of the letters that were sent and share the feelings of those involved with the project.
  • Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art is another book to share with your learners. It features art projects that prompt ideas of beautiful mail that we can send to others. This will absolutely make their typically bill-ridden mailboxes a happy place to visit!
  • Mail Me Art: Going Postal with the World's Best Illustrators and Designers is a book to be shared with anyone who loves to be inspired. Challenged by Darren Di Lieto, artists created inspiring artwork on letters, postcards, and packages and sent them to him through the mail. The book is a collection of the works. You can also see some of the pieces on their website.

Lessons About Mail

Here are a couple of ideas from Lesson Planet that will help you to extend this lesson on writing letters:

Writing Celebrity Letters

Learners will gather information from secondary sources such as books, fan magazines, and celebrity websites to use as background. They explore grammar by participating in a class writing activity. In addition, pupils identify the keys to a good letter such as research, word choice, and motivation. The assignment finishes with learners writing a friendly letter the celebrity of their choice.

Pay to Play?

Here, pupils share opinions about the degree to which money influences politics. They then debate the role of lobbyists in Washington and write letters to their representatives in Congress expressing their point of view on targeted issues.

Letter Writing and Snail Mail Relay

Learners will choose a school across the country from their own school. They then write letters to students in the school using correct letter format and including necessary details. They will request letters back. Hopefully, the letter-exchange process will continue throughout the school year.