Writing to a pen pal is often recommended as a way of engaging children in writing and reading. However, after a few letter exchanges the correspondence tends to dwindle and die.
Rather than setting up a peer pen pal, make the connection with an adult. It might be a relative (aunt, uncle, grandparent) or a family friend.
Receiving letters from an adult means the child is more likely to see a concrete example of good writing and the letters are more likely to lead to a more in depth, long-term interaction between the two writers.
To add a ‘social contribution’ dimension to children’s letter writing have them participate in the Writing to Elders project.
Suggested Letter Focus
To give the letter exchange greater focus, suggest the following ideas to the adult writer:
Agree to both read a common book and then discuss the book
The adult writer can model a quality book (or film) discussion by:
- Discussing the character’s traits, values and attitudes with which they did or didn’t empathise with and how these were identified via the character’s behaviour, appearance, dialogue, thoughts and interaction with other characters.
- Cite sections from the text that resonated in some way (humour, sadness, etc.).
- Identifying the book’s theme(s) and discussing their own thoughts on the theme.
- Discuss writing or film techniques that were particularly effective in conveying a message.
- Making links to real life events (historical or current).
- Comparing and contrasting the book with other books or films that both parties have read or seen.
- Weaving in relevant personal anecdotes.
- Making predictions and inferences.
Discuss a common experience
- A place both have visited.
- An event both have experienced (being lost, first day of school, snow skiing, etc.).
- Best, worst, most interesting experience.
- An activity both enjoy (watching or participating in a particular sport, singing, cooking, etc.).
Ask powerful questions
The adult writer can ask questions that:
- Require the child to think a little deeper, to make the child consider their values and attitudes and to explain why he/she holds these beliefs.
- Encourage the child to consider multiple solutions to problems or issues.
- Help the child to explore goals.
- Support the child in reflecting on his/her behaviour (positive and negative).
Some Additional Benefits
The child writer:
- Is able to explore complex issues (hopefully in a non-judgemental environment).
- Has an authentic audience for his/her writing.
- Sees the value of literacy skills outside the school environment.
Adult writers are also able to:
- Offer constructive and positive feedback.
- Show a genuine interest in the child’s ideas, successes and failures.
- Provide advice without, because there is the distance of time and space, the conflict often associated with providing advice.
- Help your child purchase special stationery. Designer paper and glitter pens might just be the incentive required!
- For children who find the writing process laborious, begin by having them dictate the letter to you.
- Let your child type the letter. This makes it easier to make corrections, the finished product looks professional and photos and pictures can easily be added.