In an age dominated by educational technology, letter writing (that’s right—a handwritten note) is the perfect teaching tool to switch things up at the start of the school year. The practice often feels foreign enough to young learners to generate a sense of excitement and novelty, yet it’s not so antiquated as to be void of all merit.
Despite arguments that letter writing may be a dying art or waste of time, I’ve found it to be a useful method for introducing academic content and classroom routines while building community and alleviating social and emotional struggles. Here are some strategies for including it in your classroom.
WRITING TO YOUNGER PEERS
Writing a letter provides a low-stakes opportunity to ease students into the writing process. The return or introduction to an academic environment can be an intimidating experience for students as they acclimate to new expectations while trying to recall previously learned content or apply existing skills. However, letter writing offers a chance for students to write without feeling pressured to generate an original idea or mold their writing to fit an assigned topic, and therefore it’s a great place to start.
Invite students to write a letter to students in the grade below them, explaining what they liked about the previous school year. Or, ask students to write a letter to their teacher from last year or to a friend in a different class. Shannon Olsen’s book A Letter From Your Teacher: On the First Day of School could serve as a mentor text for these activities and spark students’ writing.
These approaches deliver students into the writing process in relatable ways while still requiring them to practice writing mechanics and handwriting techniques. They also benefit teachers by offering helpful insight into students’ lives and current skill sets (acting as a formative assessment)—gleaned, for example, from seeing to whom students address their letters, how they work independently, their approach to persisting in writing tasks across time, etc.
Additionally, in the first weeks of school, you might give each student the name of another student in the class and have them write letters to each other identifying one classroom agreement, rule, routine, etc., at which the recipient excels. This exercise requires students to put thought into how they communicate with their classmates while reinforcing classroom procedures—all while sharpening writing skills through practice.
Building a sense of community in the classroom is essential at the start of the year, and letter writing supports this task. Students may write friendly letters to each other, which can be especially helpful for students who feel nervous about talking to new classmates. An anxious student who does not know whom to sit or play with may welcome the opportunity to connect with a classmate by writing a letter, as opposed to having to confront the student.
Exchanging letters with another class can provide an excellent way to build community within a grade level or school as well, and it might offer opportunities to introduce students to additional mentor texts. For instance, reading The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, creates an opportunity for students to share their favorite colors—a simple but meaningful way to get to know each other.
Letter writing can also be an effective classroom management strategy, especially when mediating a conflict between students or helping students who are struggling to follow classroom routines.
Having a student write an apology or thank-you note to a friend or faculty member builds not only writing but also broader communication skills that encourage empathy and perspective-taking while allowing students time to think about how they wish to express themselves.
If students struggle with regulating their emotions and communicating effectively, letter writing offers a helpful avenue for conveying their thoughts without having to verbalize them on demand. It’s a practical way to teach students that their words have meaning and value and, consequently, must be chosen carefully.
A frustrated or angry student is far more likely to provide a meaningful apology via a handwritten note composed after calming down than when they’re asked to say “Sorry” to a classmate during a challenging moment.
In addition to the benefits outlined above, letter-writing activities facilitate handwriting and reading practice, lessons on etiquette and manners, the joy one experiences from receiving a letter, and an introduction on how the postal service works, among other concepts.
Letter writing also allows for instruction on various modes of writing in a fun and engaging manner and often connects with read-aloud mentor texts. Additional letter-writing text examples include persuasive writing (Can I Be Your Dog?, by Troy Cummings, and the I Wanna series, by Karen Kaufman Orloff), comparing and contrasting (Tabitha and Fritz Trade Places, by Katie Frawley), and inquisitive writing (Dear Mr. Blueberry, by Simon James, and Yours in Books, by Julie Falatko). Finally, books like Same, Same But Different, by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, and Dear Dragon, by Josh Funk, lend themselves to meaningful social and emotional learning lessons and building community through letter writing.
The ways in which teachers can use letter writing in the classroom are extensive and offer varied, innovative methods for teaching academic content as well as social skills and school expectations.