Turning Texts and Emails Into Lessons on Formal Writing
Emails and texts are staples of distance learning—often informal and riddled with text-speak. Teaching lessons on letter writing can help students improve communication.
Most junior high and high school teachers have received messages from students that are far too informal, grammatically incorrect, or riddled with text-speak such as “How are u?”
With the ubiquity of school emails, messaging apps, and learning management systems, students have round-the-clock connectivity. Students and teachers are more heavily relying on this type of communication during the pandemic. Student communications offer teachable moments for educators, who can guide learners toward writing more polished messages. Becoming better professional communicators will help students for the rest of their lives.
Let students know at the beginning of a course that you will be requesting or requiring them to write in a formal manner when composing emails or messages. In my own experience, I have encountered incredulity or even lighthearted resistance when I correct a student’s message to me.
Students will perceive the expectations as helpful rather than burdensome if they understand the reason for professional communication. Emphasize the importance of formal communication, especially when it pertains to school and the workplace. This may require a conversation with the class and an explanation as to why good letter writing, especially in the workplace, is critical to success. Being able to write in an intelligible, polite, and grammatically correct way distinguishes a student or employee from their peers. It indicates that the writer has not only an effective command of language but also a respect for others. Articulate and well-mannered communications can do more than simply convey information. They can do much to mitigate potential misunderstandings, resolve conflict, lift spirits, and foster a sense of community at school or in the professional world.
Young people have become accustomed to writing quick, unedited communications, often filled with slang and abbreviations. Distinguish as a class between formal and informal communication. Ask students to brainstorm and offer ideas about when formal communication might be required, such as with employers, potential employers, and businesses. Compare this to the informal communication often afforded to our friends.
Display examples of formal and informal communication on a board. Have fun and allow students to consider how informal text slang (school appropriate) might be translated to something more professional. “Hey” or “What’s up?” can be changed to “Dear Sir” or “To Whom It May Concern.” The numerals “2” or “4” should be replaced with “to” or “for.” Abbreviations like “tbh” (to be honest), “pls” (please), and “imo” (in my opinion) should be avoided, as well.
Make sure that students understand what is an acceptable style of communication. Give examples of appropriate emails and messages so that they have something with which to compare their own writing. In the past, I have used some of my own professional correspondence with names and details omitted as examples for students to emulate. Work on an appropriate and effective message as a class. Remember that good message-writing in the office or school includes a salutation and closing, close attention to mechanics, a commitment to civility and professionalism, and an effort to present all the relevant information as concisely as possible.
If possible, show the class well-written messages that students have sent you. Ask the following questions:
- Are there any grammar or spelling errors in the email or message?
- What did they include to make it a formal or professional message (e.g., a salutation, a closing signature)?
- How might such a message impress a teacher or employer?
- Is the message respectful and level-headed?
- Mention problems, if any, that you note with student communication, such as run-on sentences or a lack of capitalization.
Practice letter-writing skills while simultaneously incorporating relevant curriculum. A short letter of just a few sentences can suffice, and shorter assignments may be less intimidating to students who are writing formally for the first time. Ensure that students follow all rules of grammar and style. Here are some example activities:
- A journal entry in which students write a short, formal letter to a historical figure (Albert Einstein, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc).
- A bell ringer in which they answer a question or respond to a prompt as a formal letter. For example, “Write a one-paragraph persuasive letter to the principal advocating for a specific change in school procedure. Remember to be courteous.”
- A review activity in which students write a letter to a classroom describing what will be on an upcoming test and ways they can best study.
- An assignment to write a letter to a fictional pen pal in a different country.
- A homework response written in the form of a professional letter.
To lighten the mood, have students complete an activity, but ask them to pretend that they are writing a casual text to a friend. In this case, you would encourage abbreviations and slang (e.g., “r” for “are”). Ask the students to take the same letter and translate it into something professional and well-written.
Incorporate student communication requirements in a syllabus. Teachers can uniquely adapt the standards and rules of what constitutes appropriate communication. Some teachers might require a salutation and a complimentary close, such as “Sincerely,” “Best wishes,” or “Thank you.”
Teachers might not be able to grade emails and other messages, but there may be ways to hold students accountable. If a student writes something grammatically incorrect or informal, gently remind them to correct their material or request that they fix the problems before responding. Award bonus points to anyone who writes emails or messages following the format you have presented. Consider activities that may be graded, such as an assignment or assessment that must be answered in the form of a well-written email.
Learning how to write respectful and appropriate messages will benefit students professionally and perhaps set them apart from those whose communications are marred by improper colloquialisms or grammar mistakes. Encouraging students to compose messages to teachers that are well-written and polite reinforces a skill that will serve them for the rest of their lives.