WRITING GREAT LETTERS: A GUIDE FOR TEACHERS AND STUDENTS
In this age of digital communication, writing letters is becoming something of a lost art. Emails and text messages can be sent instantly and for a fraction of the cost that good old fashioned snail mail can offer. So, why bother teaching letter-writing at all? Well, though electronic ‘letters’ are often freer in terms of formatting and language than physical letters, we can also apply the rules of letter-writing to electronic media too. However, physical letters do offer some distinct benefits of their own too.
A WELL WRITTEN LETTER can change the world.
Whilst we pride ourselves here on how to write a great essay, information report or other text type that is primarily used in an educational setting, the ability to craft a powerful letter or email has literally changed people's lives, altered the course of history and been the difference between life and death in some cases.
It can be the one opportunity we have to remove all the noise and confusion on any subject area and truly tell someone how you feel straight from the heart. Pen to paper.
For whatever reason a thousand, emails, tweets, likes will never have the same impact as a well crafted hand written letter. Its very creation and existence shows your reader how passionate and genuine about what it contains.
3 Reasons to Teach Letter Writing
1. The Personal Touch:
Those of us who grew up in an age before the internet really got going will well remember the excitement of waiting for and receiving a letter. Many of us will have had childhood pen pals we never met, or received love letters from our teenage sweethearts. Maybe some of those treasured letters are still securely stored in a bedside drawer. There is something extremely personal and intimate about the letter that email is incapable of capturing. Letters are a physical thing and their increasing rarity make them seem even more intimate today.
Receiving a personally written letter in this day and age is something a unicorn in communication terms. Students who know how to produce a well-crafted letter can use it to their advantage. For example, any business hiring manager will undoubtedly be numbed by the constant torrent of emails applications flooding into their Gmail or Hotmail inbox. That mailed resume accompanied by a handwritten letter that waits for them on their desk in the morning is sure to stand out and secure an attentive read. The letter, in its various forms, is guaranteed to stand out and make an impact in an age where the vast majority of communication is digital.
Just as letter writing has declined in popularity, so too has the emphasis on well-developed handwriting skills. You can, if you wish, take the opportunity here to have the students work on their handwriting skills. While students may protest that they can accomplish the task much quicker by word-processing, another benefit of handwriting a letter is that the speed becomes almost meditative. This allows students to focus carefully on their grammar and punctuation, without always resorting to the crutch of spell-checkers and grammar correction software.
FORMAL AND INFORMAL LETTER WRITING: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
The table below outlines whether you letter should be written in formal or informal manner, with some suggested prompts. Whilst there are many similarities a formal letter should always be considered as a document with a real purpose and ramifications.
Common Features of Formal Letters
Formal letters can be written for a wide range of purposes and may come in a variety of shapes including a letter of complaint, a cover letter accompanying a job application, a letter of invitation, a reference letter, or a proposal letter - to name a few. Though each will adhere to their own rules of formatting and tone, when writing any formal letter students should avoid using slang or contractions. Language should be straightforward and polite. Encourage students to avoid bursts of purple prose in favor of direct, functional language. Usually a formal letter will be written to achieve a particular end and should be written with that end foremost in mind. Students should avoid meanderings and stay firmly focused on the task at hand.
Though the specific content of all the above letters will differ, there are a number of common features that will apply to each:
How to write a formal letter
● Writer’s address should be in the top right-hand corner
● Date should be written below writer’s address
● Recipient’s name and address below that on the left-hand side
● Use the correct opening (Dear Sir / Madam, Dear Mrs Ferguson, etc)
● Use Standard English
● Opening sentence should explain the purpose of the letter
● Each paragraph should make single specific point
● Use an appropriate formal tone and register in the wording of the letter
● Avoid contractions, slang, and abbreviations
● Concluding ‘action point’ paragraph states what you want the recipient to do
● Formal ending, such as Yours Sincerely or Yours Faithfully
A Note on Salutations
If the student knows the intended recipient’s name, start with Dear Mr. / Mrs Surname and end with Yours Sincerely. If they don’t know the recipient’s name, start with Dear Sir / Madam and end with Yours Faithfully.
Use of Rhetorical Devices
As mentioned, formal letter writing focuses on attempting to convince someone to take some course of action or other. To do this it is helpful to employ some rhetorical devices to make the writing more persuasive. Some useful techniques to encourage your students to employ include:
Direct Address: Using the pronoun ‘you’ in a formal letter makes the reader feel that you are speaking directly to them. This helps to engage the reader and encourage them to continue reading the letter.
Emotive Language: Where students are trying to convince the reader to take a course of action, the use of emotive language can often be a powerful tool. Students can use either positive or negative colored words to create the desired response in the reader.
Facts and Figures: Another way to persuade and convince is to employ facts and figures to support the points made in the letter.
Common Features of Informal Letters:
There are far fewer rules to follow when writing an informal letter, but there are still some useful guidelines to follow that will prove helpful for students engaged in writing informally.
As with any piece of writing, it is important to consider who the audience is and the reason for writing in the first place. In particular, this will help decide the tone and the language register. The more intimate the relationship the more informal the language can be.
Though the letter will be informal, it will still have a purpose. Information should still be organized into paragraphs as would be done with a formal, more ‘official’ letter. Students sometimes struggle with this aspect, as they often conflate ‘informal’ with ‘disorganized.’ Making they plan their informal letter prior to writing can help ensure it is sufficiently organized.
How to start a letter
Informal letters will start with a greeting appropriate to how close the relationship is. For acquaintances this may be ‘Dear Tom,’ (using the first name instead of the surname) to a very informal ‘Hi Jane,’. Don’t forget the comma after name!
After the greeting, a general opening sentence should follow. Usually this will be something along the lines of a ‘How are you?’ or a ‘How have you been?’. If the recipient is married or has kids, you may wish to ask how their spouse or children are. Next, students should state the reason for writing. The language should be open and friendly in tone and, in contrast to the formal letter, colloquial language, idiomatic expressions, and contractions are perfectly okay and even desirable.
Just as the opening salutation to an informal letter is much more relaxed, so too will the closing salutation. There are a multitude of possibilities for the students to choose here and their decision will depend on who they are writing to and their own personal preferences. Some examples of possible closings include, ‘Love’, ‘Best regards’, ‘All the best’, and ‘Thanks’.
The Writing Process: Planning
As with all genres of writing, the process of formal letter writing should start with planning. This should involve sketching a brief outline from which to work from rather than a comprehensive detailing of minutiae. The plan should include:
i. Note addresses, names etc - who are you writing?
ii. Record purpose of the letter - what do you want to say?
iii. List points to be made (each will form a paragraph) - how will you say it?
iv. State action point - what do you want the reader to do?
Suggested Writing Letter Activities
The most effective way for students to internalise all the features of letter writing, formal or informal, is to gain experience by writing a wide variety of letters for a range of purposes. The following activities offer some suggestions for students to get practicing today:
HOW TO MAKE YOUR HANDWRITTEN LETTERS LOOK OLD AND AUTHENTIC.
Write in pencil or a calligraphy pen
screw them up tightly and carefully unfold and flatten.
Lightly dab coffee stains over the paper to make it look aged.
Carefully singe or burn the edges of your paper.
Add some sepia filtered photos for effect
1. Fiction as a Springboard
Have students write as if they were a character from a piece of fiction you have been reading in class. Choosing a dramatic point in the plot, ask students to imagine they are one of the characters writing a letter to another character in the story. This writer may be either formal or informal depending on the scenario presented. This will give students realistic letter-writing practice while also getting them to engage closely with the text and responding imaginatively to its themes.
2. The Agony Aunt
Either offer a range of possible life predicaments or cut out the questions from the ‘agony aunt’ page of a local newspaper. Students must write back offering advice in response to the predicaments expressed in the question or predicament. The response should be written in full letter format. This activity also lends itself to a number of variations. The response may be written to a close friend, for example, or written from the perspective of a professional agony aunt employing a more formal tone and presentation.
3. A Letter of Complaint
Have students think of their favorite candy bar or clothing item. Encourage them to imagine they have bought this product lately and found it to be substandard. Students must write a formal letter of complaint to the manufacturer outlining their complaint and recommending a course of action to satisfactorily resolve that complaint. They must use all the features of a formal letter as outlined above.
As students become more confident in their understanding of letter writing formats, encourage them to exchange letters with each other for peer assessment. You may wish to provide them with a checklist of features to look for while reading over their partner’s work.
Letter-writing can also be a great way to partner up with schools overseas, often children studying English as a second language will be delighted to receive letters from (and write to) students in English-speaking countries. And though email increasingly encroaches on the traditional territory of the letter, many of skills garnered in the practice of letter writing are transferable to the modern manifestation. There is ample opportunity here to link letter-writing learning with approaches to writing emails too.
Letter-writing can provide a focus for a wide range of learning objectives, while also teaching students valuable practical skills that will serve them well beyond their school years, both in their personal and work lives. And who knows, perhaps in years to come one of the letters your student writes in your class may become a treasured keepsake in someone’s bedside drawer.
Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years teaching and administration experience. Editing and support content has been provided by the literacyideas team.