Thursday 14 February 2013

Dear Penpal

When you write an email or a text to a friend, do you care about your sentence structure? grammar? spelling? And what about when you write an old fashioned letter (and actually go to the post office or put it in the letter drop)? Do you care about your spelling and grammar then? These are the questions I pondered whilst I was marking my immersion students' penpal letters last weekend. They are corresponding with students in Ottawa in French and so both parties are writing in their (likely) second language. Most of my students seem quite engaged in this project.  Who wouldn't want to "pass notes" with someone on the other side of the country and get points for it? Or so I thought...
Here's what I have learned so far by reading their penpal letters:

1) In terms of quality of writing, it was a "mixed (mail?) bag".  Some letters were very well written; the author had taken care with his or her work- so as to not make a mistake and have their penpal see it- that would be embarrassing! Other letters were not so carefully written and met the bare minimum requirements- hmm either the student didn't like the writing process or hasn't decided yet if they really care about having a penpal? Others were somewhere in the middle. They had good questions for their penpal, but perhaps lacked good sentence structure, spelling or grammar.
2) I learned stuff about my students! It's interesting what they will share with someone their age (albeit someone they have never met and in a different province) that they don't share in class. I discovered a lot about their families, hobbies and interests by reading what they wrote about themselves.
3) I thought students would take more care in the editing process of writing their letters since someone (other than me) would actually be reading them. I'm not yet convinced that this is totally true.  After all, do kids that instant message each other via FB, Twitter or text message (and who have never met) care about spelling and grammar? And is it different when you text or email someone vs. when you hand write a letter?
4) Finally, does it even matter if their grammar, spelling and punctuation is correct in this authentic cultural activity? Is the benefit of the task simply in doing the task itself?

    Questions aside, I'm very much looking forward to continuing our correspondence with our penpals in the nation's capital. Perhaps exploring the writing process further with my students will just be an added bonus.

P.S. Perhaps one of them has met Stephen Harper? ;)

P.P.S. Here are two examples of student letters:

Post courtesy of Melissa Hunter


  1. HI Melissa,

    I find it interesting that assignments designed to address planned outcomes often produce unanticipated results. The fact that you learned new things about your students has great value, independent of the quality of the work. Even the choices around visual images in their letters provides insight into their thinking process. Great assigment.


  2. Thanks for posting! I am struggling with this myself! I am treating as an authentic activity and fixed only the errors that made them difficult to be understood in their sentences.