Sunday, April 26, 2015


               I had a very chatty class my first year teaching first grade. As someone who had been a very quiet student, I was taken aback by how much they could find to say to each other and how they constantly felt the need to be talking.
               At the same time, I was charged with teaching them how to read and write. So I came up with an idea.
               I obtained a classroom "mailbox" with a slot for each student. I wrote a personal letter to each student and placed it in their mailbox. I also set out some letter writing paper on each desk. At the beginning of the year, these had the date and the words "Dear" and "Sincerely" pre-written on them in the right places. Also, on the outside were written the words "To:" and "From:"

At first they would just copy what I had written to them

               In the morning when they came in, I impressed upon them that this was a quiet time. First, they were to put away their things in the cloakroom. Next, get their letter. Then, write a letter of their own - to anyone, about anything.

I never could get this child to say "she" instead of "her"

               I "delivered" these letters to the right mail slots the next letter-writing day (we did this Monday - Wednesday - Friday). I told them I would scan in the letters before I delivered them to the person they were addressed to. And I did this, too, although it took a very long time when I got home at night. It was wonderful to look at the progress they had made over the school year - from very simple letters that basically copied the letter I had written to them, to, by May, complex letters that were addressed to their friends and asked very relevant questions or said insightful things. But I did deliver the letters, and the kids were always pleased to see letters from their friends in their mailboxes. Those who did not get letters from a friend always could be sure of getting a letter from me.

You can see what they usually have their mind on - playing at each others' houses

               I was surprised to find that, especially at first, a lot of kids copied my letter word-for-word, even though it didn't make sense out of context, and my use of check boxes (Do you like candy? Check Yes or No) really caught on. I would go from student to student, encouraging them to ask and tell about things they were interested in and helping them sound out the words (or just draw a picture).

I would let them draw a picture if they couldn't spell a word. So here, the child is saying "I love stars"

               This was a great part of my pedagogy because it taught the children that reading and writing can also be social things, something I don't think they would have otherwise understood at that age.

"Why do you don't want come over my house no more? Why do you don't go to the mall with me."

               And at the end of a long school day, it really pleased me to sit down and read what the children had written to each other (again- I did warn them I would do this!), and marvel at the great strides in writing that they were making, at their creativity and the interests they would reveal in their letters. And of course I got a lot of sweet letters written to me.

This girl was very gifted and insisted I teach her cursive - she signed her name in cursive.

Steps for Implementing Letter-writing
  1. Get a mailbox or document holder with enough slots for all of your students.
  2. Number or name the slots.
  3. Write a letter to each of your students and file them in the slots.
  4. Provide letter-writing paper (perhaps with fields filled-out).
  5. Have the children write letters silently in the morning.
  6. Take up the letters and scan them at home right after writing time.
  7. Deliver the letters, plus ones you have written to fill gaps, to the slots the next letter-writing day.
If you use this activity, you can see what your kids are thinking. This was a troubled child.

               I would recommend this activity to any educator, but I want to warn you that it is a lot of work. One of my major duties every weekend was to write up to three personal letters to 24 different children- I often included sketches or doodles, since I can draw, and I was trying to hold their interest in the written word. It was important to me that I not duplicate the letters, because I can assure you that the children were comparing the letter they had gotten with their friends'. When you get tired, of course you can just make sure to write to the ones whose classmates are not writing to them, but you want everyone to get a letter from their teacher at least once a week. I would say it took at least five hours a week to write the letters, but to me, it was well worth it. It did take several more hours a week to scan all of the children's letters in, but I don't think this is necessary (it was just very important to me and assisted me in making a portfolio of each child's work).

"Do you like to read"!

You can see my use of check boxes became very popular

               If you are a teacher and you decide to adapt this activity to your classroom, I would love to hear how it turns out. I can tell you, it did not cause these chatty children to be any quieter, as a rule- but I like to think it gave them a new appreciation for what writing can do.

This was from letters I had them write before they went out of school for Christmas Break. I was very surprised to read this!

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