What used to be a “basic” writing skill like writing a letter now feels archaic for our students. But just because they haven’t written many letters before high school doesn’t mean they won’t need to after. Do your high school students a favor and work a letter writing lesson into your curriculum!
(Want to skip the prep work? Grab a done-for-you Letter Writing Lesson here that can be used in person or remotely!)
Why Teach a Letter Writing Lesson
Granted, writing a letter isn’t as necessary as it used to be. But once in a while, students will need to do so.
In fact, in their final year of high school, students might find themselves writing a lot of letters. Jobs require cover letters, colleges require application letters, and they might one day need to write a letter of recommendation.
If students have written a letter before, they’ll be less intimidated to write one late in the “real world.”
So make sure your students don’t leave your classroom without being introduced to this essential life skill!
Letter Writing Lesson Tip #1: Provide an Authentic Audience
Sure, you could tell students to write an imaginary letter to Santa, a character in a novel, or to a celebrity who’ll never actually look at it.
But you’ll do your students a big favor if you provide an authentic audience in the form of a real reader.
When students know that someone other than their teacher will be reading their work, it changes the game. Suddenly, there’s a pressure to perform and get things right that goes beyond just a passing grade. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.
So, what kind of authentic audiences can you provide?
Authentic Audience Ideas
An easy one is to have students write to a member of the school staff. You can have students write a gratitude letter to a staff member for Thanksgiving or at the end of the year.
Not only will students know that they’ll have to face this person after he or she has read their letters, but you’ll get to provide a much-needed emotional boost to your colleagues! Who wouldn’t have a better week after reading a letter of thanks from a student?
Another possible audience is to have students write a letter to the troops. This is a great lesson plan around the holidays when many armed forces are away from their families and don’t receive any communication.
If you are a Civics teacher or teach a unit on civics, you can also have students write to a representative in their state. Local leaders are more likely to respond to student letters, and it’s so fun when students receive a reply months later!
Students are always surprised that someone took the time to read their letter, and even more surprised to get a response. These positive moments can create more civic-minded students for our future, too.
Letter Writing Lesson Tip #2: Teach Formatting
This is probably a no-brainer. If you’re going to teach letter writing, you need to cover the letter format.
This is, after all, what separates a letter from a note or a printed email.
Hopefully, your students have mastered capitalizing the beginning of sentences and other basic writing skills, but we know that things like these cannot be taken for granted. For struggling writers, the formatting of a letter might be hard or even stressful.
It’s worth taking your time to go over proper formatting, especially for those struggling writers. They’ll benefit from the practice the most.
Letter Writing Lesson Tip #3: Discuss Tone
The audience you choose for your students’ letters will determine the tone that students need to take in their writing.
But make sure to acknowledge that tone will change depending on the letter and the audience. A letter to grandma will read differently than a letter to a congressperson or to a best friend.
You’ve probably discussed tone with students before, either in relation to literature or academic writing. Use your letter-writing lesson as another opportunity to discuss tone in a new way.
What kind of language is appropriate for this task? How important is correct grammar? How do these things change as your relationship with the audience changes?
If possible, try to provide examples of both formal and informal letters for your students, so they can see the difference themselves.
Letter Writing Lesson Tip #4: Don’t Forget the Envelope!
Just like letter writing might be a little foreign to your students, addressing an envelope definitely will be.
I once asked my students to address envelopes for me to save some time. I didn’t think about how my senior high school students might have never addressed envelopes before.
The results were… wild. I couldn’t believe how little my students knew about addressing an envelope!
So don’t do what I did and assume your students know how to actually send a letter once they’ve written it. Walk them through it.
Just like you’ll teach the format of a letter, teach the format of addressing an envelope. Even if the letters will be delivered around the school, make students address the letters to a specific classroom number of the school from your classroom number.
Students will have to send something in the mail at some point in their lives. Don’t let the graduate high school without knowing how to do it!
Also, here’s an important note about equity: do not have your students address envelopes to their own home addresses. This is another mistake I made (so you don’t have to!).
I once was sending home letters to parents and asked students to address envelopes for me. So many students had no idea what their addresses were. I was shocked!
I called up the guidance counselor to come help us. She was able to look up some addresses for us, but she explained that many of my students moved too frequently to keep up with their own addresses.
Some were in foster homes. A few were even homeless. Other students didn’t know if they should send the letters to their mom’s or their dad’s house.
Once I was faced with the problem, it made sense, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. But my own privilege blinded me to this problem before it occurred.
So if you’re having students send a letter in the mail, provide them with the address yourself!
How to write a letter might not exactly be in the Common Core State Standards, but it’s still an important life skill for our students.
At some point in their four years of high school, make sure they learn how to do it. Pay close attention to the formatting and tone, and don’t forget that the envelope is an important part of the process!
If you’d like to have your students write a letter but don’t have time to prep yet another lesson, I have a printable and digital, done-for-you Letter Writing Lesson here.
In this resource, you’ll get a slideshow lesson, example letters (showing tone and formatting), and a blank envelope template for practicing. The assignment is editable, so while the default assignment is a gratitude letter to staff, you change the audience to whomever you wish.