We may live in the era of high-speed communication, but our feelings on receiving a text message or e-mail still don't quite match the delight of finding a picture postcard on the doormat. Receiving a postcard is a sign that we've not been forgotten. Even this happy sensation, however, is as nothing compared to the quiver of satisfaction the sender enjoys while dropping a pile of them into a letterbox.
Picture postcards first appeared in Britain towards the end of 1894 and they remain popular today. Many people in the US have developed the postcard-collecting bug (known as deltiology) and, thanks to this interest, the range of picture-postcard subjects is ever increasing.
The usefulness of postcards in school should not be overlooked. Now that travel to faraway places has become more common, global awareness for today's children is essential.
A collection of postcards can provide wonderful material for cross-curricular activities and is particularly useful for linking literacy and geography.
A varied selection can be a rich and interesting resource, and lines from your friends on their summer holidays can be an opportunity for you to add to your collection in preparation for next year's lessons.
Children can put postcards into sets according to whether they have pictures of buildings, people, places, maps, animals, recipes, bird's eye view, satellite view, or perhaps a combination of these features. And they can present their results in bar-graph form.
Postcards make an interesting display if grouped together under an umbrella heading such as "Impressions of England". They can also provide a topic for discussion, especially if the collection is of different views of the same location. And discussing different postcards of their own town makes children more aware of their immediate environment.
Arrange the cards according to countries or continents, and use maps, atlases and globes to identify where these places are. Starting close to home, group those from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and compile a list of information about each.
Brainstorm what the children know about their own area and then other parts of the British Isles they have visited. The information may be listed under various headings, such as places by the sea or in the mountains. Ask questions such as: "Where would we look to find out about towns in the Midlands?" to start discussion about ways to research information and how to use various non-fiction texts.
Explore the world
Postcards from foreign climes may be divided into continents for children to explore. Encyclopaedias, CD-Roms and the Internet are invaluable for this. Give the children a purpose for their research. They could make a "Facts aboutI" book, giving essential information for travellers. Temperature charts, places to visit, food, customs and national pastimes or dress may form part of this non-fiction compilation. Travel brochures are useful but complex texts. Guided group reading sessions with the teacher demonstrating how to use them is the best approach. Start with questions such as: When is the hottest time of the year?
What places of interest are there to see?
Imagine you are going to Madrid for a week. What would you like to do there?
What would be the cost of a holiday in Tunisia for a family of four in the high season?
Writing postcards is a different process from writing letters. Discuss the differences and read some of the messages written on the cards. Or compose a message in typical postcard style together with one in over-descriptive prose and use these in a shared reading session. The differences highlight for children the genre of writing used. In a shared, or guided, writing session compose postcard-style messages. The children may then design and make postcards of their town and write a message describing what an exciting place it is to visit. This sort of activity makes children look positively on their environment and develop an awareness of their surroundings.
With postcards from different eras, an historical theme could be followed. The Postcard Century by Tom Phillips (Thames amp; Hudson, pound;19.95) is a wonderful resource for this type of work as it contains a variety of postcards illustrating changes in social attitudes during the 20th century.
Cover the writing on the back of the cards with white paper and pose questions. For example: "This postcard is from Italy.Italy looks like a boot. Find Italy in the map book. It is in Europe. What is the island near the toe of Italy called?" For younger children this may need to be accompanied by a drawing of Italy. Ensure that the correct terminology is used - island, climate, continent - from the start. Even young children should know the proper geographical terms and it extends their use of vocabulary. Presented in this format, they can look on it as a game and hardly realise they are learning. Talking together while they examine the atlas enhances their geographical awareness and extends their communication skills.
Postcards may also be used as a springboard for further work on a particular country. Extend the project by setting up a link with another country. Exchanging messages and information about life in general, and sharing poetry and other creative work, broaden children's perspectives of the wider world. Schools can get funding to set up a Comenius project with another European country (go to www.eun.org and look for Comenius Space under Our Projects).
Writing to the selected country's embassy is another way for children to find information and gives the writing a purpose and an audience. Set up an informative display for the rest of the school. Spreading the word like this encourages other classes to extend their knowledge too.
Work could culminate in a national day - for example, an Italian day, when the children listen to Italian music, make pizza or pasta and learn a few words of the language. Stories about and from that country could be read and discussed. Or schools could organise a special world day, when children come dressed in different national costumes and sample foods from those countries.
Jacqueline Harrett is senior lecturer in primary English at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff