There is no need to stick to strictly utilitarian letters to meet curriculum targets: education ought to be about enrichment too. Here are some ideas that can be used in teaching letter-writing. You can also use letters from collections such as the Oxford Book of Letters, or the letters pages of newspapers, or the ones that fall on your own doormat.
1. Introducing the topic
In The TES of March 17 2006, Victoria Neumark's "Inside Story" discusses how to use letters. I use a few sections from this piece to introduce the topic of letter-writing, because it is eloquent. However, as some of the material is quite advanced, I need to be selective for my audience.
Alternatively, you could ask what letters the students get and how they feel when receiving them. The idea is to get a sense of how much emotion is carried in, or generated by, letters, whether they carry news of love or death, gossip, threats, warnings, or promises.
Group letters into formal and informal, then discuss the differences in style, language and presentation. Some real examples (perhaps provided by the students) would be useful to illustrate the points. Enter the main differences on a matrix which compares the characteristics of both formal and informal letters such as purpose, layout, language, salutation and closure.
Ask the students to write two letters about the same subject, one formal and one to a friend. Suggest possible subject matter within their own experience, such as a particularly good or bad holiday, a stolen purse, or viewing a flat to rent.
The TES article reproduced a letter from a young soldier, Private Leon Spicer, to be sent to his family in the event of him being killed in action. When the worst happened, his family allowed the letter to be released.
I give the students a copy of this just as it was written (see box right).
The letter has errors in spelling, grammar, style and construction which are all typical of basic skills learners, but to criticise it would be inappropriate and insensitive, and this is part of the point. I want them to feel what an emotional impact a letter can have, despite technical errors.
Some of my students are wary of putting anything onto paper in case it might be "wrong" so I want to impress on them that spelling and grammar are only the means to an end, and the end is to carry your message to the reader. Have the tissues handy.
I use this letter to end the lesson because it's difficult to follow.
2. "Dear John"
You can have a bit of fun with this, and I use it to introduce work on rhyming, since many of my students have poor phonic awareness which hampers reading and spelling.
First, we discuss what a "Dear John" letter is, (usually sent to end a marriage or romance, because the woman has found someone else) then give them a copy of a hand-written one. You could use any, but I use this one.
Dear John, Now that the war is over and before you get back, there are some things you need to know. There are more people in the house than before the war.
After you were home on leave, I found that I was pregnant. As it was a boy, I named him Winston, in honour of Winston Churchill. I told you that his skin is darker than yours and his hair is curly. You also know that I took a lodger to make ends meet and Winnie is still living here. His name is actually short for Winstone, and he is an ambulance driver from Jamaica.
I will send your things to your mother's.
Your loving wife, Peggy After a brief discussion, I play them Paul Simon's song "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". This uses word play based on men's names and is full of rhymes, which some of my students find challenging. Try writing your own version, starting with a list of one-syllable women's names.
3. Letters in fiction
There are plenty of books where the story is developed through letters, which you can discuss with your students.
One example, which my group enjoyed is Minette Walter's Chickenfeed from the new Quick Reads series. However, as the story hinges on the sexual relationship between the two main characters, and ends in a violent death, it will not be suitable for all groups.
If you decide to use Chickenfeed, read the first four pages to set up the characters. Then give students copies of the first letters between Elsie and Norman. Compare the forms of salutation and signing off, as well as what is said and what is left unsaid. Discuss how the letters help to develop the characters. Ask the students to predict how the story line might develop. You can select examples from later in the book to show how the relationship develops. I am indebted to the Literacy Trust for this idea, taken from www.literacytrust.org.uk.
4. The Night Mail
WH Auden's famous poem describing an overnight mail train was written as a voice-over for a short public service film (available on video or DVD). We see the train hurtling up the tracks and through darkened stations, while the postmen inside sort the letters.
The poem has a wonderful onomatopoeic quality. Many of my students have trouble with auditory discrimination, and this really makes them listen carefully.
Follow up by collecting place names to create rhymes and rhythms. Many poems are built up from lists and it's a good place to start with writers who lack confidence. Working collaboratively to produce a group response can be less daunting.
The film is a glimpse of a lost world as the mail is not sorted on overnight trains any more. Students can write a letter to a person in another age, describing a journey they have taken, explaining it to a reader who has never experienced that form of transport.
Learners sometimes don't see the point of such a fantasy, but you can explain that it helps them to focus on detail - a life skill needed in all sorts of contexts, from talking to your doctor, reporting a crime or an accident, to describing a procedure for a work colleague.
Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer
Private Leon Spicer (right) gave this letter to his mother before going to Iraq, to be opened only if he died in action:
DEAR MOM + DAD, Right if u'r reading this I've gone some where that all of you have'nt.
Don't cry cos if u do I'll have a word with GOD and tell him not to let you all in.
Right then I new what could happen too me but it was my Job, and I wanted too do it. Remember I LOVE U ALL (u and dad more) ONLY JOKEING.
Gerard's the best brother any brother could ask four and as NINA my only sister, I loved her to bits. So stop crying as I am as I write this.
I've had the BEST LIFE out of any one in the whole world. Right then mom what can I say about U, if I wanted to say everything I would need about 10 million note books but I can put it into 5 words THE BEST MOM IN THE WORLD!! P.S I need to count cos I do beleave there were six words. NOW DAD U'R THE BEST DAD IN THE WORLD and I hope u've known it. I love u so much we had everything in comen, but I think I took scouting too far ie I JOINED THE ARMY between u and me we were the only ones that could survive in the woods. I loved everything that u done and wanted to do it from camping to being a leader.
RIGHT I'm going to bed. Tell Grandma how much I love her she's the best in the world and tell her to look after edey (EDDY, HER DOG) SEE YOU ALL SOON I'LL BE THERE WAITING FOUR YOU ALL.
* ots and lots of love LEONXXX P.S Tell Kidd + Vin they where the best mates anyone could ask 4.
P.P.S NEVER FORGET I'M WATCHING YOU, ME AND GRANDAD SO WATCH OUT.
I LOVE U.