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Formal Letters for Everyone: Ideas of why and how to bring formal letters into every classroom in fun, interactive ways
by Alex Case

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Most English teachers have taught formal letter writing at some point in their careers, especially with corporate clients. But why 'for everyone'? In this article I will try to explain why I think they are suitable for everyone, how to make them accessible even to students who have no immediate need for formal letter writing through fun and interactive lessons, and how to make sure everyone writes them well.

Why ' for everyone'?
Firstly, because I would argue that writing is useful for every learner of English, including those who will never have any need to actually write in English, and formal letters are a great place to start. Not everyone would agree- a student of mine was surprised to be told when asking about a Cambridge Proficiency exam preparation class in a audio-lingual based school that there would be no writing in class, but she could do some writing at home 'if she wanted to'. My own personal experience as a teacher and language learner is that simply picking up your pen and writing can have benefits for all round language development:

- Things stick more when you write them down

- You have a permanent record to refer back to

- You can work at your own pace, experiment and try to be more ambitious in your language use

- Teachers can give lots of individual language feedback

Among all the skills, writing is one that most needs to be taught. It cannot simply be picked up in the same way as speaking and even students who read widely in English will have real problems writing if they never have before. Even students with an Advanced level of spoken language can produce almost unintelligible writing.

Why formal letters?
Firstly, it fits easily into the criteria provided by discourse analysis (see 1) - clear register (formal), clearly defined audience, fixed layout and strict conventions (such as 'yours sincerely'). This is much less the case in a discursive essay, for example, where the audience and level of formality are often far from clear. It is these factors which makes it far more teachable and makes it possible to create fun, interactive, genuinely communicative activities for use both inside and outside the classroom (see below).

Secondly, it is a great introduction to various aspects of the language. The fact that students need to learn a number of fixed phrases 'I would be grateful if you could' 'I look forward to hearing from you soon' etc, is a perfect, painless introduction to collocation and not considering lexis only as individual words. The need for good planning and organisation is usually more obvious in a formal piece of writing, especially one which must give a good impression such as a letter of application. This often leads naturally onto the process of planning, drafting and correction (see 2). More obviously, it is also a great way to start looking at formality in general, something needed from even the very lowest levels.

Lastly, the skill of being able to write formal letters is very high status. For example, in Spain it is fairly standard practice when applying for jobs in multi-national companies even inside the country to send application letters in English. Therefore, it should not be difficult to justify covering this particular aspect of writing to your students, especially if you can make it communicative, competitive and fun (see below).

What do students need in order to write a formal letter?

Knowledge of:
Spelling and punctuation
The processes used in writing efficiently.

I will deal with each of these, but as sub-categories of the two major problems students have with formal letters

- Formality

- Organisation.

The best way for students to start looking at register is for them to look at short extracts of text and decide if they are formal or informal (or possibly neutral). This can be turned into a race. An alternative is to have a formal and an informal text mixed up, and divide them to construct the two texts (e.g. 'old' Headway Upper (3)). They can then analyse how they decided this, possibly by forming a list of features under the two columns 'formal' and 'informal'. You could possibly do this as a board race. I find this activity can be very useful in tackling common misunderstandings such as that 'Dear..' is formal and 'Yours,' is as formal as 'Yours sincerely'. A simpler activity would be to have true/ false sentences about formal letters, giving points for correct answers. For more student involvement, they could write the sentences and the other students work out if they are true/ false or formal/ informal/ both. Teams get points for writing sentences that the other teams guess wrongly.

In terms of vocabulary, students must first understand the distinction between informal vocabulary such as phrasal verbs and the more formal Latin-based language of formal letters. Often just pointing this out to a speaker of a Latin language can make the whole task seem much more approachable.

Another form of vocabulary is the chunks of language, e.g. sentences stems, that must be learnt in order to write formal letters well. Making this clear to students, and I have found that students are only too willing to accept this and put in the necessary work, can be a perfect way of starting students in a more lexical approach to language in general. The best way to start the process of learning them is to have students analyse genuine formal letters for the functions of particular sentences. The next stage would be to have them divide the language which is completely fixed (e.g. 'I would be very grateful if....') from that which changes from letter to letter. With 10 to 12 of these sentence stems, it is then quite simple to set whole (short) writing tasks they can complete with these and a few extra words, which is obviously very motivating.

Another more fun way of helping students memorise the language is to stick a sentences or two on the board and have one of your students read out them out. They then nominate a word, which is deleted from the board, and a student, who must read out the whole thing including the missing word. The game continues until the whole text has gone! The same exercise can be done in pairs by printing out on a grid and writing out the sentences with one word per box. Another (blank) grid is cut up into squares of paper, and students place these on the words to hide them in the same way as they are deleted in the board version. Obviously with this method the students can get more involved by constructing or finding nice difficult sentences for other teams to play the game with.

1. G. Brown, G.Yule 'Discourse Analysis' CUP 1983
2. R. White, V.Arndt 'Process Writing' Longman 1991
3. Liz and John Soars 'Headway Upper Intermediate' OUP

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