Letters for Everyone: Ideas of why and how to bring formal
letters into every classroom in fun, interactive ways
by Alex Case
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.
' 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
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
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).
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.
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).
do students need in order to write a formal letter?
Spelling and punctuation
The processes used in writing efficiently.
will deal with each of these, but as sub-categories of the
two major problems students have with formal letters
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.
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.
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.
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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