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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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Kind of the opposite of this is playing 'hangman', but with gaps as words instead of letters. A specialised EFL computer program (W.I.D.A.) allows you to do this with whole texts on the computer, which is generally an interesting change of dynamic for the students. If the teacher does not have access to this program (as I presently do not), it is possible to get students making cloze exercises for each other by taking words out of a text in a word processor program. The most important point to mention about grammar is that it is generally mistakes in lexis, rather than grammar, with can cause a bad impression in formal letter writing and that many of the mistakes, like use of prepositions, are in the grey area between grammar and lexis This is again a great introduction to a more lexical approach. Similarly, the fact that 'I am looking forward to' is more informal than 'I look forward to' looks like a grammar point, but is more usefully dealt with as a fixed phrase. Two grammar points that do often come up are use of the passive to make the tone more impersonal, and the use of the Present Continuous in 'I am writing to you…'. These can be used to help you tie in formal letters with your grammar syllabus.Looking at punctuation, again most mistakes tend to be due to wrong register, e.g. using 'but' and 'and' at the beginning of the sentence, using '….' instead of 'etc'. Spelling is, of course, a perennial problem with the English language. I've found that students respond fairly well to a straightforward dictation or spelling test occasionally. Spelling tests can be made more fun by assigning a number to each letter of the alphabet and have the students add together the numbers and shout out the totals as you say the words.Other useful distinctions between formal and informal texts can also be made. Formal letters use lots of polite language (e.g. modals), tend to have longer sentences (pronouns must be used), are impersonal, and do not include contractions.Looking at organisation, the first thing students need to produce a well-organised letter is a good writing process. I am not aware of any specific research into how people go about writing formal letters, possibly due to the fact that the background of Process Writing is in academic writing.

The process I suggest my students use is:

- Brainstorm ideas/ examine the question closely and underline all information you must include (e.g. in an exam class).
- Decide who the letter is for and therefore its formality
- Decide on a reasonable number of paragraphs for the number of words (e.g. 3 plus opening and closing sentences for a 120 word letter) and arrange the ideas into them with one clear topic per paragraph
- Decide on the functions of the paragraphs/ sentences and select from the list of sentence stems (see above)
- Write
- Make sure you include the opening and closing sentences
- Edit

Also very useful is the acronym WRITE from Advanced Masterclass (4)

Who for?
Text type?

I generally tackle the problems students have with this by doing all the stages but the actual writing in class to start with. With a fun topic, brainstorming can be quite motivating e.g. 'in pairs write down all thing that could go wrong with a holiday' for a letter of complaint. This can then be used for a roleplay as well as the writing task, to give a balance of skills in the lesson. A plan can then be quickly drawn up in pairs or as a class. If students do the planning at home, I ask them to always include their plan.Other activities to help with paragraphing include having a text with no paragraphs and having students mark where they should start and end, and having a cut up text that students should put in order.To practice editing, exercises where students correct 'student' writing are very common in textbooks, and similar exercises in the FCE and CAE Use of English can, in my experience, improve student skill in editing their own texts. The approach of minimal marking (only showing where the error is and having the student correct it) by the teacher can also help students with this skill. An activity habitually mentioned in workshops on writing and error correction is that of students correcting each other's texts. The 'politics' of this, however, is probably the most complicated a teacher will have to cope with in the classroom and needs approaching with care. To add an element of competition you can give students an error free text and ask them to add errors for their classmates to find, e.g. one per line or 15 in the whole text. Obviously, this is best performed directly on a computer, but do remember to turn off Spell Check! Problems sometimes occur with layout, e.g. the position of the addresses, due to cultural differences. These can be simply dealt with by a labelling exercise. Writing Tasks - Communicative, Competitive and Fun
As well as all the activities to practice particular aspects, teachers will obviously want to set students the task of writing complete formal letters. What should these tasks be? Firstly, letters are written to be read and acted upon (not just marked), and so the letters your students write should be read by the other students and this should lead to some reaction- be it a written reply, a discussion, a roleplay or whatever. Next, you should think about making the genre and topic as useful and interesting as possible for your students. For my students, the most useful type would probably be an application letter, followed by a letter asking a company for information. If the students are unlikely to ever write a formal letter, you can choose by the usefulness of the functions being covered (e.g. requests). Finally, you should try to make the task authentic e.g. applying to a genuine job advertisement.Possibly the most easily forgotten aspect amongst these is the interactivity of the tasks, and this is usually the most difficult to find in textbooks. Some possibilities on making a letter of complaint interactive include:

- Students in pairs read 2 of the other students' letters and discuss which would be more likely to get a positive response, then discuss as a class

- Students write a letter of complaint in pairs, then pass it to the group on their left. Each group reads the letter they have received, then write a reply refusing to take the action requested. The letters are passed once more to the left. The students now act as judges in a small claims court. They read the complaint and reply and can decide which party is in the right, or force a compromise. Feedback on the judgements as a class.

- Plan a letter as a whole class, putting the plan on the board. Working as pairs, each group of students write the first paragraph only, then pass it to their left. Each group then reads the first paragraph they have received, writes the second and then passes it again etc. All the letters keep going around until they are finished. In fours, students read two letters and judge which one is best.

- Students read their partner's letter of complaint (perhaps written for homework), then phone back.
4. T. Aspinall, A. Capel 'Advanced Masterclass' OUP


Alex Case is working as Senior Teacher (Materials and Teacher Development) and a freelance EFL writer in Tokyo, after working in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy and the UK. He is also Reviews Editor of and you can comment on this article and other TEFLy things on his blog- "TEFLtastic with Alex Case" (

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