Everyone would agree "You've got mail" are sweet words to our ears. In these email days the social grace of letter writing has almost faded into oblivion. How long has it been since you found a nice long letter in your mailbox, words from a dear friend or relative? A letter says of itself that the writer thought of you and thought it worth his time to communicate. I love to receive a letter and savor each line and reread them. Letters are rare and our society as a whole is poorer for this loss. When a student learns to write letters he gains a skill that will be of benefit to him all his life. Every child should learn the basic forms of letter and how to address and mail an envelope. Furthermore, this study may also help to inspire the reluctant writer.

Letter writing is no longer a necessity, seeming to be outmoded by telephone and Internet communication. Yet, a student can find an outlet and positive writing experiences outside the textbook realm with "snail mail". Letter writing is a real life activity, giving the pupil an opportunity to realize a purpose in his learning.

Be forewarned that few people will respond to a letter. However, getting occasional free stuff, or a rare personal epistle addressed to himself, is a wonderful reinforcement for the writer. The best chance of assuring your student some return mail is to find a pen pal (such as a grandparent, for example) who will agree to correspond regularly.

I began my project by collecting materials that I thought would encourage my eight and nine year old boys to write. At the Dollar store I picked up blank greeting cards and some stationery with frogs and sailboats. The post office sells many fun, collectable stamps, post cards and stationery. (Be careful to purchase postcard stamps also.) A local tourist stop had postcards with pictures of our locality. Next, we collected pencils, pens and colored ink pens. We also purchased lined, neon-colored paper with matching envelopes, some stencils, as well as packages of stickers. As we gathered our supplies, the boys became more interested. You may add address labels, but it never hurts a student to practice writing his own address. We also purchased an address book for each student and had him copy into it the addresses of family and friends that he planned to write to.

We began with the friendly letter. The boys chose to write to their grandpa about a fishing trip they had been on. The greatest motivation for letter writing is to receive one in return. Therefore, encourage the students to write to someone who is likely to respond. Next, try some note cards and send post cards to some friends. Later, the student will write a business letter. I used the book, The First Book of Letter Writing by Helen Jacobson and Florence Mischel. Simple books on letter writing should be readily available at your local library.

Teach your students the following parts of a friendly letter:

  • Heading (consists of the writer's address and the date)
  • Salutation (friendly greeting, usually dear and the person's first name
  • Body of letter
  • Closing (casual, such as Love, Your friend, or Yours,)
  • Signature
  • Postscript (P.S., meaning "after something written")

You can also teach your students some of the basic guidelines for a good letter:

  • Tell about what's happening.
  • Use descriptive details.
  • Converse Freely. Be yourself.
  • Don't use the word "I" too much.
  • Ask questions that show an interest in the person you are writing to.
  • Leave clues as to your interests.

With the letter mailing, the student learns to write his return address, and where and how to place the stamps and addresses. As he writes, he can collect new addresses in his personal address book.

A good way to write letters (and teach etiquette at the same time) is to practice the thank you note. When we had birthday parties, we filled out invitations and later thank you notes for gifts and even for attending. A thank you note can be for any reason—"You made my day." "You make me happy." "You are a special friend." etc.

If someone you know is sick, it is a good opportunity to write a get-well card. Do you know of someone who is sick or having a rough time, moving, adjusting to a change, new job, new baby, new home? Do you know someone who is lonely or shy or discouraged? Letter writing can be a ministry, heart to heart. Plenty of occasions call for cards of some sort. Don't be stingy with stamps. The lesson that costs less than forty cents and also brings a blessing to the recipient's heart is not over priced.

On vacations, field trips, and other excursions, a student can buy a postcard or two. These can be sent as opposed to writing a report on the trip. The student can explain his postcard picture. Postcards and note cards teach the writer to be concise, require only a small dose of writing, and they add interest with pictures.

After learning about friendly letters and notes, you can move on to the structure and parts of a business letter:

  • Heading (include full name, address, and the date.)
  • Inside address (name and full address of the person or company you are writing to.)
  • Salutation (formal)
  • Body of the letter (should be short and to the point)
  • Closing (formal, such as, Cordially or Sincerely)

Here are a few fun ideas that will hopefully provide some inspiration for a reluctant writer, or just make the project more enjoyable for everyone.

  • Handmade cards (use rubber stamps, stickers or original artwork.)
  • Picture mail (Draw pictures of what's happening and then label them.)
  • Booklet letters (Tell stories of your life: "My week at camp," "I entered a project in the state fair," etc. Make these booklets a size that will fit inside an envelope.)
  • Rebus letters (Replace some of the words in each sentence with a small picture or a sticker.)
  • Secret code letters

Write for free stuff:

  • Travel brochures
  • Catalogues
  • Product samples
  • See The Wholesale Bargains and Free Stuff Guide, by Alpha Publishing, P.O. Box 747, Walnut, CA 91789

The mailbox project can be added to regular schoolwork, used in place of a creative writing program (especially if you have a non-fiction type of student), or done as a sideline on the student's own time. However you choose to set up your mailbox experience, it may prove to be one of your most satisfying writing efforts. The student can see a real, everyday purpose for writing letters and it is a skill that will be of benefit throughout his life.

If you'd like to make your "mailbox project" a more complete unit study, the following ideas may be useful to you.

History

  1. Study forms of writing in the past. When did paper first become widely used? When was the fountain pen invented? What did people use to write with before then?
  2. Go to the library and find some books about the Pony Express. What was its purpose? How long did it operate? What were some reasons for its decline?
  3. The invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse was one of the first steps towards modern communication. See if you can find some books about Samuel Morse and learn more about his life and his invention. What was the first message sent by telegraph? How do you think the telegraph changed communication in America and around the world?

Science

  1. Study how paper and ink are manufactured. Perhaps you could even learn how to make some of your own. Try doing some research online, or at the library, to learn how.
  2. Learn about how the telegraph works. You can even build a small telegraph of your own with some wire and other items from around the house. You should be able to find some instructions on the Internet or at the library.

Bible

  1. Do a Bible study on letters and writing. What is the first reference to writing in the Bible? What is the first letter mentioned? What are other important letters in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments)?
  2. How many books in the Bible are letters, and who wrote them?

Field Trip
After your children are familiar with how to write and address a letter, plan a field trip to your local Post Office to learn what happens to your letter after you drop it in the mail.

Elece Hollis is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. She and her husband Ron of 30 years have 7 children and are in their sixteenth year of homeschooling. They live east of Okmulgee, Oklahoma and south of Tulsa on a 40 acre pecan farm.

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb '04 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, visit www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com