Implementing Pen-Pal Writing in the Adult ESL Classroom
With this project we overcome the fear to write in English...the pen-pals activity is fun, we learn English and more. (Rodolfo)
Having a pen-pal is a good idea; even though I am just learning how to read and write in English I am making the effort to write the letters…This is a challenging activity but fun. (Jorge)
In this project, sixteen Spanish-speaking adult English learners exchanged letters weekly with a group of volunteer native-English- speakers enrolled in an Adult Master's Program. This article describes pen pal letter writing as a successful learning activity promoting literacy development and fluent writing in English as a second language (ESL). Walker-Dalhouse, Sanders, and Dalhouse (2009) explain that "Pen pal writing can provide valuable learning experiences for students even though it does not involve direct instruction in writing. It can provide the students involved with language skills, social skills, and an appreciation for cultural diversity" (p. 339). Pen-pal writing is an authentic language learning activity favoring individualized student learning and engagement.
Our ESL class met on Tuesday evening for two hours and lasted ten weeks. The pen-pals activity was implemented for eight weeks during the first 40 minutes of class. I was the instructor for both groups of students keeping correspondence. In fall 2010, I was teaching a course on Adult Literacy to a group of graduate students, and I was also volunteering as an ESL instructor in a local community program. Field notes, interviews, students' written reflections, and students' letters served as data sources to explore the students' response to implementing the pen-pals letter exchange. The goal was for the ESL students to develop fluency in writing in English and to gain confidence using the language for communication purposes. "Because writing is a skill, it makes sense that the more you practice writing, the better you will write" (Lagan, 2000, p. 14). Most of the students had a positive view of the pen-pal writing activity; in the interview students said that (all names are pseudonyms):
It is interesting. It is a way to meet people, and at the same time we learn how to interact better and practice what we have been learning in the English class. (Luis)
I think that it's good because we get to know each other better, and we share different opinions. (Marilu)
I think that it's good because we learn to write in English. We also learn how to write using present, past and future, all at the same time. (Petra)
More than developing writing skills through the pen-pals activity, these adults had a chance to experience an authentic social interaction using ESL. Also, the students were motivated to learn correct forms of punctuation, grammar, and spelling because they were writing for an authentic audience. The students wrote about their personal lives, their dreams and goals, and critical events in their lives. Pen-pal participants connected as human beings by achieving an appropriate level of communication and making a new friend. They were able to talk in writing about the similarities and differences in their lives and cultures as members of a same social and geographic community. Both made spelling and grammar errors in their letters, and that helped the ESL students realize that native-English-speakers make mistakes, writing is a skill that we all need to practice to become better writers, and we can learn from our mistakes if we stop and reflect in order to understand them. Asking questions was a challenge for the ESL students. As the instructor, I designed a series of mini-lessons focusing on formulating questions in English. I also addressed, on the blackboard, the mistakes I identified as common mistakes in the ESL students' letters.
Suggestions for Implementation
- Identify a group of English-native-speakers or a more advanced group of ESL learners to volunteer as pen-pals
- Figure out a system to collect and deliver the letters
- Take pictures of the participants, develop, and distribute them among participants
- Allocate class time to implement the activity
- With the help of the volunteer native or advanced-English- speakers, prepare an introductory letter
- Deliver the first letter and provide the ESL students with guidance on how to respond
- Decide your level of involvement in the process and how to address mistakes
- Prepare a set of questions for reflection at the middle and end of the term
Implementing the pen-pals activity provided adult English learners with opportunities to use written language for authentic communication purposes and allowed the instructor to foster a functional view of language. English was learned and used beyond the classroom setting with communication as the focus. At the same time, students learned about language structure, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and culture. Also, spontaneous language production and training for communicative competence were possible.
In the ESL classroom, scaffolding English literacy learning should take place in a variety of ways – not just through the class instructor. Make use of the many resources you have in the community to enhance your teaching as well as provide authentic and valuable learning experiences for your students.
Lagan, J. (2000). College Writing Skills. London: Longman.
Walker-Dalhouse, D., Sanders, V., & Dalhouse, D. A. (2009). A University and Middle-School Partnership: Preservice teachers' Attitudes Toward ELL Students. Literacy Research and Instruction. 48(4), 337-349.
About the Author
Clarena Larrotta is assistant professor of adult education at TexasState University-San Marcos.