In these days of electronic messaging, letter writing seems almost anachronistic.
Certainly, the drafting of delightful informal letters seems to be something of a dying art while the formal letter can appear alien to primary school children; when would they ever write a letter of complaint to a restaurant, or would they just @ them on Twitter?
Can they see themselves writing a cover letter, a resignation letter, a business letter? Or does the idea of formal letter writing, let alone a handwritten letter, seem completely pointless?
Nevertheless, it is a genre that children are expected to learn at both KS1 and KS2 and there are important skills that are transferable to a range of other forms of communication. So, here are some ideas to help you really push the envelope when it comes to teaching the writing of both formal and informal letters.
Sell writing letters to them
Whatever your views on letter writing might be, create a sense of enthusiasm and purpose. At KS1, where you would only really expect to focus on informal letters, emphasise the joy of receiving them. Perhaps you could give it a fictional purpose. For example, we have a delightful set of resources based around learning the art of letter writing with Paddington Bear.
Meanwhile, for older children, we offer a set of resources based around the theme of eating insects – yum! This Bug Banquet project builds towards creating a persuasive text in the form of a letter that could be used as evidence for the end of KS2 assessment.
Securing understanding through written letter examples
Even if you have to beg, borrow and steal from your friends and family, gather a wide selection of genuine letters to share with your pupils. Pick each sample letter apart to examine the structure and language. With KS2 children, compare formal letters with informal ones, focusing on ways of conveying formality such as precise, technical vocabulary, passive voice, subjunctive verb forms and the avoidance of contractions.
If you’re struggling to find examples of suitable informal letters, especially for younger children, you could use the Letter from an Author (Hayley Scott) which features in all our member-only Write Now! packs, or go through our Letter to a Friend worksheets, which also serve as end of KS1 test practice. Older children might find our Persuasive Writing model texts more appropriate.
Respect the conventions of letter writing
The thing about letters is that people really like the different bits to be in the right place. This can be a bit weird for children to get their heads around so why not make it a game? I’ve seen these conventions successfully taught by turning it into a sort of jigsaw activity, either on a smart board or using cardboard cut-outs whereby the children need to arrange all the elements – date, sender’s address, recipient’s address, etc. – in the correct place on the page.
How to write a formal letter, and an informal letter
Even an informal letter benefits from a plan, so encourage children to organise their ideas before writing. With formal letters, however, this takes on even greater significance for two reasons. First, there is an expectation that formal letters are concise and to the point (hopefully, pupils would have noticed this in the examples you shared with them), so you need to know beforehand what you want to write. Second, there are other conventions, such as starting off by stating why you are writing and often finishing with some explanation of what you want to happen next. Getting from one end to the other calls for a logical sequence of ideas, which demands a clear plan.
Use a writing frame/template
Even if you have effectively taught the conventions, it can be surprisingly difficult for children to position the elements accurately themselves. To avoid a lot of sighing and teeth grinding, provide letter writing templates, especially for the younger children. You can make these yourself but you could save yourself the bother by using someone else’s, such as those in our aforementioned Letter to a Friend resources.
Letter writing prompts – openings
Whatever the purpose of the letter, it’s important to get off to a good start. Of course, there’s the salutation to deal with first. Make sure you’re clear about when to use Dear Sir/Madam or a given name or even To whom it might concern (if you’re feeling brave enough) depending on the person you’re writing to and why. Informal letters need a bright a breezy opening or possibly an implied reason for writing such as Thank you so much for the money you sent me for my birthday.
Letter writing prompts – closings
How to end a letter can be something of a minefield. Using the correct sign-off is very important, especially with formal letters. The convention is that if you start with Dear Sir or Madam, you should finish with Yours faithfully. When you use the addressee’s name (Dear Ms Patel, for example) you should use Yours sincerely. Hopefully, your pupils could explain why Lots of love is completely inappropriate!
It might be interesting to note that the advent of formal emails has already evolved its own conventions: Kind regards will often be found at the end of a business email but never on a letter.
Make it real – send a physical letter
The best way to bring letters to life is to actually send them. If at all possible, set up letter writing activities which actually involves sending the letters. Better still, make it one with at least a fair chance of getting a reply. I’ve known pupils get replies from authors, MPs and scientists. I have also seen a class corresponding with elderly residents at a care home as part of a history project to get first-hand reflections of how life has changed over recent decades.
PS – Written communication
If ever there was a genre through which to emphasise the importance of good handwriting, it must be this one – especially if the children’s letters are going to be sent to real people. When all your editing and improving processes are completed, get the pupils to write up their final version as neatly as possible (but remember to make a copy before sending the original).