Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

Pen-Pal Letters Lead to Purposeful Gains—Skill and Confidence
Patricia Mason

Over the course of one semester, a class of urban elementary students with special needs and a class of suburban graduate education students communicated bi-monthly the old-fashioned way. They took pen to paper and wrote letters to each other taking the time and patience to share friendly and important tidbits of their very different experiences. These students, who varied in race, age, skills, and experiences, shared their observations, ideas, and goals while developing relationships by writing letters over the course of a semester. My role as the mail carrier allowed me to see the energy used to convey the thoughts to each pen pal as well as the excitement when the letter was taken out of the envelope. Writing and receiving these letters generated hope, anxiety, and curiosity as well as reflection by all the students.

This pen-pal project was implemented to support the development of the writing skills of students with disabilities in a cross-graded self-contained elementary class in an inner-city school. The introduction of this pen-pal activity was shown to motivate students to write well-written and detailed letters sharing their ideas, observations, and experiences with their pen pals (Maroney, 1997)—graduate education students at Molloy College, a suburban college where they were, enrolled in a course entitled Strategies and Methods for Teaching Childhood Students with Disabilities who were the recipients of these bi-monthly letters. The correspondences between these unlikely student groups proved to enlighten important aspects of teaching and learning.

Background Information

Many researchers viewed writing instruction as one of the few aspects of special education instruction in which teachers could help students learn to express their own ideas effectively (Gersten & Baker, 2001). Expository writing allows students to demonstrate what they see and understand or explain and analyze. Similar to what many of today’s teachers believe, the teacher who graciously allowed me time in her class agrees that little time is allotted for students to think and write about things that are important to them (Wood, 1986). Expressing one’s daily experiences in a quasi-formal writing manner has been lost due to phone communication and most presently due to texting. Further hampering the practice of writing for enjoyment of sharing personal information is the preparation for state assessments, which merely measure how well students can explain, persuade, and describe topics that may be far removed from the needs and experiences of many urban students or the lifelong needs for writing (Midgette, Haria, & MacArthur, 2008).

Students who are easily frustrated and disappointed in their writing efforts are stumped when forced to write about things that are of little interest to their personal experiences. The idea that writing is a work in progress that only gets clearer with each rewrite is lost in many classrooms. Students with special needs oftentimes are also harnessed to low frustration levels, struggle with attention skills, and lack familiarity with conventional spelling and grammar rules—all of which gets in the way of writing comfortably for academic or personal purposes.

The pen-pal project was successful for the elementary school students (age 8-10). They were serious about conveying their thoughts, and were allowed the freedom to use their creative or intuitive thinking to write a letter that would inform and entertain their pen pals, who lived in a different community. My graduate students, both pre-service and in-service teachers, were impressed and later came to appreciate the efforts used by the students to share their thoughts in writing. The details shared by the youngsters, along with the questions they asked the adults, signified how serious the pen-pal activity was to them. The quality of the letters they developed over the course of the four exchanges also was acknowledged by the classroom teachers and their adult pen pals.

Purposeful Gains

Over the course of the semester, the students’ attitude toward the craft of writing, their penmanship, and the quality of the writing improved. Previously, their frustration during journal writing, for example, was overwhelming. They often had difficulty writing more than a few sentences. Requests to rewrite drafts for neatness or to work on clarity of ideas were met with tears or anger; lessons involving pen-pal letter writing, however, were met with attention and motivation. Students willing rewrote letters, for they wanted to show their best work. “I have to fix [rewrite] this letter . . . I want Mary [pen pal] to love my letter” was overheard during one writing activity. Other examples demonstrated the value of the task for the students:

  • willingness to plan
  • shared generation of ideas/topic
  • acceptance of peer assistance
  • persistence to accurately and
  • precisely convey thoughts           

The elementary students continually thought about their pen pals and wanted to share their school and personal experiences. These quotes from the students’ letters show that they had a strong interest in being a pen pal: “We should tell the pen pals about our mummification project . . . Can we send them pictures of the project?”; “I wonder if my pen pal knows about mummies?”; and “Can our pen pals come on our trip to the museum—we should invite them.”

The amount of on-task and content relevant talk greatly improved the attention and behavior in this special education class. In addition, when the students turned to talk during their letter writing planning sessions, the “chats” were on task, relevant, and helpful to each other when they returned to their desk to begin the writing process; similarly, when conferencing with the teacher or with peers to share their drafts, the level of support and attention to detail was very intense—for only their best would be sent to their pen pal. Constructive criticism, which previously would have caused meltdowns, was now more easily received. “Why do keep using the same words”; Why didn’t you talk about the bus getting lost”; Why did tell your pen pal that we got in trouble in the lunchroom?”; and “I think your letter is too short—let me help you think about more things to add” all are examples of student conversation that brought learning to life for these students. Their voices were heard and appreciated.

The graduate students were equally drawn into the project. Each class session started with questions about their pen pals. Comments remembered from the last correspondences generated questions about their pen pals, experiences (i.e., science fair results, basketball scores, grandmother’s health, ELA prep classes). My students, as outside observers to their pen pals’ classroom experiences, did come to understand the significance of seeing their future students as individuals. The experiences of their urban writing buddies were far and removed from their own past or present experiences. They chuckled about the train directions that could be used to get to the school, they were saddened to learn that one of the youngsters had to move quite suddenly due to a change in her foster parents; and they learned that one student could write a perfect three-page letter while another send a letter with two lines and a very big drawing. The ease in which these written communications began to serve the needs of their pen pals was not missed by my students. Many letters ended with I LOVE YOU.

It appeared that the students’ disappointments, hopes, and interests were easily transported through their letters. The small amount of time it took my students to write to these students was priceless—and it was obvious when letters were read. Each letter written by my students acknowledged that the messages they received from the elementary students was valuable and special. I was proud that my students recognized this by demonstrating care and interest in their turnaround letters to their pen pal. They wrote developmentally and age-appropriate letters, responding to the questions the students asked and sending a few more questions back in the letters. Each letter help to broaden the skills of the students—for example, the vocabulary used to describe a movie, or terms used in unfamiliar sports for the youngsters (golf and snowboarding)—all enticed the students to research the topics, so that they could respond in their next letter. Since the letter they received often had pictures drawn to make the letter unique for the receiver, my students took the time to purchase decorative stationery and used colored fine-point markers and even attached a few scented stickers—all of which made their pen pals feel special.

The goals of this project were surpassed, according to the class teacher. She cheerily reports that the students continue to cherish their pen-pal letters, and seem to attack writing tasks with increased attention and confidence. They are less frustrated when ideas don’t come quickly, but work steadily to find the words that accurately describe their ideas. The use of standard English, correct spellings and sentence length was improved by this project. The students have come to understand that their words are important and they should write them down for others to read. Their teacher is pleased that her students have come to want to turn in assignments that are neat and represent the very “special,” hard-working, fun, and curious kids they are. Finally, an unforeseen benefit of this writing project is that there has been a measurable improvement in classroom behavior.


Gersten, R. & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities research-based applications and examples. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(2), 109-123.

Maroney, S. (1997). It’s in the bag: A dozen language arts activities to promote active learning. Intervention in School and Clinic, 33 (no. 1) 22-25.

Midgette, E., Haria, P., & MacArthur, C. A. (2008). The effects of content and audience awareness goals for revision on the persuasive essays of fifth- and eighth-grade students. Reading and Writing, 21, 131-151.

Wood, K. D. (1986). How to smuggle writing into the classroom. Middle school journal, 17(3), 5-6.

Other Resources

DeLaPaz, S. & Graham, S. (1997). Strategy instruction in planning: Effects on the writing performance and behavior of students with learning difficulties. Exceptional Children, 63(2), 167-181.

Englert, C. S., Raphael, T. E., & Anderson, L. M. (1992). Socially mediated instruction: Improving students’ knowledge and talk about writing. Elementary School Journal, 92, 411-449.


About the Author

Patricia Mason is associate professor at Molloy College, Rockville Centre where she teaches graduate special education classes. Dr. Mason also consults with special education teachers in urban schools to facilitate best practices in special education classes.