traci's lists of ten

Traci's Lists of Ten:
Letter Writing

Compiled from Lists of Ten posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH.

Letter writing is a skill that students are likely to need at some point in their lives, regardless of where they end up — whether writing an absence excuse to their children's teacher, writing a letter of complaint to a store, writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, or writing a letter of appreciation or a thank you note to someone who has made a difference in their lives, all students, at one point or another, will end up writing a letter.

Beyond the simple usefulness of the skill, letter writing makes a nice classroom assignment because it foregrounds issues of audience and the ways that audience affects tone, content, and style. Further, letter writing is a familiar kind of writing for most of our students — unlike literary analysis, letters are something our students are likely to sit down and write on their own, with nary a teacher in sight.

These assignments involve writing letters or analyzing the letters that others have written. In most cases, you could modify the assignment slightly to writing email messages.

  1. From the Re-Thinking the Classroom List:
    [Introductory Letter] Assign students the task of writing a letter to entering students at your school who will encounter your computer-based classroom for the first time. What can they tell these new students about the space and how it works? What information do they wish they had had when they first began using the classroom? You might combine this writing assignment with the student ethnography paper (#2, above [in the original list]]) -- asking students to write their letters after having observed the space and thought about the community that exists in it.

  2. From the English Language Activities List:
    [Standards] Write a letter to a local politician, school board, or the editor of a local newspaper about the use of standard English. You can choose any position you'd like on legislation or initiatives to teach English only in schools (that is, no bilingual education, for instance). Or you can choose a position on the importance of learning and using formal English. Or you might choose an English or language arts issue that has come up in your community.

  3. From the Playing with Literature List:
    [Endorsement] Have a character in a reading or the author of a piece endorse a product -- design a letter or short narrative where the character or author tells readers why the product is one they should purchase or support. With all the celebrity endorsements in mass media today, this assignment is fairly easy to set-up. Students have to think carefully about the endorsement -- it has to fit the character's or author's knowledge, and it has to be a product or service that the character or author would be likely to endorse. It makes sense for Huck Finn to endorse a travel agency, for instance, or a particular kind of boat -- or a brand of white paint. He'd be less convincing, however, endorsing denture creme.

  4. From the Playing with Literature List:
    [To the Author] Write a letter to the author of the work or to a character in the piece. This assignment is pretty standard, but you can make it more lively if you play with it. Try combining the letter assignment with the "What if" assignment (#1) -- asking students to write to the author about how they think the story might have been different. Or you can have students give the author or character advice -- You might have your students set themselves up as advice columnists for a newspaper who respond to characters in their reading. A two-part assignment could have students first assume the role of a character in the piece who writes a letter an advice columnist; then, they exchange papers and assume the role of the advice columnist by responding to their classmates' letters. Another possibility is having students assume the role of the character in the reading, and having that character write to the author (or vice versa).

  5. From the Unusual Research Paper Sources List:
    [Letter to the Editor] Find an editorial or a letter to the editor that relates to your subject. Check the editorial section of newspapers, journals, and magazines. Editorials and letters to the editor are usually opinion pieces. The author wants to make a particular point about a current event or issue. Good editorials and letters include facts and details in addition to the author's opinions. Outline the facts and opinions in the source that you find, and consider how they compare to the facts and opinions that you have found in other sources. How emotional is the piece that you've found? Is the author reliable? What do you learn from this piece that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

  6. From the Using Old Magazines List
    (Also available with slight revisions in the Using Old Newspapers List):

    [Letters to the Editor] Write an analysis of the readers who write letters to the editor for your particular magazine. Because there are only a handful of letters in any magazine, you might want to look at the letters from two or three issues to simplify the process of drawing conclusions about the people who have written the letters. Who are these readers? Based on these letters, what are the readers of your magazine interested in? What issues are important to them? What is the purpose of their letters? Do the letters show differing opinions or agreement? What conclusions can you draw when you think of the letters as a collected group -- what do they have in common?

    You need to turn in the pages from your magazine that include the letters you're analyzing. If you're working with your own magazine and you don't mind tearing out the pages, you can pull the original pages out and staple them to your paper. If you don't want to tear up your magazine or you're working with a borrowed magazine or a magazine at the library, attach a photocopy of the pages. Be sure to include all the letters for each issue that you examine.

  7. From the Conflict and Violence List:
    [Biggest Myth] What the biggest myth that you've heard in the media about violence in schools? Write a letter to the editor, to the television show, or to another pertinent reader that explains why you disagree with the coverage they have given to the myth you've identified. In your letter, be sure that you describe what you've heard and what you've seen written about the issue, explain why you believe the assertion is untrue, and suggest reasons that the myth has developed. Further, you might identify more realistic explanations for the issue that the myth you've identified addresses. Your goal is to persuade your reader to change the way that they cover violence.

  8. From the Red Ribbon Week List:
    [Testimonial Letter] Write a testimonial, a sort of celebrity endorsement, telling other students at your school (or younger students) the reasons that you support Red Ribbon Week. Your goal is to come up with a letter that convinces your readers to participate in Red Ribbon Week with you (and to adopt the Red Ribbon motto year-round). Your letter needs to be convincing -- so think about the kinds of things that make a testimonial believable. You don't want your readers to think you're writing because you have to. You want them to understand that you WANT to share your beliefs. Think about the things that will ring true and the things that will sound fake. Be sure your letter rings true.

  9. From the Red Ribbon Week List:
    [Letter to the Editor] Write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper urging readers to support Red Ribbon Week, outlining the reasons that you support the project, and the things that your school is doing. A good letter will do much more than simply say, "Support Red Ribbon Week because drugs are bad." Write a persuasive piece that makes your perspective on the project clear.

  10. From the Red Ribbon Week List:
    [Write a Persuasive Letter] Write a letter to someone you care about asking him or her to stop abusing drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Your goal is to explain the reasons that you want the person to change his or her habits in clear way. Alternately, you might write to a celebrity or public figure asking him or her to support your school's (or the national) Red Ribbon Project. Whatever you do, your letter should be specific about what you want the reader to do -- if you write to your local mayor, for instance, tell him or her precisely what actions, legislation, or statements you're want made. [See the Red Ribbon Site at for suggestions to write to your legislators as well as an example proclamation you might ask local officials or your school board to endorse.]

  11. From the Persuasive Writing Prompts List:
    All the assignments in this list involve writing a letter. See the original list for all ten letter-writing assignments.

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on May 12, 2000.