By Linda Broatch, M.A.
Most of us smile in happy anticipation when a personal letter shows up in our mailbox. Kids love to get mail, too, whether it's paper or electronic. That's why pen pal projects are so popular - and beneficial - for children of all ages. And the rewards are often lasting. Adults report fond memories of exchanging letters for years with a childhood pen pal who became a friend.
Pen pal correspondence offers academic benefits, too. For a child with learning or attention problems, exchanging letters with a pen pal can spark the motivation to use - and improve - reading and writing skills. According to Dr. Charles MacArthur, an expert on teaching writing skills to children with learning difficulties: "When children have a regular time to write, see their writing tasks as meaningful, and get responses to their writing from peers, teachers, and others, they are motivated to write and come to understand the purposes and value of writing. "
My daughter received her letter from Canada! She was so excited, so we looked on Google Earth to see where her pen pal lives. This was such an awesome idea! ... [Our kids] are learning about other states, countries, learning about other cultures, practicing their writing skills and verbal skills. It is hard work writing a letter.
This kind of connection is so vital to OUR kids, even if we have a teen write to a younger child to explain what life is like at 15 and having, for example, dyslexia. ... There is a connection and a universal bond because this person is real and not a character in a book...
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To realize the benefits of a pen pal project, however, kids with reading and writing difficulties may need some support with their communications skills. In a recent article on online social networking1, researchers note that these difficulties may result in a child either misunderstanding a written message from another child or making embarrassing errors in their own messages to others. One way to avoid these errors, the researchers suggest, is to consider the use of assistive technologies such as speech recognition software, programs that read computer text aloud, and spell checkers.
During the summer of 2006, a group of parents from across the country who conversed with one another on a message board for parents of kids with learning and attention difficulties discovered the rewards of pen pal projects when they hatched the idea of creating a pen pal network among their kids. Their motivation was to create a fun, interesting summer activity for their children, promote literacy skills, and encourage social interactions. We quote their conversations in this article to provide examples of pen pal strategies, lessons, and successes.
One parent, who wanted very much for her son to participate in the pen pal project, described a common frustration of parents of smart, interesting kids who struggle with school: "I just have to convince him he can do [the pen pal project] ... I'll talk to him again; he had a really bad day at school with writing [and] is way behind, so I'm sure that probably had something to do with it," she wrote. And in the next sentence, she described a boy who clearly has lots to talk about with a pen pal: "He loves hockey, soccer, swimming, surfing, acting, singing, computer and PlayStation® games, army men and pirates, too."
A first step in a successful pen pal project is to think about what kind of pen pal experience is likely to work best for your particular child. Her age, interests, social skills, and writing strengths or challenges are factors to consider. Based on your child's needs and preferences, you may encourage her to join an existing, more traditional type of pen pal network, or create one of your own.
If your child is young, is a reluctant writer, or could use some work on social skills, a non-traditional and/or do-it-yourself pen pal project may work best. Examples of ways to create a pen pal experience for your child include:
In some cases, parents who organize a pen pal group may decide that the correspondence will work better with a few guidelines for participation. For example:
I would also tell your 9-to-12-year-old children a little about email sense/netiquette: that it's courteous to reply, that messages should be quality-an investment of yourself in the communication process-meaning that "Wassup?" or "I'm so bored" is not really a message/communication. If they can't think of something to write, they could look for a joke (e.g., yahooligans) and send that. They may need a little direction to get started."
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A popular way to increase the "fun factor" in pen pal communication is the "Flat Stanley" letter, started by a Canadian teacher several years ago. Flat Stanley is the main character in a children's book series about a boy who is flattened by a falling bulletin board and has many funny adventures in his new, postcard-thin shape-including mailing himself to friends.
As a copy or drawing of Flat Stanley circulates to each child in a pen pal project, Stanley "takes part" in family activities for a few days and then is mailed, along with a letter describing his activities, to the next child on a chain-letter list. Use your imagination to create a variation on the Flat Stanley project that will appeal to the pen pals you're working with.
I'm sending Flat Stanley today with the addresses I have now - BUT - don't worry. I put my address last, when it comes back to me, if there are others who wish for Stanley to visit them this summer, I'll send him on again with a new list of addresses at that time. Think of it as a chance for Stanley to come home for a day or two and wash his clothes before he finishes his travels. I'm thrilled at how many of us are jumping into this! How fun!!!!
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To add interest and motivation to your pen pal project, you may find helpful the following children's books and many others like them.
Arthur's Pen Pal by Lillian Hoban
My Pen Pal, Pat by Lisa Papademetriou
My Pen Pal Scrapbook: An Educational Journey through World Cultures by Shelley Aliotti
The Birthday Mystery/with Puzzle (Puzzling Pen Pal Mysteries) by Patricia Lakin
Amy's Pen Pal (Sweet Valley Twins) by Francine Pascal
There are dozens - if not hundreds - of pen pal websites on the Internet, facilitating both email and postal mail correspondence. ("Key pal" - as in keyboarding - is a common term for pen pal partners who write to each other using email.) The potential social-emotional benefits of online communication among kids with learning disabilities (LD) are described in a recent two-year study by Drs. Marshall Raskind, Malka Margalit , and Eleanor Higgins2. They examined exchanges among kids ages 8 to 12 on SparkTop.org™, a website designed for children with LD and reported: "It appears that the Internet served as a safe virtual environment, enabling children with LD to explore and express the totality of their identity. Furthermore, the feeling that they are not alone in experiencing difficulties - because they belong to a group of children who share similar difficulties - was regarded by several children as a source of relief from their struggles. "
Pen pal websites vary enormously in their appropriateness for children. Some serve simply as a "clearinghouse," listing the names, ages, languages, and interests of prospective pen pals, and leaving people to make contacts on their own, using their personal email accounts. On the other end of the spectrum are pen pal clubs that are part of a social networking website designed for kids, where each child registers under the auspices of a teacher or parent, monitored communication takes place on the website, and high-level privacy and safety protections are in place.
Read the policy closely to learn:
If you find a website that doesn't post basic protections for children's personal information, ask for details about their information collection practices. (Source: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/kidzprivacy/adults.htm)
One practical approach to finding a trustworthy online pen pal project is to ask teachers or other parents for recommendations of websites that they have found safe and fun for kids your child's age. Regardless of where they socialize online, children of all ages should be taught the basics of safe social networking on the Internet.
My son was reluctant [to write to a pen pal] until he got his first letter from a pen pal - boy was he excited! His letter back to his pen pal was the first time he sat and "wrote" independently - he even asked me to leave while he wrote the last several sentences (they were a funny story about me) on his own! We are cooking here!
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To the extent that your child has fun and communicates independently, she will have experienced two of the most important benefits of writing to a pen pal-the self-confidence and motivation to write. As a parent, do only as much as necessary to get the pen pal project started and keep it on track. Then step back so that your child can take the initiative to stretch her reading, writing, and social skills - and have fun with a potential new friend.