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...
Posted on parent message board
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."
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