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By Linda Broatch, M.A.
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!
Posted on parent message board
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.
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