Giving Writing a Reason

A Simple Pen Pal Exchange Program That Does It All

Shasha Gibbs, Chinese Teacher, Medina High School

A few years ago, if someone asked me about the reason why I gave students writing assignments, I would have said, because the assignments would show me whether students could use the language properly.  It’s true that students’ writing does reflect a lot of things, such as proper use of grammar, spelling and whether students are able to put together something that flows naturally or logically.  By analyzing all these things, it helps me to adjust my future lessons to better meet students’ needs.  That was my reason to have students write, not students’ reason.  Now that I have spent some time in teaching, I started to notice that students weren’t really too excited about the writing tasks, although there was a good reason for them to write, at least from my point of view.  Some of the very motivated students would know that writing is a good way for them to practice their language skills, and they can even produce the work with some good quality; however, the majority of the students weren’t into it that much.  This made me think, how can I find a way to encourage students to write?  Is there a way to make students want to write?  Maybe even make them ask for more writing assignments?  After talking to one of the English teachers I used to work with in China, I told myself that I may have just found the solution!

About two months ago, I was chatting online with one of my former colleagues from China about how different teaching is here in the U.S., and she mentioned that it was hard to get her students to write as well.  After brainstorming different ways to motivate the students, I finally suggested that maybe we could try a pen pal program between her students and my Chinese 3 students.  At that time, we both knew that this would add some extra work for us, but we were both willing to commit to it and give it a try; and this is how the magic started.

At first, I told my Chinese 3 students that they were going to have an opportunity to be friends with students in China, and they were all pretty excited about it.  Before I tried to tell them more about what to do, they asked about how.  Perfect timing!  That was when I told them about the writing assignment.  I said that in order to help students in China get to know us, each of my students would need to write something about themselves in a form of a letter both in English and Chinese.  The English version of the letter is to help the Chinese students learn English.  The goal for this program is to help my students learn Chinese and to help the Chinese students learn English.  All my students were motivated to write their letters to their Chinese pen pals.  Some of them were using either dictionary or apps to look up words, and some of them were asking questions frequently.  They cared so much about the quality of their letters because they didn’t want to make any mistakes that might make them look bad in front of their Chinese counterparts.  After my students emailed me their letters, I compiled them into one PDF file and emailed it to the teacher in China.  After she received my email, she had her students read over all the letters from my students, and they picked their own penpal based on interests and other things to write a reply.  Other than writing a reply, her students were asked to correct my students’ mistakes they made in their letters.  This provided the students with an opportunity to learn English from my students because they might need to refer to the English version to understand the Chinese version of the letter.  After the Chinese students finished with their tasks, the Chinese teacher emailed me back the corrected letters and the replies.  When I received the files, I printed everything out and had my students do the same thing.  Students were so excited to read their pen pals’ letter and were sharing the information they got out of the letters with each other.  Those letters were used as reading materials and class discussion was generated as well.  Learning just magically took place!

The pen pal program is still going, and I would like to keep it going as long as possible because my students have benefitted greatly. While we were waiting for the replies from the students in China, I thought of another project with the integration of writing/typing and speaking, and that is to make a school introduction video and show our school to the students in China, so that they will get to know about American schools.  The first thing my students worked on was to work together to come up with the script for the video.  They decided what to include in the video, how to do the introduction and what to say in the introduction.  The class together wrote the script, practiced reading the script and did the video which will include subtitles in both English and Chinese.  Right now we are in the final editing process, and one student is in charge of that.  Everyone is patiently waiting to see the final project.  This video can be used as a listening practice and a culture lesson for students in China and can also be used as something to showcase my students’ skills.  I’m thinking about having the video played during our morning video announcement at school as part of the language advocacy plan.

Although this pen pal exchange program requires some extra time and attention, it is still pretty simple and manageable and more importantly it does provide students with a reason to write.  When I saw students’ willingness to write and eagerness to learn, I know all that extra time I put into this program was time well spent.

This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 51, No. 2 - Winter 2013. Bookmark the permalink.