I’ll admit it: my kids have a love-hate relationship with writing letters. They love receiving them, but they hate writing them. I wish this wasn’t the case—it would make my life a lot easier if I didn’t have to expend so much energy getting them to produce these letters for grandparents and others—but I suppose it isn’t realistic to think that the average child under the age of ten would be any more enthusiastic about it. I mean, they love their grandparents in the United States, but producing a decent handwritten letter is hard work for a small child.
Still, I persist, and have persisted in this practice since they were even smaller because I view writing letters as an important part of their language and literacy development. Given the fact that they attend a Japanese public school (our majority language), which makes opportunities to write in English (our minority language) pretty limited, these letter exchanges are pivotal, really, to sustain their progress. (They do a little writing as part of our homework routine each day, which forms the core of our work on literacy, but this wouldn’t be enough by itself.)
The merits of writing letters
Letter-writing not only has the virtue of nurturing literacy in the minority language, it promotes broader awareness of the world and richer relationships with family members and friends. Communicating via other means, such as Skype, is certainly valuable in this respect, and as a way to stretch oral skills (see 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents and A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language), but only a letter-writing exchange will directly impact literacy development and generate a boxful of precious keepsakes: the letters received and saved for years to come. (I don’t know about you, but we aren’t in the habit of recording our Skype calls! )
Also, I think there’s a key difference between the kinds of ties that can be created orally and through writing. For instance, when children exchange letters with grandparents, they can explore more thoughtful topics that don’t typically arise in conversation, such as the grandparents’ memories of their own childhood. (I encourage my kids to pose such questions to their grandparents, particularly in connection with experiences in their own young lives. They recently began taking piano lessons, for example, so expressing curiosity toward their grandparents’ early encounters with music is only natural.) In this way, children—and, particularly, children who don’t often have the chance to see their grandparents in person (like us, I’m afraid)—can learn more about their family roots and even receive hard-won wisdom from their elders.
Let me add one more important aspect of writing letters, at least from my personal point of view. The truth is, writing and receiving handwritten letters was a huge, heartfelt part of my childhood and my youth—it was a major factor in my own literacy development, too—and I think it’s a great shame that email and other forms of electronic communication have basically killed off this experience for us all. I have no illusions that letter-writing will hold such a central place in the lives of my kids, but I’d like them to at least taste its pleasures and become reasonably competent at crafting one.
Our current exchanges
Currently, our most active letter-writing exchanges are with family members: my father, my mother, and my nephew (their cousin, who’s the same age as Lulu and whose letters also serve as a helpful barometer of the writing level we seek).
At the same time, we’ve managed to maintain, with less regularity, exchanges with three other families: two of these families are friends with children of similar ages, and the other—actually, our very first exchange, with Lulu from age five—was born when I saw a family’s appeal for a pen-pal for their daughter in a Yahoo list. They live in the United States, but were looking for an English-speaking pen-pal who lives in Japan. (Though the girls no longer write to each other as regularly as they once did, they still send little packages of gifts from time to time, like at birthdays and at Christmas. Don’t underestimate the power of presents when it comes to motivating kids to pick up their pencils and keep writing!)
So far, the richest, most reliable exchanges have involved grandparents and other family members. Grandparents, especially, have a vested interest in writing regularly (they love their grandchildren and are eager to get letters from them!) and thus make ideal partners for an exchange. In our case, my parents are good about writing back promptly, and I try to stay pretty timely on this end, too, which means that my kids are writing letters to them (separately, since they live in different locations) every four to six weeks.
The letter-writing process
As with so much of the bilingual journey, the task of writing letters involves matching your efforts as effectively as you can to your particular circumstances and your individual children. The only “right way” is the way that works best for you and your kids.
Here, though, is what I’ve done to date. Perhaps my example will serve as a useful model that can be shaped to your own situation and needs.
When the child is also able to write some words, have her label the picture. Simply write down the words she needs, and ask her to copy them.
Once the child has written the letter, and proofread it for errors she might catch on her own, sit down with her and rewrite it in your own hand, editing and expanding as you go. As at younger ages, then have the child copy this letter over for the final draft, but this time on real stationery.
For a child, this transition to writing an independent first draft can feel daunting. Because it takes considerably more effort than before, she may resist and demand that you continue taking dictation for her. My daughter (age eight at the time) put up several tearful fights over this before finally accepting the fact that she would now have to write these first drafts on her own. If resistance occurs in your case, too, be patient but persevering.
I know some may disagree about the extent to which I use copying, but I believe (especially given the limited amount of time we have for writing practice) that the drafts I help prepare for my kids serve as useful models for teaching form and usage. At the same time, this sort of procedure makes it easier for them to produce the letters, which enables us to sustain the letter-writing habit over its longer-term evolution toward increasing independence.
Because our pen-pals mostly consist of family and friends, I’m afraid I can’t offer much advice for finding pen-pals through other avenues. However, I mentioned that our first pen-pal came as a result of a connection made through a Yahoo list, so perhaps you could try a similar appeal through an appropriate community.
You would be welcome, too, to make your appeal for a pen-pal in a comment below, specifying the gender and age of your child, and the target language for a letter-writing exchange. Parents with this desire would then be free to reply to your comment, expressing their interest. Although direct messages can’t be sent through this site, I would be glad to play matchmaker behind the scenes and help put families in touch. (In case you’re wondering, I should add that we won’t be able to begin any new exchanges of our own at the moment. We have our hands full just maintaining our current exchanges!)
Keeping a letter-writing exchange alive definitely takes effort, from both parents and children, but I believe the payoff in stronger language development, broader awareness of the world, and richer relationships makes the investment of time and energy well worth it. Happy writing!