Letter writing

Mary Lou Thornbury
University of North London
This article first appeared in MAPE Magazine 3 Summer Term 2000

The letter has long been a format for the novel from Clarissa or Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Rose Tremaine uses it in Letters to Sister Benedicta and there are many other examples.
The letter places the action in space and time; it limits it to the knowledge of the letter writer and thereby allows the reader to construct by inference the wider implications. From information 'let slip' by the letter writer, the reader can deduce facts of which the protagonists are unaware.
So there are two levels of enlightenment in such a novel; the level of the letter-writer's maturing awareness and the level of the reader's intuiting of another version of the action. This might be further developed if there is more than one letter writer in the action.

Teaching context
Teachers are exhorted to encourage the skills of letter writing with their pupils. Are these purely secretarial skills or are they life skills? What relevance have they for electronic communication?
Several teachers use the letter as a way of encouraging writing for an audience. It has often been a consequence of the term's project on pollution: the letter to an official outlining the findings and sometimes expecting an answer.
Letter writing could also be the way of explaining taught material to another audience which needed to be enlightened. One beginning teacher identified an alien who was on a waterless planet. All the children in the class had to write letters explaining the water cycle and why water was necessary to life on Earth. The student answered the letters asking further questions as a way of eliciting clear answers. She never knew the extent to which the children suspended disbelief but they colluded in her charade which included bringing into class an enormous envelope stamped with the postmark of the alien's planet from which she unfolded his 5-foot high request for information.

Character
The SATs Reviews for English in KS2 often ask for inference of character development in a passage. The development of children's understanding in this area can be best developed using 'chapter books' through the length and scope of reading about a character over time.
With many Goosebumps or Roald Dahl books (except Danny, the Champion of the World) this development of character is often not evident. Other children's novels like Goodnight, Mr Tom are a study of changing characters and their relationships over a long time and repay careful class reading and discussion or dramatic interpretation.
I would like to recommend two books which are for younger children and which allow the exploration of character through letters while providing a model for letter writing for children. 
Dear Mr Henshaw by Beverley Cleary consists of the letters of a schoolboy to an author and his growing confidence in his own authorial voice. It uses the epistolary format as a means of introspection.
A Pack of Liars by Anne Fine is about penpals and the possibility of deception.
Both of these books could provide models of letter writing that are to do with personal discovery and growing moral awareness. The second is relevant to email in that it shows someone who constructs a different persona for themselves in their letters.

E-mail
Where do the new technologies fit into this? At the first level they can provide templates that model the letter format and relieve the writer of the drudgery of setting up; they provide a choice of such formats and a focus for decision about the message to be conveyed to the receiver, be it formal or informal.
But, in line with the books above, and others like Betsy Byars' Computer Nut, letters provide a way of constructing an imaginary identity and the implications of this have been explored in depth by such authors as Sherry Turkle. There are plenty of stories of people who use e-mail to communicate with others using another persona, one that is of a different sex, class or occupation. Letter-writers in e-mail can 'become authors, not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction' (Turkle). The use of e-mail has now become a feature in communication for information or misinformation between people locked, for example, in different war zones.
Schools are now commonly using e-mail to compare cultures, to write extended stories and to look for expertise. A good example of this in book form is Jazeera's Journey by Lisa Bruce, which traces the voyage of Jazeera whose family migrates to England, through the exchange of letters between her and her grandmother in India.
In the same way that the boy in the Beverley Cleary book writes to his author, Mr Henshaw, children in school can write to 'experts' in whatever their area of interest.
E-mail itself has its own conventions and the debate about formality and informality is a lively one. English teachers could see this as part of the spectrum of writing for an audience and thus explore the 'secretarial' skills of letter writing in a more profound context.

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