In my constant search for authentic language use opportunities for my students, I engaged one English group in a small project, proposed by a colleague in Sweden. Actually old-fashioned letter exchange. We received letters, written in English, from a Swedish class before Christmas, which I then distributed to my students to read and reply to. They were ordinary introductory letters, in which the students colloquially wrote about themselves, their school and studies, family and hobbies. In addition, my colleague had asked them to reflect on the similarities and differences between the cultures of our two neighbouring countries, and insert a picture depicting something typically Swedish. All this went quite nicely with our curriculum, and the syllabus of the course we are studying at the moment.
I was positively surprised that my students seemed to take a genuine interest in this task - in contrast to the common boredom with textbook exercises. The letters they received were quite long, and interesting, and the familiarity with Sweden was another positive factor that made them read with enthusiasm. As for writing their replies, the fact that the recipient was another young student in another country, made them tackle the task differently from ordinary homework. We discussed aspects of politeness, political correctness, cultural sensitivity, and trying to be interested and interesting in general. As the letters were typed on the computer, I also reminded them about the use of automatic language check programmes to avoid spelling mistakes, for example. I also asked them to add a similar picture of Finland, and we discussed 'Creative Commons' and the preferable use of their own photographs, to make it more personal, and to avoid any issues with copyright.
Here are some reflections on the pluses and minuses of this small project.
- Authentic language use for a real purpose.
- An assignment that required a personal response from the students - not just totally disconnected exercises from a textbook. Real interaction called for a more creative approach, sometimes also humour.
Dear Finnish random awesome person
REPLY: Dear Swedish not such a random person anymore
- Most students paid special attention to writing correctly.
- Many students wrote much better, and more interesting and entertaining letters than they would have done if there was no real recipient.
- The realization that it does matter what you produce, and it does reflect a lot about you as a person.
- I learned that the Swedish class used Google Docs and process writing for their letters. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to incorporate the full cycle of process writing this time, but will definitely look into using Google Docs in this way in the future.
- In every group, there are always students who just won't make an effort - some letters were short, off the cuff, and consequently not very interesting.
- Despite all the coaching and preparation of the task, some of my students produced letters filled with typos!
- Some didn't bother to attach a photo.
- Uneven numbers of students in the two groups - I had more, so some of my students ended up writing a reply to the same person. It didn't matter for this one letter, but having 'personal penfriends' would be difficult to carry out in the long run.
- I think, interest would soon fade we the letter exchange was continued. It was a good, one-off project, though.