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Lesson Plan

What's the Difference? Beginning Writers Compare E-mail with Letter Writing

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What's the Difference? Beginning Writers Compare E-mail with Letter Writing

Grades K – 2
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Three 40-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Julie Wollman, Ph.D.

Julie Wollman, Ph.D.

Worcester, Massachusetts


National Council of Teachers of English


Student Objectives

Session One

Session Two

Session Three


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Compare an e-mail message and a letter on the same topic and discuss how they are written differently and why.

  • Recognize differences in the form and function of the two genres and how these differences impact communication style and conventions.

  • Develop their understanding of the choices they must make as writers with respect to the appropriate form, function, and audience for different kinds of communication.

  • Work collaboratively to sort samples of e-mail messages and letters based on what they have learned to reinforce and assess their understanding of the differences.

  • Independently compose an original e-mail message and a letter on the same topic, to the same person.

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Session One

  1. Project the side-by-side e-mail message and letter but do not identify each as either e-mail or letter. Read both aloud and then re-read with students reading along.

  2. Ask students if they notice anything that is the same about the two texts (e.g. topic, intended recipient) and begin to list their brainstormed ideas on chart paper under the heading “Same” or in the overlapping, center section of the Venn Diagram, using the Venn Diagram student interactive. Move fairly quickly to looking for differences.

  3. Ask students if they notice any differences between the two texts. Do they sound any different (e.g. one sounds more like talking to someone)? Are they written differently (e.g. different words)? Do they look different (e.g. length)? Are there any differences in spelling or punctuation? Guide them through brainstorming, as needed, and list their brainstormed ideas on the chart paper or board under the heading “Different” or in the appropriate circle of the Venn Diagram student interactive.

  4. Once students have exhausted their ideas about differences ask if they know what kind of text each of these might be. If a student does not identify one as e-mail and the other as a letter then do so for them.

  5. Next, using the brainstormed lists, discuss characteristics of the e-mail message as opposed to the letter, being sure to identify the following points typical of younger writers’s e-mail:

    • E-mail style is more like informal chatting (e.g. So…” or “huh” instead of “Today we have a snow day so I am..”); the language used is more informal (e.g. “Hey” instead of “Dear”).

    • E-mail messages are not as elaborated or lengthy as comparable letters (e.g. “Cool, huh” instead of “It’s so cool to be home on a school day!”).

    • E-mail mechanics are not governed by the same traditional conventions as letter writing (e.g. “G2g” instead of “Got to go” and innovative use of punctuation).

    • E-mailers write as if they expect rapid receipt and reply (e.g. “Are you there” vs. “If you get this letter in time…”).
  6. End the discussion by telling students they will use what they’ve just been talking about next time, when they will play a sorting game.

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Session Two

  1. Refer again to the brainstormed lists created in session one and ask students to help each other remember what the differences are between e-mail messages and letters. After a brief discussion of what they remember, tell students they are going to try a challenging and fun sorting game.

  2. Place students in small groups of 3–5. Explain that you will hand out copies of three messages to each child. Working together, they need to identify which one is a letter from Al to his teacher explaining why homework was forgotten, which one is an e-mail from Al to his teacher explaining why homework was forgotten, and which one is an e-mail from Al to his friend explaining why homework was forgotten.

  3. Hand out the three texts for sorting, so that each child receives a copy of all three texts, each on separate pieces of paper. Explain that students should work together, discussing and explaining their ideas, to decide which message is which. Once they have decided, at the top of each paper they should write either: “letter to teacher,” “e-mail to teacher,” or “e-mail to friend.”

  4. After about 10–15 minutes of group work, tell each group that they will have to explain their decisions to the class as a whole and should discuss what they are going to say when their turn comes to explain how they sorted the texts. Can they name specific things that helped them decide what each one is?

  5. Circulate to help the groups name some specifics, such as differences in style (e.g. conversational vs. more formal voice, abbreviated vs. elaborated information, “signature”) and mechanics (e.g. What’s ^, hw, 2morrow, and use of punctuation and capitalization). Note that e-mail messages can vary in level of formality and convention depending upon the recipient.

  6. In a whole class discussion, allow each group to share its decisions and underlying reasons for them. As they share ideas, match their reasons to what is already on the brainstormed list and add to the list as needed. Consider the differences between the two e-mail messages. How is the one to Al’s friend different from the one to his teacher? How are they the same? Why?

  7. Tell students now that they know so much about the differences between e-mail messages and letters they are going to try to write their own next time.

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Session Three

  1. Using a topic that is relevant for your class (e.g. an upcoming event or something needed for school) create a purposeful writing assignment or allow children to choose their own topics. Typical topics might include inviting families to a class presentation or school assembly or performance, telling families about an upcoming field trip and what is needed, writing to a favorite author, or writing to a pen pal about something special that has occurred.

  2. Explain that students must write two messages on this topic, as is sometimes done in the world outside of school. They must write an e-mail message and a letter. Explain that frequently people send both an e-mail message and a letter to communicate in the form that each recipient will find most useful, convenient or comfortable, and to take advantage of the speed of e-mail but to ensure that the message is received in hard copy on paper.

  3. Based on the selected topic(s), briefly have students begin to brainstorm possible content for their messages as a whole group, to generate several ideas that will help all students get started writing.

  4. Ask students to begin their writing. Although they may begin with either message it may be easiest for young students (who tend to write in less elaborated fashion generally) to begin with the less elaborated e-mail and revise it to make it a more elaborated letter. More advanced beginning writers, however, may find it easier to get everything down on paper and then cut out the unnecessary detail, convert to symbols, and simplify to create an e-mail message that distills the most important information from the letter and communicates it in a spare style.

  5. As students begin to write, circulate to provide assistance with where to begin, what to include in the e-mail message and the letter, and how to work from one text to the other, conferring as needed to assist and encourage students.

  6. Complete the process by sending the message and letter to the intended recipients.

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  • Use the E-Mail Abbreviations student interactive to discuss some of the more typical e-mail abbreviations that students are likely to use. Take the opportunity to explore the connection between sound and keyboard shortcuts as well as to help students understand the important difference that audience plays in word choice.

  • Follow up with the Write Right Back: Recognizing Readers’ Needs and Expectations for E-mail Replies lesson plan, which explores the role that audience and purpose play in e-mail replies.

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If possible, it is great to read the e-mail and letter with the student individually and provide direct feedback. When this option is not available, constructive written comments are helpful. As you read the two pieces, keep notes on the aspects to review and share with the class later. To structure your feedback, use the E-Mail and Letter Writing Rubric.

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