Draft Letters: Improving Student Writing through Critical Thinking

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
50 minutes
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Draft letters are a simple strategy that asks students to think critically about their writing on a specific assignment before submitting their work to a reader. Students write reflective letters to the teacher, identifying their own thoughts on the piece that the teacher is about to read. This lesson explains the strategy and provides models for the project, which can be adapted for any grade level and any writing project. It may be completed only for major assignments or on a more regular basis with all composition that students do.

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From Theory to Practice

Draft letters ask students to reflect on a single piece of writing that they have completed, thinking more deeply about their writing and how they work as writers. This process of deep reflection helps students improve as writers. Dawn Swartzendruber-Putnam explains:

"Reflection is a form of metacognition-thinking about thinking. It means looking back with new eyes in order to discover-in this case, looking back on writing. As Pianko states, ‘The ability to reflect on what is begin written seems to be the essence of the difference between able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward' (qtd. in Yancey 4)" (88).

Beyond the importance of critical thinking, active learning allows students to take ownership of their work while increasing their engagement with the activities at hand. Activities such as draft letters encourage students, rather than teachers, to "direct . . . every action and decision about their writing" (88).

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).



  • Students must have completed a piece of writing that they are ready to submit to a reader. Any piece of writing will work. Ideally, this activity is folded into writing workshop structure so that students compose the letter for the pieces that they share with others. It can also be used at various stages in major writing projects (e.g., a research paper unit). The letter can be used with any composition—texts, visual arguments, PowerPoint presentations, Web pages, and so forth.

  • Make copies or transparencies of the sample draft letters and the reflection questions.

  • Test the Letter Generator on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • think critically about their writing.

  • communicate clearly about their writing.

  • review letter-writing conventions.

Instruction & Activities

  1. Explain draft letters to the class:

    Students write reflective letters to you (or another reader), explaining their own thoughts on a specific piece of writing (e.g., a paper, a Website, a journal entry). You (or the student reader) will read the letter with the piece of writing, and use the information in the letter to guide comments and feedback. This is students’ chance to tell you anything you should know before you respond to their writing.

  2. Provide an example purpose for the activity by saying something like “Nothing feels worse than to be criticized for something you already know isn’t working well, or to not be commended for something you really thought was great. Let me know what you think, and I can help you” (from Swartzendruber-Putnam, p. 90).

  3. Display or pass out the Reflection Questions, and go over the kinds of things that students can talk about in their letters.

  4. Brainstorm additional questions, and record students’ responses on the board, chart paper, or an overhead transparency. Save the questions for students to use in later sessions.

  5. Review the basic requirements of letter writing using the information in the introduction to the Letter Generator.

  6. Stress the role of audience and purpose in these letters: students are writing letters to another reader in order to give that reader important information about another text that they have written.

  7. Arrange students in small groups, and give each group copies of Mike’s Letter and Nate’s Letter.

  8. In their groups, ask students to read the two letters and compare the information that they communicate with readers. Students should easily recognize that Mike’s Letter is more thoughtful and detailed than Nate’s Letter.

  9. As you circulate among groups, encourage them to identify reasons that one letter is more successful than the other. Ask them to find specific details that support their observations.

  10. Once students have had a chance to work through the two letters, gather the class together, and ask them to share their observations. As they identify techniques of good letters, record the ideas on the board, chart paper, or an overhead transparency. The list can become an informal checklist for well-written draft letters.

  11. Answer any questions that students have about writing their own draft letters.

  12. For a homework assignment or during the next class session, ask students to write their own draft letters to submit with a piece of writing for your feedback.


  • The first time you complete this activity, model the letters and discuss the activity as explained here. For subsequent writing pieces, ask students to complete letters again. If desired, review additional student samples with the class to discuss how to communicate more clearly in letters.

  • Begin by having students write their letters to you, but as their expertise with reflection builds, the letters can be addressed to any readers—writing group members, a peer reviewer, and so forth.

  • Fold this activity into students’ journals or writing logs by asking them to compose a draft entry that reflects on the other entries in the journal. When students submit their journals, use the draft entry as you would a draft letter to guide your feedback and response.

  • In technical writing classes, adapt the lesson by asking students to write memos, rather than letters.

  • Make connections to minilessons that you have completed to influence students’ draft letters. Consider the following connections:

    • If you have recently completed a minilesson on using examples to develop ideas, remind students how the technique applies to draft letters. Ask them to use examples from the piece of writing they are discussing to develop the points they are making in their reflections.

    • If you have recently learned how to use quotation marks and quotations, encourage students to use quotations from the written pieces that they are reflecting on.

    • After a minilesson on comparison and contrast, suggest students might use the technique to compare the piece of writing they are reflecting on to something else that they have written.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Give students credit for having completed their draft letters, rather than grading this piece. The goal is to encourage reflective thinking and the focus should be on the accompanying piece of writing. While the draft letter is an important communication tool, it should be an ungraded piece.

  • Feedback on the activity should focus on students' self-reflection rather than “right” or “wrong” choices. Read every letter as thoroughly as you read the related piece of writing. As students first begin this kind of reflection, provide scaffolding to support their development as critical thinkers. In response, ask them questions that will lead to clearer and deeper thinking. If desired, your response can also be written in letter form.

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