Standard Lesson

Investigating Junk Mail: Negotiating Critical Literacy at the Mailbox

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 40-minute sessions
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By investigating junk mail, students learn to think about and question texts in ways that develop their analytical capacities and critical reading practices. Students work in small groups to investigate and sort junk mail into categories of their choice using a Venn diagram. They discuss the purpose of junk mail and compose a class definition. They then find examples of junk mail at home and share them in small groups, explaining why they think the mail is junk mail. As a class, students discuss any mail that their group disagreed about and explore how mail could be considered useful or junk, depending on the audience. Finally, students select a piece of junk mail and rewrite it to be more honest, more effective, dramatic, or humorous.

From Theory to Practice

In "Negotiating Critical Literacies," Barbara Comber explains that students come to our classrooms with many analytical skills. Our job is to identify and engage those skills in meaningful ways that extend student's thinking. Comber states, "Children are accustomed to thinking analytically about power and pleasure and listening to and producing powerful texts. The task for teacher is help children to develop a meta-awareness and a meta-language of what they already know how to do and to assist them in applying these resources to the texts and situations of school life" (2). This lesson plan follows such a model by asking students to stop and think critically and consciously about the decisions someone makes at the mailbox, to think carefully about which pieces of mail are kept and why. Comber's article touches on a similar activity practiced by educators in South Australia.

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

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 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).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Chart paper and markers

  • Examples of junk mail

  • For a more visual sorting option, hula hoops or rope to form circles on the floor



  • Invite family to collect and send in junk mail.

  • Sort through junk mail to determine if any of it contains inappropriate content or personal information.

  • Place about ten pieces of junk mail into a paper bag. Make enough bags for the number of groups you anticipate.

  • Make copies of the Junk Mail Planning Sheet. If you’ll be completing the extension that analyzes junk mail sent to students’ homes, make copies of the Junk Mail Tracking Chart.

  • Sign up for computer lab to use Venn Diagram tool or make copies of the Venn Diagram reproducible.

  • Test the Venn Diagram, Letter Generator, and Printing Press on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools 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

  • sort junk mail by characteristics using a Venn diagram.

  • share their thought process about sorting junk mail in the manner they did.

  • discuss what the junk mail represents using prompting questions from the teacher.

  • create their own revisions of junk mail, focusing on improving or changing the original message.

Session One

  1. Divide the class into small groups or pairs.

  2. Give each group a paper bag with about ten pieces of junk mail in it.

  3. Invite students to begin to investigate the pieces of mail and talk about what they find. Give students approximately ten to fifteen minutes to explore the contents of their bag.

  4. Once students have had an opportunity to examine the pieces of mail, invite them to begin to sort the mail using Venn Diagram interactive, or Venn Diagram Graphic Organizer. Alternately, you can place hula hoops or rope circles on the floor and students can sort the mail into the spaces.

  5. Allow students to define their own sorting criteria, but remind students that they will share their mail with the rest of the class.

  6. When the Venn Diagrams are completed, ask each group to share their mail and diagrams with the rest of the class. Explain that as students make observations, you will note their comments on chart paper so that the class can refer to them later.

  7. Encourage students to explain what made the pieces of mail similar and different.

  8. Once all the groups have shared, look back over the chart that you’ve gathered. You can arrange similar comments together and add any comments that students suggest now that they have this list to refer to.

Session Two

  1. Review the information on the chart from the previous session, regarding junk mail and the ways that students sorted the mail.

  2. Based on the chart, lead a class discussion of the purpose of junk mail, based on the mail that students have examined and sorted. Use questions such as the following to guide the conversation:

    • How do you know what the message is about?

    • How do you know what is being advertised in this message?

    • Who are the people who read message?

    • Who created and sent out this message?

    • What types of things are advertised through this message?

    • What do the advertisers want you to think about the items mentioned or shown in the message?

    • What is the purpose of message?

    • Where else in the community are you persuaded to buy items, or join clubs/organizations, or visit places?

    • What techniques are used to attract my attention?

    • How might different people understand this message differently from me?

    • What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?
  3. As students discuss these issues, encourage them to point directly to examples from the previous session that support or demonstrate what they are saying.

  4. Conclude the discussion by asking students to compose a class definition of junk mail—make explicit connections to the class discussion and examples to help clarify the definition.

  5. If a student does not offer the observation, ask the class to think specifically about the word “junk” in the name junk mail. What makes this mail “junk”?

  6. For homework, ask students to find another example of junk mail that has been sent to their home. Students can bring more than one piece if they wish.

Session Three

  1. Review the class definition of junk mail.

  2. Ensure that every student has a sample piece of mail. Students with more than one piece can share or you can provide pieces from your own collection.

  3. Divide students into small groups again, and ask students to share the pieces they have brought in and explain why they would include is as an example of junk mail.

  4. Circulate among students as they work. Be on the lookout for any instances where group members disagree on whether something is actually junk mail.

  5. Once students have had a chance to share in their groups, gather them again and ask them to share any pieces of junk mail that stood out.

  6. Next, ask students if there were any examples of junk mail that they disagreed on or were unsure about. Ask students to discuss why they had questions. As relevant, return to the guiding questions from the previous session that can help students analyze the “problem” pieces of mail.

  7. If none of the available pieces of mail have raised the issue, choose a piece of mail from your own collection that can help students focus on the role of reader in determining whether something is junk mail. For instance, a piece of mail advertising a diaper service would probably be junk mail for a family with no babies but might be seen as a regular piece of mail to a family with a newborn. If student groups noted the role of readers in the sorting activity in the first session, be sure to refer to their findings.

  8. As a group, look at your class definition of junk mail. Does it help clarify the category that the mail belongs in? Does the definition need refined?

  9. Explain the final project that students will complete:

    • Challenge students to take one piece of junk mail and rewrite it in a way that they think is more honest, more effective, dramatic, or humorous. They might focus on a different audience or a different persuasive point.

    • Ask each student to choose one piece of junk mail to focus on from the collections on hand in the classroom. Be sure that students understand the project before they choose the piece of junk mail they’ll work on.

    • Encourage students to set their own goals for this project by completing the Junk Mail Planning Sheet, which they will submit with their project. If desired, you can work individually with students to share the goals from the planning sheet into individualized rubrics.

    • Offer the Letter Generator and Printing Press as options for creating final versions of the rewritten junk mail.


  • Follow this lesson plan with A Genre Study of Letters With The Jolly Postman, a 3-5 ReadWriteThink lesson plan that asks students to sort mail based on the different types of letters that characters in the story receive.

  • Ask students to brainstorm ways to respond to junk mail and create your own social action project as an extension of this lesson. The resources on the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse site and on the PBSKids’ page Make the Most of Junk Mail offer starting places for a project that you can customize for your students and community.

  • Take advantage of students’ work on junk mail identification by creating a mail analysis project for students to complete for a week or more. Using a basic chart, students can track the number of pieces of mail that they receive each day and the categories that the mail fell into. After the time period has passed, gather the findings and calculate totals for the class. If desired, take advantage of the data to talk about averages and statistics. Calculate the average number of pieces of junk mail and non-junk mail each student has received over the course of the week; then use that information to determine approximately how many pieces of junk mail were received by all the students in the school. Talk about the possible errors in the information (e.g., some of the students at the school live in the same home, some families may have a post office box and a home delivery box).
  • Use The Junk Mail Explosion: Why You Buy and How Ads Persuade to expand on the activities students have already completed. For a taste of the project, customize the fifteen-item list of advertising strategies used in junk mail as a scavenger hunt checklist and ask your students to search the junk mail you’ve gathered in the class for examples fitting the strategies. This can be a great introduction to further exploration of persuasive writing.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Assessment of the sorting activities in this lesson plan is primarily observational. The following questions can circulate among students and guide discussion:

  • How did they sort their junk mail?

  • Was the Venn diagram constructed appropriately?

  • Did the students participate in the discussion about junk mail?

  • Were the students able to identify ways that the advertisers defined their readers?

Assessment of the final project should be geared to the specific rewriting focus that student undertake. Ideally, work with individual students to shape a rubric for their project from the information on the Junk Mail Planning Sheet. Ask students to submit the Planning Sheet as well as the original piece of junk mail with their final rewritten version.

As a part of the rewriting process, students will look closely at the original piece of junk mail and make decisions about what to retain and what to discard. A reflective response to the project can be a useful addition. With the final project submission, you might ask students to include a reflective response focusing on one of the following prompts:

  • What things did you notice about the original piece of junk mail as you were rewriting that you hadn’t noticed before? Why do you think you noticed them?

  • What was the hardest part of rewriting your piece of junk mail and why? What was easiest?

  • When you find a piece of junk mail in your mailbox, what will you look for now that you wouldn’t have thought about before our study?

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