Standard Lesson

Letters and Learning Genre

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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This lesson combines a lesson on genre with an opportunity for students to write and experience how genre changes a situation. Students first share what they know about letters and discuss books that feature letters. They then compare and contrast letters written for different purposes and situations. Then, by examining letters in selected picture books, students see how genres have flexibility and can be used in different situations. Next, they practice this flexibility with genres by writing a story using a series of letters to tell the story—using a book they have recently read, rather than creating one of their own, so that they can see the effect of genre choice. Finally, students make final revisions to their letter-stories and share them with the class.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Genres, once thought of as ways to categorize texts and therefore defined only by formal features, now are known in more complex ways, as ways of acting in specific social situations (Devitt). Because genres are social responses, they carry meaning beyond their form-the choice of genre also carries contextual meaning and frames readers' reception of it. When we read a fairy tale, we expect certain textual characteristics, and we position ourselves accordingly: we suspend logic for instance. But Anne Freadman also notes that the relation of formal properties of text with context (which together constitute a genre) "does not mean. . . that the formal properties of a genre cannot travel . . . . Texts plunder the features of a variety of genres. . . . Indeed, writing to a genre is itself a game, which can be played with more or less brinkmanship or bravado" (117). So, genres can be, and often are, engaged for purposes beyond those intended in their original situation. This flexibility inherent in genre is an important concept for students to understand as they develop as writers: it means they have choices as writers, even within genres, but it also means they have responsibilities to readers and to situations.

This lesson helps students see genres as they change through time to meet different purposes and also how a writer can use generic expectations in readers to carry messages beyond those originally intended, thus teaching the flexibility of genres.

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.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology




  • Prepare for LCD projection of letters or collect paper samples to use in class.

  • Have ready access to the interactive Venn diagram, or make copies of a Venn diagram on paper for students

  • Have access to computers or to paper and pens for the writing portion of the lesson.

  • Preview the Rose O’Neal Greenhow Papers: An On-line Archival Collection from Duke University, which provides letters from a Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a secessionist and spy during the Civil War. The tone of the letters, both from the time period and her role as spy, shows how letters change in response to situation—both time and other contextual factors.

  • Visit the Postal Reform in Early 19th-Century British North America Website, which gives some history of letters and the Canadian postal system, for more information on how letters have changed as a genre.

  • View Writing Business Letters for more information and models of formal business letters.

  • Gather needed books that feature letters and letter writing.

  • Test the Venn Diagram 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

  • explore a genre, connecting features to purposes.

  • compare and contrast a genre in different situations.

  • apply information about genre to their writing.

  • reflect on genre for other purposes

Session One

  1. Ask students to share what they know about letters: What do they look like? What purpose(s) do they serve? When are they used? List their responses on the board or on chart paper.

  2. Read The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters to the class. Ahead of time, ask students to watch for the differences they find in the communications.

  3. After reading (and, reviewing the different kinds of communication allowed in letters), have students list the differences they notice. They should, at least, note the following:

    • different formats

    • different levels of formality (in expectations of correctness, in word choice, in sentence construction)

    • different relationships represented by the different tones.
  4. As a class, review several examples of letters from the past, using the Websites listed in the Resources section. Have students note what they didn’t list on the board and confirm what they did.

  5. Be sure to note the variety among the examples and the ways the letters, although one genre, adjust as they respond to different situations of time, relationship, and purpose.

  6. As students note a characteristic, ask how that characteristic responds to an aspect of situation. For example, why do some of the letters sound more formal than others? How do comments in some letters seem confusing because we’re outsiders and don’t know the whole background for the comment, but in other letters, we can understand? For this discussion, refer back to letters in The Jolly Postman. For instance, if you don’t know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, would the postcard (a specific kind of letter) make sense? Connecting textual features to as many aspects of situation—time, purpose, relationship, etc.—even if we’re speculating, is important in considering genre.

  7. Read some letters from Nancy’s book, Letters from a Nut. Again, question the characteristics. These letters are much more formal in the formatting. The tone attempts to be formal, but there is definitely an undertone in some of the letters that is more noticeable in some letter pairs than in others. For instance, students could note the tone in the letters between Mr. Bob Arum and Nancy about the Schmeling fight or the letters between the Minnesota Twins and Nancy about being a mascot. Through these investigations students should discover how letter tone is created to represent the situation of the letter—again the time, the purpose of the letter, and the relationship of the people communicating.

  8. Have students fill out Venn Diagrams comparing and contrasting letters from two different situations, either from the past and present or from people who know each other to people who don’t. When they are done, review their findings and relate what they found to the concept of genre. This short comparison should help students see that genres (even one like business letters that might seem formulaic) have variety and flexibility, that they change over time and adapt to specific purposes beyond the general one(s).

Session Two

  1. Review what students learned about letters from the previous session.

  2. Arrange the class in small groups, and ask these groups to read one of the picture books written as a series of letters. As they do so, they should consider how the authors use readers’ understanding of the genre of letters to carry the message of the story. They should consider the following questions:

    • How do the letters help to tell the story?

    • Why did the author choose to tell the story this way instead of in a regular story line?

    • What does using this genre do for the story and for your understanding of it that a regular story would miss?

    • How does using letters to tell a story change the idea of letters as a genre?
  3. When students have read their books and discussed the questions, hold a whole-class discussion. In this discussion, students should be able to see that genres have flexibility and that writers use that flexibility to meet their own purposes. They should also see, though, that if we flex too much, readers don’t know the original genre and then miss the point we’re trying to make by using it in the first place. Through this discussion, students should begin to understand that the contextual aspect of genres, the meaning they carry beyond the form, can be used as much as the form itself to carry messages to readers.

  4. Explain to students that they are going to practice this flexibility with genres by writing a story using a series of letters to tell the story—like the picture books they have just read. Students choose a well-known story or a story or book they have recently read. The key for this practice is that students choose an existing story, not create one of their own, so that they can see the effect of genre choice. This writing also works well in pairs, with each partner taking one role in the letter writing story.

  5. When everyone or every pair has a story idea, students should choose the characters who will exchange letters. If they want, they can, like Ike in Dear Mrs. LaRue, tell the whole story with letters from one character to another who never responds.

  6. Next, have students choose a level of formality that will fit the situation. For example, if I were writing the story of Little Red Riding Hood, I might choose to have the letters between Red and her mother. In that case, my letters would be fairly informal. On the other hand, if I wanted the letters to be between Red and the Parks Department (since they would have jurisdiction over the woods Red had to walk through), the letters would be more formal.

    It may help to make a chart on the board or on chart paper to record who is writing to whom in each of the stories. There could also be a column for the type of letter was written. This can also serve as a review of the books that have been previewed.
  7. Have students write all their decisions on a 3x5 card to turn in. Before the next session, the teacher should review the information on the 3x5 cards, and make any adjustments with the students and their projects.

Session Three

  1. Hand back the 3x5 cards so students can refresh their memories about their decisions from the previous day.

  2. Use the Writing Business Letters resource from George Mason University for a brief mini-lesson on formal letters, for students who need to have more formal letters. Remind them though that the form is only part of what creates the formality. Formality and informality is also reflected in the word choice, sentence fluency, and in how much information is given—when we know someone, we leave out details that we realize they already know. Students should be thoughtful about these aspects as they draft.

  3. Have students begin drafting. If they have access to computers, this is much faster. An option for typing the letters is using the Online Letter Generator.

Session Four

  1. When students have drafts of their letters, have them exchange with other students or pairs to read the letters. They should use the peer review questions to guide their reading.

  2. After peer review, have students make revisions to their letter-stories and print them to share with the class.

  3. Give time for students to read at least a few other letter-stories.

  4. Have students reflect on their learning from this writing:

    • How are the stories different because they are told through letters?

    • How do letters add to and take away from regular story elements?

    • What was challenging in making the shift from one genre to another?

    • What do you know about genres now that you didn’t before this lesson?

    • How can this learning about genre help in writing in the future?


  • Students can illustrate their letter-stories and make them into books for younger students or for another class.

  • Students can extend the lesson by writing letters for authentic purposes. See the lesson idea explained in “Going Public: Letters to the World.” Voices from the Middle 8.1 (September 2000): 42–47.

  • Extend the exploration of genres by looking at other genres that are used in numerous ways. For suggestions on a classroom activity using how-to writing, check out Dean’s book Strategic Writing, pages 71–81.

  • This lesson on genres could also be extended by following up with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Imagine That! Playing with Genre through Newspapers and Short Stories. This is another lesson on genres (extending genres by turning news article to short story and vice versa). Students can write a news story that accompanies the letter-story they wrote for this lesson.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Review the students' responses to the Reflection Questions from Session Four:

    • How are the stories different because they are told through letters?

    • How do letters add to and take away from regular story elements?

    • What was challenging in making the shift from one genre to another?

    • What do you know about genres now that you didn’t before this lesson?

    • How can this learning about genre help in writing in the future?

  • In addition, assess the students’ letter-stories using the rubric.

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