Persuading an Audience: Writing Effective Letters to the Editor
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Students write for an authentic audience on a topic of interest when they compose letters to the editor. They read letters to the editor in local, regional, or national newspapers, note common characteristics of the genre, and later categorize those characteristics. They search newspapers to find news articles on topics that interest them. They discuss the topics and articles they found in small groups, select one article on which to focus, and summarize the article. Next, students use an online tool to begin planning their own letter to the editor, based on the news article they selected and summarized. Students draft their letters, then peer review and revise them. Finally, they publish their letters using an online tool, and mail a copy to the newspaper, if desired.
Newspaper Article Summary Questions: Students can use this handout to help them summarize a newspaper article they have read.
Persuasion Map: Students can use this online tool to map out an argument for persuasive writing or debate.
Letter Generator: This online tool helps students learn the parts of a letter while publishing their own.
From Theory to Practice
In "Putting Writing to Work," Marjorie G. Keil quotes Vygotsky as she explains, "‘teaching should be organized in such a way that reading and writing are necessary . . . [and that] writing should be incorporated into a task . . . necessary and relevant for life' (118)"; then, she goes on to assert that when reading and writing are "performed solely as an academic exercise, the composing process becomes an endurance test of any writer's self-discipline, time-management, and motivation" (168). By writing letters on issues that they care about to an authentic audiences of readers, students completing this activity have the opportunity to go beyond an "academic exercise" to writing that matters-to them and to their readers.
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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Arrange for current issues of local, regional, or national newspapers for the classroom. Each student should have a newspaper for this activity. You may ask each student to bring a newspaper from home. If computer access allows, you can also use online newspaper sites. In addition to local newspaper sites, you can use resources from the Newseum collection of Today's Front Pages. Students will need to be able to print articles from online newspapers or to return to those pages throughout this lesson.
- Print copies of the Newspaper Article Summary Questions, Persuasion Map Planning Sheet, and Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions.
- Review the following guidelines for composing letters to the editor and determine which are appropriate for your class:
- How to Communicate with Journalists, from FAIR
- Tips on Writing Letters to the Editor, from the ACLU
- Write an Opinion Piece or a Letter to the Editor for Your Local Newspaper, from NCTE
- How to Communicate with Journalists, from FAIR
- Test the Letter Generator and Persuasion Map 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.
- choose and research a current local or national issue.
- review persuasive writing structure and business letter format.
- determine the criteria for effective letters.
- explore the ways that purpose and audience influence a message.
- develop arguments and support ideas with evidence.
- Explain that the class will be completing a unit on letters to the editor.
- Ask students to share any experiences that they have with letters to the editor of newspapers or magazines that they read.
- Pass out newspapers to the class, and ask students to find the letters to the editor in their papers.
- Give students a few minutes to skim through the letters, and jot down characteristics that they see in the letters.
- Gather the class and ask them to share the characteristics that they have noted. Record their observations on the board or on chart paper.
- Be sure that students notice the connections between the letters and the various articles in the newspaper. Some letters directly respond to previously published articles, others respond generally to topics covered in the newspapers, and some focus on general issues of interest to the newspaper's readers.
- Emphasize that students will have the opportunity to choose topics that interest them for their letters, based on articles that they find in a current issue of the newspaper.
- Have students spend 15–20 minutes skimming the newspapers and reading any articles that grab their attention.
- After students have had the opportunity to explore their newspapers, arrange the class into small groups.
- In these groups, ask students to discuss the topics and articles that interested them with one another.
- Ask students to choose one of the articles for their focus, and complete the Newspaper Article Summary Questions for that article.
- Collect the Newspaper Article Summary Questions at the end of the session, and review the work before the next session. Provide any feedback as necessary.
- For homework, have students read all the letters to the editor in their copy of the newspaper. Ask students to pay attention to the characteristics which the letters have in common and what features makes a letter successful.
- Begin with a review of the activities that students completed in the previous session.
- Share any general feedback on the topics that students have chosen, based on your review of the Newspaper Article Summary Questions, and pass back the sheets to students.
- Answer any questions that students have on the project at this point.
- Ask the class to share characteristics that they noticed as they read the letters to editor for homework. Record their responses on the board or on chart paper.
- If necessary, ask questions such as the following to guide students' observations:
- What did you notice about the organization of the letters?
- How were details used in the letters?
- What kind of details were used?
- How do the letters persuade their readers?
- Which letters seemed best?
- What is the difference between an acceptable letter and a great letter?
- What did you notice about the organization of the letters?
- Once the list is fairly complete, review the items, and make any additions or corrections.
- Ask students to suggest general categories that fit the characteristics (e.g., formatting issues, structure, ideas).
- Arrange the characteristics into these general categories, creating a checklist or rubric for students' letters.
- Pass out copies of the Persuasion Map Planning Sheet, and use the information to analyze a letter to the editor from one of the newspapers.
- Demonstrate how to use the Persuasion Map to begin gathering and organizing ideas for students' letters.
- Allow students the rest of the session to begin planning their papers with the Persuasion Map.
- Remind students to refer their Newspaper Article Summary Questions as useful.
- As students work, circulate through the room, providing feedback and support.
- If time allows, review the first sentences of several letters from the editor, and ask students point out the similarities between the sentences. Based on these examples, have students write their own sentences. Review the way to punctuate the titles of articles and the newspapers in these opening sentences.
- If desired, point students to one or more of the guidelines for composing letters to the editor listed in the Websites section.
- For homework, ask students to compose a first draft of their letters. Explain that the letters will be exchanged for peer review during the next session.
- Review the criteria for effective letters to the editor that students created during the previous session, and answer any questions that students have about the project or their drafts.
- Pass out copies of the Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions.
- Arrange students in pairs, and ask partners to exchange and read one another's drafts.
- After reading the drafts, have them fill out the Letter to the Editor Peer Review Questions to provide feedback.
- After students have shared and received feedback, allow time for the students to revise their drafts.
- For homework, ask students to revise their drafts, based on the feedback that they have received. Explain that students will type their final drafts during the next class session.
- Review the criteria for effective letters to the editor that students created, and answer any questions that students have about the project or their drafts.
- Focus students' attention on reading their drafts for minor errors before students move to type their letters.
- Remind students to punctuate the title of their articles in quotation marks, to italicize newspaper titles, and to place direct quotations from the article in quotation marks. If desired, use the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Inside or Outside? A Mini-Lesson on Quotation Marks and More as a mini-lesson at this point.
- Demonstrate the Letter Generator, which students will use to publish their letters.
- Allow the rest of the session for students to type and print their letters.
- Collect students' letters, worksheets, and drafts at the end of the session.
- If desired, ask students to print two copies of their letters, and mail one copy of each letter to the newspapers that students are responding to.
- As a book report alternative, have students write letters to the editor from the perspective of a character in a book they have read.
- After writing their letters, have students conduct research on the issues that they have chosen. The letters can serve as students' preliminary thoughts on the issue. Challenge each student to find at least 3 library resources on the issue and use those resources to expand the letter into a more formal proposal for changes that readers should consider making or actions that they should consider taking.
- Modify the lesson by assigning students topics for their letters. If you prefer to use fictional topics, use or adapt the ideas listed on Traci's 18th List of Ten: Ten Persuasive Prompts: Persuasive-Descriptive.
Student Assessment / Reflections
Check drafts and worksheets for completion and effort. Look in particular for indications of improvement over the series of drafts that students complete for the assignment. Assess students’ final drafts using the criteria for effective letters to the editor that students created during the second session of the lesson. If you prefer a more formal rubric, use the Persuasive Letter Rubric.