Standard Lesson

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

K - 2
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 40-minute sessions
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E-mail style and conventions differ from traditional writing. E-mail messages are a particular form of writing that invites innovation and can be contrasted with more traditional letters to help children begin to appreciate the choices writers make and the genre constraints under which they operate. In this lesson, students use a Venn diagram to compare an e-mail with a traditional letter. They then work in small groups to identify the style and intended audience for sample letters and e-mails about forgotten homework. Finally, each student writes both an e-mail and a letter about the same topic.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

E-mail is a motivating tool for teaching writing because children enjoy communicating in this medium. E-mail has become a pervasive form of communication that children must learn in order to be fully literate. Technology, then, is a powerful tool for learning to write; however, screen writing may have unintended effects on children's literacy learning if differences between screen and paper genres are not explored. As a genre, e-mail messages follow "rules" for style and conventions that differ from the norms for handwritten letters. Children can learn about these differences by comparing and experimenting with writing e-mail messages and letters. Children's awareness of genre differences may help them understand and master the various written forms they will encounter in their lives.

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

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 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

  • Computer with projection screen or overhead projector

  • Chart paper for brainstorming ideas about differences between the samples

  • Available computers and e-mail addresses for students to compose their own letters and e-mail messages and send the messages




  • This lesson assumes that students have already been introduced to e-mail as a form of communication and have basic knowledge of how to create and send a simple message. If students need a refresher on how to compose an e-mail, they can go to the kid-friendly E-mail page from the PBS Arthur site. A Beginner’s Guide to Effective E-mail and Children and Media both offer resources for teachers that would be useful in a review of e-mailing.

  • Prepare the Side-by-side E-mail Message and Letter (or an alternative) for projection.

  • Make copies for all students of the Texts for Sorting Activity about forgotten homework (or create your own examples and copy them). Cut the sheets so that the three messages are separated.

  • Make sure each student has an appropriate e-mail address to send a message to.

  • Choose a topic for the student-composed letters and messages that is relevant and purposeful in the context of your classroom.

  • Make copies of the E-Mail and Letter Writing Rubric, one for each student, to use in feedback on the project.

  • Test the Venn Diagram student interactive and the E-Mail Abbreviation student interactive 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

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.


  • 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.

Student Assessment / Reflections

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.

Leah Korth
K-12 Teacher
I am looking to create a unit very similar to this one about how the ins and outs of email. This would be for a second grade class. I am wondering what you had the students use for email address. I am having a difficult time finding safe and appropriate email addresses for students to use. Where did your students write their emails? Thanks!
Leah Korth
K-12 Teacher
I am looking to create a unit very similar to this one about how the ins and outs of email. This would be for a second grade class. I am wondering what you had the students use for email address. I am having a difficult time finding safe and appropriate email addresses for students to use. Where did your students write their emails? Thanks!
Leah Korth
K-12 Teacher
I am looking to create a unit very similar to this one about how the ins and outs of email. This would be for a second grade class. I am wondering what you had the students use for email address. I am having a difficult time finding safe and appropriate email addresses for students to use. Where did your students write their emails? Thanks!

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