With the temptation of technology at our fingertips, how can we encourage children to write more letters? Rosy Edwards finds out
Thank-you letters: three words likely to make any child scarper quicker than you can say ‘gratitude’. They can feel like a full stop to the fun. When the cake has been eaten, the presents have been opened and the balloons have withered, the onerous task of writing reams of ‘thank yous’ is all that’s left.
Writing a letter is no small feat for children. It demands fine motor skills, concentration and language comprehension all at the same time; how much easier to just send a text message or ping off an email, a quick cut-and-paste with a space left to ‘insert gift here’. We have the technology, and though it’s galling to admit, children are often more dextrous with an iPad than a pencil. Children are writing less by hand, and relying more on tech. As adults we’re just as guilty, which means letter writing is sadly dying out, but with campaigns such as Write Your Future reinforcing the importance of this vital skill while creating fun and engaging ways to enable more children to write more often it means handwriting and letter writing is getting the attention it deserves.
“Letter writing is a great thing,” says Dr Jane Medwell, associate professor of education at the University of Nottingham and a leading academic in the field of handwriting and literacy. “The point of writing is about connecting with an audience and writing a letter is about as direct as you can get.”
There are educational benefits, too: letter writing improves handwriting and develops spelling, reading and penmanship. But, “we need to recognise that handwriting has a more important function than just getting the words down on the page,” says Medwell. “It helps in learning sound-symbol correspondences and chronological awareness. We know that learning literacy through writing is more effective than just doing that through reading or recognition.”
The inherent creativity of letter writing can also be a revelation says Andrea Schaller, a literacy coordinator and mother of two. “Children are amazed that they can say what they like and decorate their letters, so invest in pretty stationery, stickers and stamps. But what they really love is posting them.”
The one thing better than writing a letter? Receiving one. Children are overjoyed to get post meant for their eyes alone – an envelope concealing sentiments guaranteed to be more heartfelt than any Facebook post. Letters are treasure for children, and a unique way to document their childhoods. As adults, letters become keepsakes, hidden in boxes under beds, instantly transporting us back to times, places and people from our past.
To encourage your child to write letters, Schaller suggests giving them a list of their friends’ addresses and starting off with a short note. Brevity, Medwell agrees, is key. “A short letter gladly written is better than a strung out horror that results in tears and tantrums.”
Medwell also warns against making children copy out your script as they can be disheartened and overwhelmed by complex adult sentences. “Copying carries a massive cognitive load; you have to see, hold in short and long term memory, and reproduce.”
But perhaps the best way to get children writing letters is to write letters to them. Cards, notes and Post-Its all count. Make sure they see you writing so writing feels relevant to them. And with Christmas approaching, why not suggest a letter to Father Christmas that’s more of a story than a shopping list, or pop some stationery in their stocking.
When it comes to writing thank you notes this Christmas, you won’t even have to ask.