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May 20, 2019

Pen Pals Make Better Readers and Writers

Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword might say it’s mightier than the keyboard too. Because writing still matters and pen pals are still a thing.

According to the most recent numbers from the Kids Count Data Center, 73% of U.S. fourth-graders are not proficient at writing. But that’s not what drove Tim Mallad, president of Presbyterian Communities and Services, to start a writing program at the Good Shepherd Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas, last year. It was because his daughter was angry. “I wrote her a letter in cursive and she was mad because she couldn’t read it,” he said. That led to a collaboration with his daughter’s third-grade teacher, Karen Gunter, to start a pen pals program between her students and the tenants of Presbyterian Village North, an older living community where residents excel at writing in cursive.

The program’s participants have almost tripled since it started.

Here’s why elementary schools should follow suit.

It generates its own curriculum
“The residents use bigger words and it gives us the opportunity to figure out what they mean based on the letter’s context,” Gunter said. “I can use them to point out conjunctions and prepositions that aren’t usually stressed as much in third grade.”

It’s engaging
Research says when students participate in the learning process it increases their focus and motivation.

“Writing letters is a more intimate form of communication. You’re more intentional with what you say. It’s not like shooting off a text,” Gunter said.

“They like it so much they don’t know they’re learning at the same time,” Mallad added.

Make a friend
Even after the school year, many pen pals still write to each other.

“They have so much wisdom to share with the children and they reach through time and years and bond. It’s great for both of them since a lot of the residents no longer have small grandchildren,” Mallad said.

Become a better reader and writer
“Kids will often leave gaps in their writing. They now know they have to read over their letters and are careful because this is real,” Gunter said.

According to research, children don’t have the hand dexterity and fine motor skills they had 10 years ago thanks to the prevalence of screen time. Writing gives children the opportunity to develop them.

When children focus more on the physical act of letter writing, they are less likely to focus on the content of their writing. But once kids become better writers, the opposite becomes true, allowing kids to create more complicated text.

Iva Cutler, one of the third-graders in the program said, “at first I thought writing in cursive was really hard but now it’s easier since I keep practicing.”

“The fourth-grade teachers are thanking me because the kids end up having better comprehension skills,” Gunter said.

The adulting factor
Kids learn how to address a letter, how long it takes to send and receive mail, and that sometimes, things can get lost there.

“Everything is instant in this world. I can text and get an answer in seconds. To wait a week or two for a letter teaches patience,” Mallad said.

It’s cheap
The only expense is for postage, paper, and envelopes.

Gunter has consulted with other school staff on how to start a pen pal program, and it’s now a staple of her third-grade curriculum.

“Cursive and letter writing may be a dying art, but half the fonts on a computer are cursive. This just gives them a leg up,” Gunter said.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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