By Melissa Thomson

19 September 2019 - 18:07

Person checking his phone
'Speak to the partner teacher. You will get a feel for their teaching style and capabilities.' Photo ©

Zachary Drucker used under licence and adapted from the original

British Council teacher and trainer Melissa Thomson shares her recipe for a digital penpal project.

Each time I do a digital penpal exchange I learn how to make it better for the next time.

Here is my ten stage approach to digital penpal exchanges, from the idea stage to the feedback stage.

Use your syllabus to hone ideas

Before you look for a teacher and class to partner with, look at your syllabus and prepare ideas based on a theme or vocabulary set. If your class have a study unit about the environment, look for an exchange that will help them recycle that vocabulary. 

Posts on teacher forums that request a digital penpal exchange without further information may attract teachers with different aims and expectations to you. That can lead to a false start. You're more likely to get a positive response if you give a clear idea of what you want to do. 

Linking your penpal exchange to your syllabus will also help you justify the classroom time to learners and parents. 

Alternatively, match it with functional language aims in your syllabus. If your class is due to practice language for making recommendations, describing important objects, or supporting opinions, make that the central idea of the digital penpal exchange. 

Grammar aims also work. For example, classes with a lower language level can exchange videos, posts or drawings about what they can/can’t do. Higher level classes who are working on unreal conditionals can write about what they’d miss if they moved to their partner class’ country.

Choose your platform carefully

Digital penpal exchanges give learners more choices than a traditional, pen-and-paper exchange.

One learner from your class might send virtual postcards to a learner from the other class. Your whole class might write comments on a shared blog.

I recommend choosing the platform first, and deciding what you and your learners can do with it. 

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Look for a class who will be a good linguistic match

Now it’s time to find a partner. The easiest way to do so is to use your own contacts. Alternatively, Skype for the Classroom, Etwinning and Penfriends have teacher forums where you can post your request. 

When you contact a teacher directly, be clear about the age, language level and number of your learners. Look for similar language levels, as well as ages.

If, for example, there are ten twelve-year-olds at the same language level in your class, and 25 mixed ability twelve-year-olds in the other class, you will have to give extra time and thought to pairings and activities. 

Speak to the partner teacher

I recommend at least one short conversation on the phone or by video. You can plan and clear up any miscommunications more easily than by email or other types of message. 

You will get a feel for their teaching style and capabilities, and you might both feel more confident after you've digitally met.

Share a calendar with the other teacher

Include the days you have class, how often you have class, and how long you have class for.

If you have class on a Friday and the other class have class on a Saturday and Tuesday, they will know when to expect a reply to their messages.

If you write to them on Friday afternoon, be aware that they might not have time to reply by Saturday.

Swap information about public holidays, and term start and end dates. Different countries may have a different academic year.

If the exchange is to be done in a 10 week term, for example, I recommend a table like this:

Date What and who Things to remember!
(date) Classes A and B talk to learners about the exchange *remember to hand out permission slips
(date) Collect permission slips *phone parents of those without slips
(date) Class A to do X first *Class A have class on Friday evening, so email won’t be sent until Monday morning
(date) Class B to read/watch/reply  
(date) ------------------------------------------ Class A on holiday
(date) Class B to do X  
(date) Class A to read/watch/reply  
(date) Catch up week!  
(date) ----------------------------------------- Class B can’t work this week, exams
(date) Last task  

Do as much penpalling as possible in class time

Imagine if one learner missed class. Then, the next time they came to class, you set the homework and they don't complete it. 

If that happens once in your class and once in the other class, the project will lose momentum.

Make penpalling interesting for your learners

This is the fun part.

Plan a 30 minute session to introduce your learners to their new project.

Use Google Maps or Google Street View to virtually visit the partner school. This can help make the other school real to your learners.

In pairs, ask learners to write three simple questions about that country. Then, ask them to swap their questions with another pair and search for the answers online. While they do that, play some pop music from the other country. 

This activity will prompt questions about the place, and cover general knowledge questions about location, population and capital cities.

If your learners are older primary school learners or teenagers, tell them what you and the other teacher have planned so far. Then, ask them to rank the ideas or tasks. Tell them they can add an extra idea, and you can put it to the partner teacher.

You’ll involve them in the plan without deviating too far. When you know what interests them, you can plan to spend longer on those tasks. 

Prepare for language learning as well as fun

Talk to your learners about how this exchange can improve their English.

Learners want to have fun in class, but they also want to know the purpose of what they’re doing.

Remind them that informal writing will help them to recycle the structures you’ve been learning.

Tell them that they will learn a lot of new words and great uses for those words. How might they record the vocabulary they'll learn?

If your class has an external exam at the end of the course, ask them to brainstorm how penpalling might prepare them for their exam. 

Stick to your agreements

Always record what you’ve talked about with learners, and reply to emails with the partner teacher in a timely fashion.

Plan ahead so that you can devote the agreed time to penpalling.

I make a note in my register of the dates in the shared calendar. I also regularly ask the learners what's coming up. Fourteen heads are better than one. 

Take the lead in communicating with the other teacher

If there isn’t an answer from the partner class on the blog, or the email with the video link hasn’t arrived, don’t wait. Get in contact.

You might find out there was a technical error, or that your partner teacher forgot. A gentle reminder can get the calendar back on track.

Be prepared to alter plans if you need to

Hopefully, all will go to plan. But, it might not. Your partner teacher might get ill. Some learners might change class. Your might forget to make time in class to make a video.

Plan for feedback before the penpalling project ends

Collecting written feedback from your partner teacher and learners. Ask them what they’ve enjoyed, and why.

Tell them you plan to do this again with next year’s class, and ask them what they would change.

This valuable perspective will help you plan for next year and a more successful digital exchange. 

Teachers, visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities, and find out how you can become a TeachingEnglish blogger.

This article includes advice for using the internet in classrooms. We also recommend that teachers use the 360safe online self-review tool for a whole-school approach to online safety.

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