I remember my first lesson on how to write a letter: how to address an envelope, the rigid explanation of formatting differences between business and personal, the impressive-sounding terms for the parts of a letter (the salutation, the complimentary closing, the postscript). It was in elementary school language arts class. We wrote letters and the teacher marked them up in red pen. Commas missed after “Dear Mr. President,” and things like that.
They understandably assumed that letter writing would be one of the most common ways that I expressed myself to other people. Little did they suspect that letter writing would be almost entirely supplanted by the writing of emails. In fact, letter writing is still important because it is so infrequent. It is a way to get noticed. Writing a letter, to a company which has pissed me off, to my senator, or to a company I want to hire me, is the epistolary equivalent of breaking out the big guns. Far, far more pedestrian is the humble email to which most of my written communication is consigned.
As regular readers may have guessed, I’m often appalled at how bad some people are at communicating through the medium of email.
This is why I think that email should be an important part of elementary education. And, it should be taught by teachers of language. (Tangentally, in my day they called this subject “language arts,” which I suspect is a rebranding of the subject “English.” I have no idea what they call it these days.) Email is (or should be) no longer any more mystifying to a 10 year old than the postal service—so we don’t need computer/technology teachers to introduce it. Using language to communicate is what email is all about, and kids will need more guidance on how to write emails than they will on how to send them.
Letter writing and email writing share a similar core, but should really be taught as distinct media. A fundamental reality of email in today’s world is the sheer volume that people receive, unparalleled by letter-writing that preceeded it. Most people will decide in a matter of seconds whether or not an email is worth the time to ever 1) read or 2) resond to. In order to have any hope of getting their message across, students need to know how to write emails that sound out clearly among the constant noise—not an easy task for beginning writers! They need to know the importance of writing good subject lines, how to get to the point quickly in the body of the email, and how to make it clear (and easy for their recipient to respond with) what they want.
They should be taught the (only slightly) technical details of email, just like we did for letters: how to address it, the parts (To:, From:, CC:, BCC:, Subject:, then the familiar salutation, body, closing), how to format not only original emails, but forwards and replies as well, the difference between HTML and Plaintext. They should be introduced to all the fun that can be had with formatting, colors, fonts, pictures, hyperlinks and the <blink> tag, have their little hearts broken when it doesn’t display like they intended on their friend’s email client, and then be gradually weaned away from all the bling to find styles that fit the tone and purpose of the email.
If there are any elementary school teachers out there, I’d love to collaborate on writing some lesson plans for this. Get in touch!
Photo by adam79