Project work (4): Writing "thank you" letters

Thanks for the soldiers. The kid next door loves them. She got a phone for Christmas and I swopped them with her. She was really upset cos the phone was broken. It wasn't actually but I told her it was cos I really needed the phone so we were both happy.

Example letter shown to learners

What makes a successful task in a language learning classroom?

I'd suggest it's one that (1) produces a lot of interaction and language, including new language; and that (2) your learners like doing it — so much so that someone asks you if they can "do that again".

If you've tried the first three parts of the "Christmas" project proposed (see links below) and they've been successful, there's an obvious fourth part, that has worked well with learners in the past.

In Part 2, we had people writing letters to Santa asking for particular things for Christmas, which — in Part 3 — they didn't get, instead getting something totally random (see Part 1). The follow-up has to be the "thank you" letters! Yes, I know: no one writes "thank you" letters nowadays, do they? But that's no reason why we shouldn't get some fun — and language! — out of writing them.

How you do this is going to depend to a considerable extent on how you've done the first three parts but here are a couple of the alternatives:

If you're printing things and displaying them on a classroom noticeboard, you could do that — and perhaps display, in columns, the letter telling Santa what they wanted from Part 2; the photo and letter accompanying what they actually got (Part 3) below that; and the "thank you" letter below that, thus:

Noticeboard display

I'd make the learners themselves do all the printing and displaying!

If you're using a shared digital space of some kind (Blogger, Edmodo, a G+ Community), you could either (a) have learners write new posts for their thank you letters or (b) simple answer the corresponding "Part 3s" via the comments on the class blog (etc.)

Writing and speaking tasks
Although this and some of the other parts of this project look like writing tasks, in previous years it seems to have been most successful when the learners have really got into discussion of what you would really say (and what you should and shouldn't say!) to, for example, an extremely rich but eccentric old aunt who's given you a mouldy, dog-eared old teddybear when you wanted a iPad Pro?

When they start to see a writing task as a fun speaking task, that's when you've know your task design has been a success!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Hilarious if you teach kids who like things a bit gross

Escargore from Media Design School on Vimeo.

Here's one I found because I follow @ShortoftheWeek on Twitter and posted in our official IH Barcelona Twitter feed:

Personally, I find it hilariously funny, possibly because I have the same childish sense of humour that the three kids I teach in a private class have. It's good to take to class things you just know your learners will love (and that's not something you'll normally find in a coursebook 😉 !).

What to do with something so brilliant (especially as our next class is Saturday — Halloween!)?

I'm going to fall back on an old favourite — getting them to describe what's happening, possibly getting one of them to watch, two just to listen, and keep switching those roles.

Their level isn't that great (they wouldn't pass First Certificate) but they're always more than willing to attempt to say things beyond that, if the topic interests them — and that's where I earn my living, in providing them with that language. There's no set agenda: the language input is totally reactive, no photocopies, no "exercises", no lesson plan my DELTA tutors would ever have approved of.

What makes the short successful, what makes it funny (or not!), why does it appeal to my learners (or not!), is probably also going to generate some fruitful discussion.

There's also an interesting making-of video for a follow-up and a little more about the short here.

365 things on Twitter
I don't spend a lot of time on Twitter, posting a maximum of one thing a day (no cats!) but — provided you UNfollow lots of people — you can still find interesting stuff for class there.

Another one for Halloween

Project work (3): Not quite what you expected for Christmas

Flower power soldiers
Fun with random photos taken by your learners

Assuming that the first two parts of this four-part project went down well, just before Christmas, and at least a couple of weeks after Part 2, we're now going to have some fun with those random photos we took in Part 1.

As suggested in Part 2, you could do this either individually or in pairs or small groups. My preference is always to make project work collaborative: assuming that you've got your learners to speak English (!) for such things, it provides so much opportunity for meaningful interaction and negotiation.

For Part 3, first, randomly assign the letters to Father Christmas written in Part 2 so that everyone (or each pair/group) has one (see also footnote, below).

Your learners then need to:

  • Invent the character who is going to be giving the present — parent/s, a sibling, an aunt etc (see example below)
  • Obligatory Pick a present from the random objects photographed in Part 1 — however far off what was requested!
  • Write the letter to accompany the Christmas present (see example)

The letter should:

  • Mention the present that the person said they wanted
  • Explain why you've bought them that and not the PlayStation, iPhone 6, new car or whatever was requested.
  • Include the photo of the object in your post

Note that you must pick a present from the random objects. That's part of the fun. You can (if you wish!) do your best to satisfy the person involved but chances are they are going to be slightly disappointed!

Example of what the learners have to produce (and see Part 2 for the original letter to Santa):

Dear Desmond,
Just a note to say Happy Christmas!
I hope you like your present. You know I don't really approve of guns and swords and that kind of thing but this platoon of soldiers are lovely and peace-loving as you can see [photo, above].
I know you wanted a phone, but I'm sure we can have lots of fun playing with these together.
PS I don't think it was a good idea to lie to Father Christmas about your school marks. Remember that to pass in Primary School you need to get at least 5 out of 10!

Various colleagues in the last couple of years have kept Part 3 for that dreadful last week before the Christmas holidays when everyone is over-excited and no one wants to do any real "work".

The idea has proved entertaining — and productive! — for that time of year.

For Part 4, come back next week. You can guess what it's going to be, right…?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

*Footnote || If you've been using a blog or Edmodo or some other digital space for the letters, you might find it a good idea to be able to direct the learners to the letter they have to respond to. A shared Google Drive document works well for this — one containing the URLs (addresses) of the letters and the names of the learners they are assigned to. I recommend having one of the learners produce the list of addresses!

Alternatively, for ease of reference, the letters could be printed.

Project work: Letters to Father Christmas (2)

Dear Santa,
I'm writing to tell you what I want for Christmas.
I want an iPhone6 (484 GBP on I need one. My Mum says that I don't need one and that I have to wait (several YEARS!!!) but lots of other people in my class have got a smartphone and I feel left out.
An Apple Watch (the 42mm Stainless Steel Case with Milanese Loop, 610 GBP on Amazon) would be cool, too.
I've worked really hard this year! It's true that I've failed a few subjects at school (OK, a lot if you count things like sports and music and social sciences) so I'll be happy with just the phone. And some chocolate.
I'm SO EXCITED about this!!!!!!
Desmond (8)
PS Please DON'T get me an iPhone5 !!!!

Assuming that your class enjoyed Part 1 of the project suggested last week, and that you ended up with a nice collection of random objects, here's Part 2, as a follow-up.

This works best if you make no reference to Part 1, so you perhaps want to let a couple of weeks pass by so that Part 1 has been forgotten before starting Part 2.

Part 2 is quite straight-forward. Your learners have to (1) invent a character who is going to (2) write a letter to Father Christmas to say what s/he'd like for Christmas; the letters should then be (3) shared with everyone else in some way (see below).

You probably want to provide an example of such a letter, as shown above.

Writing the letters
You could have your learners work individually or you could have them work in pairs or threes (and because pair- and groupwork leads to more interaction and more speaking, I like to do virtually everything in class in that fashion).

Having you learners start individually but then pool their ideas and pick the best to work on one letter between each pair/group also works well.

Sharing the letters with the rest of the class
If you're strictly low-tech (though, nowadays, are your learners?), you could have printed versions of the letters displayed on a classroom wall.

But it's surely way more interesting to share the letters digitally in some way, so that everyone gets to read everyone else's, and comment on them. If you've had your learners collaborate on writing them, with one letter from each pair or three, we're not necessarily talking about a lot of letters.

Among the alternatives:

  • A class blog on which all your learners are authors (and can therefore create new posts), in which case you can keep things tidy (important!) by ensuring everyone uses the same "label" (e.g. "Letters to Father Christmas"). My recommendation would be Blogger, rather than WordPress or other similar tools
  • An Edmodo group, with the letters being published there directly as new "notes" (or posts, as they'd be called on Facebook). If they're collaborating on writing the letters, they might find it easiest to use shared Google Drive documents and then copy and paste from there to Edmodo — which in turn then makes it easier for others to comment on the letters
  • With adults, I'd recommend a private G+ Community, rather than Edmodo

Fun with adults
Friends and colleagues have been doing this project for the last couple of years in schools but I think you'll find it works with adults, too, no matter how long it is since they last wrote a letter to Santa!

Note in the example letter, above, how "Desmond" has been given an age. Part of the secret of getting such creative writing ideas to work is to help your learners be creative, to help them see some of the possibilities that are there. You are there to help with the language but help them generate the ideas, too. That's just as important!

For Part 3, and to see what this has to do with the random pictures we took in Part 1, come back next week!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Start your Christmas project early this year

Random items photographed in the street

Christmas is still around 70 shopping days away but here's a fun, simple idea for project work that you probably want to start a couple of months before Christmas and — important! — not make any mention of Christmas when you do first start.

I'd suggest that you don't mention either that you have a longer, four-part project in mind. There's no worse way to begin the year than by telling learners how much work they're going to have to do 😉 !

That also means that if it doesn't turn out to be successful for you, you can drop it at any point and not continue.

Task #1: Totally random photos of whatever
Instructions given to learners:

Take 4-5 photos of totally random things [see examples above] that you see at home, in the street, in school, in the classroom… and share them with us [see below]. The more random, the better! You should say where the photo was taken but not what it is.

Optionally: using a free app like the amazing Pixlr Express (or the even more amazing Pixlr Editor) will improve many photos remarkably.

Sharing the photos
There are lots of ways the photos could be shared including the following:

The photos can be posted directly to any of the above. Alternatively, also saving the photos to a shared Google Drive folder is an interesting option (especially if the learners do it themselves, not you!). Having the photos there makes them handier for the later parts of the project — because we're going to be reusing the same photos later.

Using a shared digital space like these with learners is so much more 21st century than continuing to imagine that the fact that you use PowerPoint means that you're using technology.

One of the things I like about the project is that it's a nice simple way to start taking advantage of the amazing technology now in your learners' pockets (i.e. their smartphones). It's also a great, simple way to get them started using some of the brilliant shared digital spaces now available to us which you might then take advantage of for other projects.

I recommend picking a tool that you are going to use for other projects and highly recommend using a digital space like these with learners — it's so much more 21st century (and productive in terms of use of language!) than continuing to imagine that the fact that you use PowerPoint means that you're using technology.


  • Add your own random pictures, as examples of the sort of thing you want
  • Stress that they MUST take the photos themselves — they cannot just steal them from wherever on the internet or social media!

Task #2: Commenting on other learners' photos
To get the most out of shared spaces like Edmodo you want to get your learners (1) to add accompanying text to their photos and (2) to comment on what their peers are posting, either during or outside class time.

If the image is a personal belonging, the story behind it is sometimes interesting. With objects taken in the street, some indication of why the learner chose to photograph that gives them a short text to write. And if you encourage the photographer to include in the text a question for his/her peers (e.g. Does anyone remember these? Does anyone else own one?), then comments — and thus more language — will get generated.

With random images like these, you should also get (and should encourage!) a certain number of spontaneous comments. These could include guessing what the object in the image is if it's not otherwise clear but also things like questions and answers on how the photo was taken and edited.

You can also obtain comments by having your learners propose — via the comments — which images they think should get prizes for "Best Photo", "Best Editing", etc.

Note that I recommend not correcting errors in comments.

More opportunities for language use arise if you get learners to very briefly present some of the images, perhaps in the first or last 5 minutes of class. For that purpose, easy access to the photos in a shared Google Drive folder is also ideal.

Levels and ages
This looks like a project for young learners, but colleagues have also done it with adults and though originally it was designed for a B1-B2 level class, it has also worked below (and above) that level.

For Part 2 (and to see what this actually has to do with Christmas!), come back next week.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4