Penpals Deliver

When you combine pen pal exchanges with education, what do you get? Happy, smarter kids.

Penpals Deliver


The sense of anticipation is palpable among the students. Each is waiting for the big package to arrive that holds something very special for them – a letter from their pen pal.

That pen pal may be in the same city, another province, or across the world. No matter. The experience of having a pen pal is enriching and rewarding for every child.

Across our region, there are many teachers and schools giving kids the valuable opportunity of corresponding with a pen pal – to share experiences, learn about other cultures and ways of life, enrich communication, language, and study skills, and more. Here are just some of their stories.

Across the world

Zimbabwe. While in Grade 12 at Peterborough Collegiate Vocational Institute, Peter began corresponding with Lucia from the Nyachuru Secondary School near Howard, Zimbabwe – an eye opening experience for him.

“I wrote the first letter, and talked about my life – school, sports, what I do in my spare time,” says Peter. “Lucia wrote back telling me about her church and school and living on a farm with her grandmother. As she described how hard she worked, I realized how different her life is from mine.”

“About 30 percent of the Zimbabwean students are AIDS orphans,” explains teacher Ferne Cristall. “Because of the political situation there, the letters are not sent through the mail, as there is no guarantee they would reach their destination. They are sent with medical personnel.”

Cristall reports that the students regularly send supplies to the school. “Last year, the kid’s fundraising efforts filled part of a shipping container with bikes, books, school supplies, and clothing for their Zimbabwean friends.”

Japan. Having Japanese pen pals for her social studies class did precisely what teacher Michelle Nelson wanted. It brought to life for her students the lessons she taught about Japan, one of Canada’s largest trading partners. The kids were “thrilled with the program”, says Nelson, a teacher at Walter E. Harris Public School in Whitby. “When I would talk to the students about Japan or our pen pals, you could hear a pin drop.”

Nelson and her counterpart in Japan matched kids up by areas of interest. Through hand-written letters and photos, the pen pals got to know about each other and Nelson’s class began to learn more about Japan’s economy. “By the second and third letter, they started talking about Japan’s major toys and technologies, and so on. We also sent each other money from our countries. The kids thought that was really cool.”

It was a great experience all-round, says Nelson. “The kids learned about another country by making a new friend. They have a special place in their hearts for Japan now.”

In other provinces

Quebec. Writing to students in Quebec was not only exciting, but also helped improve the French language skills of Grade 8 students at Terry Fox 
Public School in Cobourg.

“Our students wrote in French to students in Drummondville, Quebec, who wrote back to us in English,” says teacher Colleen Fortier. “By the time they actually met at the end of the year, they felt that they knew a lot about each other.”

One student, Amber, describes her experience with Quebec penpal Emily. “Emily and I communicated first by email, then through MSN. I found it difficult at first because I was communicating in French and she was communicating in English, but by the end, we became really good friends!

Fortier says many of her students intend to continue corresponding with their pen pals.

Close to home

Peterborough. Inspired by her own pen pal experiences, teacher Jennifer Fisher makes sure her Grade 2 class at St. Patrick’s School in Peterborough shares in the fun.

“Every year, a teacher from St. John’s Elementary School and I organize a letter exchange. We match up students, usually girls with girls, boys with boys, sometimes even pairing students with the same name just for fun,” she laughs. “The letters are hand-delivered in a batch to the other class.”

“It’s a fabulous experience,” says Fisher. “And we definitely see progress in the children’s literacy skills – they’re writing the letter, proofreading it, answering questions from the other child, reading the other letter.”

And the kids love it. “When they see the bag with the letters come in, it’s like a birthday party, they’re so excited,” says Fisher. “When our classes meet at the end of the year for our picnic lunch, the kids are so happy to finally see each other in person.”

Author: Joanne Culley

Joanne Culley is a writer and documentary producer with two sons; or

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