Handcrafted letters are slow motion conversations across space and time that share emotions, events and ideas using paper and print. They have the gravity to split time into “before the letter arrived” and “after the letter arrived.” They provide us with an invisible asynchronous connection with other people.
The first time a child is handed a letter addressed personally to him, the magic of it all kicks in. Receiving a letter is a wonderful learning experience for those new to reading and writing about how literacy works and why it is important.
Indeed, when an adult hands that initial letter to a child and says, “This one is for you,” eyes widen. When a child receives a piece of written correspondence, literacy takes on personal significance.
Here’s a wonderful example of how children can learn to appreciate mail and the connection it can deliver:
A Kindergarten teacher creates a “post office” (and individual mailboxes using segmented, cardboard grocery crates) with a slot for each child. He arranges for a student’s parent(s) to write a short love letter to their child. Once the mail arrives and is sorted, the teacher announces that, “The mail is here. Amanda, check to see if you have a letter in your mailbox.” Amanda of course walks to the post office and , perhaps with help, finds her name on a box (part of the lesson). “What’s this?!” Turning to the teacher, “What am I supposed to do with it?” The teacher responds, “Why, open and read it, of course! Let me show you…” Surrounded by a growing group of curious faces, the teacher proceeds to do just that—read the letter, commenting on the envelope, the address, the author and the address. The teacher shows with his finger how he is reading the text. He then hands the letter to its rightful owner and encourages her to write a response, gesturing to the writing area, strategically situated next to the mailboxes. He then extends the same invitation to the fascinated throng of onlookers—to write a letter to someone they know.
The basic concepts of literacy are all there: An author, text, intention, meaning, often illustrations, an address to which the letter should be sent and a return address, a stamp (or a drawing thereof) and all of the deeper significance of literacy–communication between an eager author and an intended audience.
When routine events involving literacy, like the adventure of checking the mail , are made to be fun, children become excited to write and read. At first, the letters they write may contain a range of sketches and squiggles that are not English alphabet letters, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they are engaging in using print to reach out to those they care about.
With a single letter from a loved one and a gentle invitation to respond, a child’s world magically changes…forever.
Such magical literacy engagement for little ones can be so simple. Why then is it so rare?