E-mail: A Mini Unit of Study

Don't let a blank e-mail page unnerve your students. Empower them to craft e-mails by teaching them HOW to do it.

Don’t let a blank e-mail page unnerve your students. Empower them to craft e-mails by teaching them HOW to do it.

I used to teach my 4th and 5th graders some basics about e-mailing me when I was a classroom teacher:

  • State what you need or ask for help clearly & politely.
  • Write with conventions so you can be easily understood.
  • Spell words out (i.e., “I need u 2 get back 2 me” is not acceptable.).

Those simple instructions were understood and followed by my students.  In the rare case they weren’t, I’d speak with the student privately the following day.  End of story.

“Technology and the College Generation” appeared on page two of yesterday’s  Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, which got me thinking about the way kids and young adults.  The gist of the article was that college students consider e-mail old school & time consuming.  Many don’t like, don’t want, or don’t know how to use it.  I found that hard to believe since I took to using e-mail quickly when I began college.  I remember using it to communicate with my classmates and professors regularly.  Maybe it was the newness of e-mail that made it something many people enjoyed using 18 years ago.  I’m not sure.  However, what I do know is that texting, which is more immediate, is the preferred method of communication amongst the college set (and let’s be honest… amongst many ‘older’ folks too).

Two things gave me pause when I read the article.  First, Brittany Carver is a junior at the University of Iowa.  She checks e-mail once a day, but said she would never use it if she had the choice.  Here’s why:

“I never know what to say in the subject line and how to address the person,” Ms. Carver said. “Is it mister or professor and comma and return, and do I have to capitalize and use full sentences? By the time I do all that I could have an answer by text if I could text them.”

Really?!!? This means somewhere along the way Ms. Carver was not taught or given practice with writing friendly or business letters.  How tragic that this 20 year-old isn’t sure what the etiquette is for composing an e-mail to a professor (or to anyone for that matter)!

Second, Eric Stoller, a social media and communication consultant, stated:

“We have this perception that because students are fluent with things like smartphones and downloading music that they are born with chips embedded in them that make them technology wizards,” he said. “They are no better at managing e-mail than anyone else.”

Essentially, students need to receive explicit instruction on how to craft e-mails and how to manage e-mail accounts.  If students are arriving at college without this skill, then they’re going to have to learn it or they’re going to wither once they reach the workforce.

After two reads of the article, I contacted some friends and family members who are professors.  I wanted to know if there was any truth behind this piece.  Unfortunately, all said they could relate to the article.  Two additional things I learned were:

  • Some undergrads claim they don’t receive their professors’ e-mails (even when they’re sent through blackboard and there’s a record of the e-mails being sent).
    • To me this means they either don’t know how to access their university e-mail account or they didn’t bother to log on.
  • One professor spent time teaching her students how to craft an e-mail to her (i.e., using a greeting, no sentence fragments, no text lingo).
    • I’m glad one of my friends has taken the time to teach this to students since it will serve them well throughout college and beyond.  But is this something that a college professor should have to teach their students?!!?
Fullscreen capture 9292013 42701 PM.bmp

Click on the image to enlarge.

I posed a question on Twitter after mulling over the article with my husband, family, and friends for 24 hours.  Do we need to teach a mini unit of study in writing workshop on how to craft e-mails?  (See my conversation — left — with Valerie Geschwind.)  After reading this article, I think the answer is YES!  Yes, we need to teach kids, probably as early as fourth grade, how to write e-mails.  Yes, we need to teach kids how to keep his/her audience in mind (i.e., it might look more like a friendly, rather than a business letter, depending on who they’re e-mailing).  Yes, we need to teach kids how to manage their inbox so they can reply to e-mails in a timely manner.  These are just a few of the many things kids must know if they’re going to communicate effectively via e-mail in school and in the workforce.

E-mail is effective when it’s used appropriately.  I’ve come to believe kids need explicit instruction on when it’s appropriate to send an e-mail because many won’t be sure when it’s right to send an e-mail versus when to send a text versus when to write on someone’s Facebook wall?  Also, it’s often better to have a phone conversation or meet face-to-face rather than send an e-mail. Kids need to learn when to pick up a phone or how to approach someone in person too.  We cannot assume students will know how to communicate with others if we don’t teach them. Bottom line:  In today’s world, kids need to learn these things from their teachers.

Today’s children are digital natives.  However, we cannot assume they know how to use all technology properly.  We are the ones who teach kids how to write well across genres.  Therefore, I know we can be the ones who teach kids how to embrace e-mail so they can feel confident about sending, receiving, and managing e-mails for years to come.

Do you think kids need a mini unit of study on e-mail? I’d like to lay out a unit of study (i.e., bends in the road and teaching points). If you’d like to collaborate with me on this, via Google Drive, then please leave a comment below.  (My intention is to post it on Two Writing Teachers once it’s complete.)