The Lost Art of Writing Thank You Notes
After all of the holiday hoopla, January can feel a little dull. In my part of the country, outside of Philadelphia, PA, the days stretch out grayly, the evenings fall too quickly, and there are few bright spots in the winter white.
Around our house, we’ve been writing our way out of the winter doldrums. I want my own kids to know that writing can be fun, not just because it’s what Mom does for a living, but because writing is their opportunity to voice what matters to them.
Research demonstrates that student writers need authentic writing experiences. Simply said, kids need a reason to write that feels real to them. Unless you have a child who is very motivated to write (and some are), it’s up to you to create the opportunity.
If your family exchanges holiday gifts, January is a great time for children (of any age) to write thank you notes to all of the people who gave them presents. Don’t be alarmed and think “that’s so much writing.” If you are negative, your children will be too.
Thank you notes are pretty simple, and the task of writing them can be scaled appropriately for even the youngest writers. My own kids are six and one-half years old and four and one-half years old, so I know from personal experience that this plan can work.
In teaching kids to write thank you notes, you not only teach them good manners, you teach them something about form, structure, organization, and developing paragraphs with a sustained focus. That might sound like a lot of fancy academic talk, but it’s true. This basic skill of writing a note that demonstrates gratitude not only requires courtesy, but a specific format and coherence to the written word.
Use this simple approach and adjust it to meet the needs and age of the child.
- Let your child choose a card or a piece of paper that he likes. If he makes a choice, he’ll be more invested in the project.
- In the upper right corner, create lines for your address and date. Or, fill in part of this information yourself and allow your child to complete the part that he is capable of writing on his own. Make sure that there are lines (you can draw them with a ruler) for beginning writers who have difficulty maintaining straight rows and proper spacing between lines.
- The greeting is easy. Shift to the next line and write “ Dear ______________, “ on the far left. If your child can hold a pencil and draw his capital letters, allow him to fill in the recipient’s name.
- Create a form for your child to complete.
Essentially, you want your child to say thank you for the gift. I like it because… Verbally, ask your child for three reasons that he thinks the gift is a good one. Jot them down. Coming up with three positive features about a gift that he has been playing with for a month should not prove too difficult, but it might be a little tougher to think of reasons he likes the items that he shoved to the back of the closet before even breaking the seals on the box. In the case of these less desirable items, you’ll need to do a little prompting. Start with a beloved gift. You want your child to feel successful so that he’ll be willing to do this project again.
If your child can tell you the name of the gift and three reasons he likes it, his thank you note will have a topic sentence and three supporting details. It’s that easy. As needed, help structure the sentences and don’t be too picky if your student is young.
For example, if you have a six-year-old who came up with:
“Thank you for the Legos. I like to build. I made a great tower. I built it myself.”
You should celebrate and give your child a lot of positive praise.
5. The thank you needs a closing sentence. Tell your child that he should again thank the person for being thoughtful.
Voila. The thank you note is complete, and your child has learned to write a paragraph complete with beginning and closing statements. He has also learned something about being thankful and good manners.
Be sure to have your child participate in addressing the envelope and applying the postage. Have your child drop the note in the mailbox, and your authentic writing task is complete.
If the note is going to a close friend or relative, ask the person to write back to your child. Receiving mail is a reward for most little kids, and this is a natural incentive that you don’t need to create. Receiving a letter in return just may prompt your child to write his next note.
Beth Zemble is director of alternative learning strategies and English language arts for K12. She has been working in the Language Arts for more than two decades. She's led the development efforts for Internet-based English curriculum as well as integrated instructional systems and educational software. Additionally, she has worked on lessons, textbooks, test preparation and practice materials for numerous publishers, and has taught Literature and Composition courses at Immaculata University. Ms. Zemble was graduated with honors and a bachelor of arts degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and earned her master of arts degree with honors from Columbia University.