Students learn formal letter writing for several years in school. However, does writing a formal letter for a school test or exam equip the student to write a formal letter to a real person with a purpose?
In our daily lives we write formal letters for a variety of applications. It could be a letter asking for leave or for stating a complaint and ensuring some action from the recipient to rectify a problem or a proposal etc. Generally formal letters are meant to "ask" for something. It is typically written to someone in a position of power to do something and hence the "ask". Such a person is likely to be busy with multiple responsibilities and hardly compelled to read a letter addressed to him or her, written by a random unknown person. Keeping this fact in mind, it becomes critical to word the letter correctly to gain this person's attention in the fastest and the most polite manner possible. The key is to keep the content short and the "ask" compelling enough for this person to be convinced that action on their part is required.
Formal letter writing comes as a part of English curriculum repeatedly in school. Students blindly learn the format and write it with no understanding of the purpose. Let's take an example. A question in the test paper read in the lines of write a letter to the editor of a leading newspaper about a local neighbourhood problem- stray dogs making the residents' lives miserable.
While the subject of a letter of this kind is extremely relevant and in all probability something that many of us can relate to, the approach tends to be skewed towards marks rather than writing a letter that is likely to result in a change and potentially lead to a solution to this rampant problem. A student knows the importance of format and gets two marks for it. That is the motivation to know the format. Why does it exist? No one dares to ask. What is the purpose of this letter? Why would an editor of a leading newspaper publish a problem in a small neighbourhood somewhere in a large city? These questions aren't raised. The instruction given is that formal letter must have three paragraphs. The introduction, the crux that elaborates the problem and finally a formatted line that reads, "I hope this letter will be published in your esteemed newspaper and bring the problem to the notice of the animal control authorities." No one dares to ask, "Why is the resident writing to a newspaper instead of calling the respective authorities?" A discussion if it happens will probably lead to the thought, "Perhaps they called but no action is being taken and hence this step." This could lead to another, "But how does this help? Spread awareness, gather more support?Maybe." Sadly, these kind of classroom conversations rarely happen for multiple reasons. The letter is written for a test, marks given accordingly and then later forgotten. The process is repeated over and over again. When it comes to a real life situation where one must write a good formal letter addressing someone important and hope that the letter results in a desired action, one gets the jitters even before one starts writing such a letter. Ideally, this mustn't be the situation after having written formal letters in response to several prompts for various tests and exams over the years.
When it comes to a real life situation where one must write a good formal letter addressing someone important and hope that the letter results in a desired action, one gets the jitters even before one starts writing such a letter. Ideally, this mustn't be the situation after having written formal letters in response to several prompts for various tests and exams over the years.
What's an alternative?
To begin with it might be worthwhile to browse through letters to the editor that get published in the newspaper. The sheer numbers would indicate that several people like writing letters to the editor expressing their thoughts/opinions/purpose with clarity and making the editor feel the need to publish their writing. Samples from newspapers could be discussed after which there could be a couple of mock exercises where the students write formal letters to one another pretending to play different roles. These letters could be discussed and takeaways listed to make the formal letter far more engaging and enhance the probability of the desired action.
It's not just about the marks in the exam. Any student who scores low marks for a formal letter in the exam is never going to revisit the letter and analyse what could have gone wrong. Neither is the teacher going to have the time to reach out to every student explaining what needs to be fixed to take the letter to the next level. It is simply not practical. Classroom conversations on the other hand with mock exercises provide room for discussion, thought, realising that writing is a craft that goes through multiple stages of cutting/adding/modifying before the final result is ready. It makes revisiting and editing writing something normal and not a judgemental exercise as the marking system reenforces repeatedly with minimum impact of future performance.
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