Writing Letter-essays

One of my favorite reading units is Letter-essays.  Based on Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, letter-essays are letters that students write to me on a rotating basis about the book they are reading or have just finished reading.  I love the interaction that the letter-essays breed and the growth I see in them across the school year is phenomenal.

This year I started my letter-essay unit about 3 weeks later than last year.  My students need more scaffolding this year and I felt it would go better if I had a little more time to work up to it with them.  I am also altering my unit a bit.  For the first time I am using Lucy Calkins’ Literary Essay unit of study to guide the unit.  While my students won’t be writing literary essays, the unit of study provides a perfect backdrop for the letter-essays.  It does a great job of getting students to think about their reading and start responding to it deeply; something they haven’t done much of until now.  

It’s always a struggle in the beginning because students are used to answering straight comprehension questions about their reading.  Thinking deeply is difficult, but the results are always awesome!  At the end of this week I will introduce an example letter-essay from a former student and have students begin writing a rough draft of their first letter-essay.  By Winter Break the students will have a schedule of due dates and the first letter-essays will be due in mid-January.  After that, they will write me a letter once a month, which I will respond to.  

For the first time I am considering having students write letter-essays to a classmate also, on the alternate weeks.  I think it is so important for students to see the social connections books bring us, and letter-essays are a non-threatening way to do this.

4 Responses

  1. My students have written two letter essays so far this school year. I keep my students for two years which is awesome. My sixth graders have made just huge improvements in their letter essays since their first ones last year.
    I think that writing to their peers is an interesting idea. Are your kids finishing books quick enough to write a letter essay every two weeks?
    If I remember correctly, Nancie Atwell mentioned her students writing letter essays to their peers as well.
    Every Monday two students give a book talk. Happy reading and writing, Sara

  2. Thanks for your information. Most of the posts in the blog is really valuable. Regards

  3. How do y\’all grade the letter essays? I use and like them but feel i also spend a great deal of time in my responses to students teaching them how to improve. I feel it takes away from the conversational aspect. But…I am the teacher.

    • I grade the letter-essays using a 4 point rubric similar to the one Nancie Atwell details in her book. It takes me only a few seconds to read and grade the letters, but more longer to write back to the students!

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