Using Keypals with Post-Secondary Immersion Students

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

By Thomas Robb, Professor, Department of English, Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kyoto Sangyo University, Kyoto, Japan

Electronic penpals or “keypals” can motivate your students to get valuable practice in both reading and writing. Not only can a keypal exchange improve specific language skill areas, it can also have a profound impact on your students’ attitudes towards the target language and culture and provide them with their first chance to use the language outside the classroom context. Furthermore, the information obtained through keypals can add another perspective to whatever content is being studied and thus facilitate content-based learning.

Keypal exchanges broaden your students’ linguistic horizons, exposing them to vocabulary, idioms and grammar that they would not normally encounter in the school syllabus. The French students in one university exchange arrangement, for example, got extremely frustrated at the standoff-ish attitude of their American counterparts who constantly used the formal “vous” form despite numerous pleadings to switch to the more informal “tu.” This is undoubtedly because the language classroom environment did not provide sufficient opportunities for them to use and acquire the intimate speech form.

Target pairings for keypal exchanges can take a number of forms:

  • Your language learners correspond with native speakers of the target language.
  • Your language learners correspond with another class of students of the same target language.
  • Your language learners correspond with native-speaking students of the target language who are learning the dominant language of your students, generally English.

Often, teachers do not anticipate the complexity of keypal exchanges. It takes more than simply finding another class somewhere on the Internet with approximately the same number of students and then letting students loose to write whatever they want. For example, some students may not be very good at writing letters of interest to their partner, causing the relationship to lapse. Thus, it is highly likely that some students will end up without a correspondent through no fault of their own. Allowing your students complete freedom to write on topics of choice will often result in superficial exchanges that never dwell deeply on any specific subject. Guidance is required to yield a fruitful keypal experience.

It is unlikely you will find a class with the same number of students as yours so you can pair each student with two or three in the opposite class. This will improve the odds that each student maintains at least one partner.

Another possible problem comes from a mismatch in the length of the school terms. If partner classes are located in North America or Europe there is a strong likelihood that the classes begin and end at similar times of the year; i.e., September to May or June. There are, however, considerable fluctuations in other areas of the world. The school term in Japan, for instance, begins in April and runs until the following February. The school year for most of Latin America is vastly different as well.

Establishing Keypal Partnerships
While the concept of keypals implies one-on-one message exchange, one-to-many exchanges can sometimes prove more effective. These can be set up using mail server software, available on most web hosting services, or by setting up a course on a course management system such as Moodle ( where discussion forums are set up for topics of mutual interest such as sports, music, cinema, cultural differences, etc. The advantage here is that the students will have more material to read as well as more potential posts to respond to. Moodle, unlike some course management systems, sends out the postings as regular e-mail to all subscribers in addition to maintaining them on the web page. The “in your face” aspect of e-mail thus circumvents a common problem with web-based discussions — failure to log on regularly to see what is new.

Understanding Expectations

Before commencing any type of keypal exchange, be sure that you and your partner teacher(s) mutually understand the following:

How does each teacher plan to integrate the keypal relationship into his/her own curriculum? Is it just an add-on activity (not advised) or is at an integral part of the course?
How frequent will the correspondence be and of what general length?
How will student participation be evaluated? Both teachers should be placing similar weight on the keypal project since this strongly affects the frequency and quality of the correspondence. If a mismatch occurs, students who are depending on the e-mail might be disappointed.

Preparing Your Students
Before your students send their first letter abroad, teach them the technical skills required for e-mail exchanges. Have them practice by sending messages to themselves.

Next, teach them the language skills required for effective communication. Supply them with a useful set of phrases for openings, closings and other functions. Students will need a few good models of complete messages so that they can observe the appearance of messages as a whole. Use these to point out the structural aspects of letters. Avoid the idea of supplying a simple template in which they fill in their own particulars since the students of the other class will then receive a full set of virtually identical letters. Multiple samples, or, at least, alternate phrasings will help.

You will also need to teach your students the dos and don’ts for effective and polite e-mail exchange. The International E-mail Classroom Communication site provides excellent information.

For example:
Try to use words and language familiar to your partner. If you use language that is too advanced or unfamiliar, it may make your partner feel inadequate.

Try to listen for and talk about common experiences. That will help establish a common ground to connect you.

Getting the Most from Keypals
As alluded to earlier, students will need guidance in order to sustain a meaningful exchange of information. Be sure to set some specific goals with your partner teacher. This can take the form of a joint project between each set of individuals or between classes. You might assign a question or two each week for the students to ask their keypals, and then have a class discussion to compare the answers.

Tracking Your Students
E-mail can be frustratingly messy. The students have differing numbers of penpals and take varying amounts of time to read messages and create responses. Thus, some students may not complete their correspondence in the time allotted in class; others may complete it early and have nothing else to do. Time management can become a problem.

Another management problem concerns the volume of correspondence and grading based on performance. If older students are writing personal letters, submitting copies as proof of e-mail activity might be too intrusive. You might ask them to ‘cc’ you on their first letter so that you can see how well they do on this initial, crucial message.

You can request that students keep a log of their correspondence with columns to enter the date, who the message was sent to or received from, and the total number of lines in the message. Students can be assessed on the total lines sent and received. Students who write stimulating letters will most likely receive longer responses than those who write brief, uninteresting missives. Thus, evaluation based on a combination of both sent and received messages tends to work well. One of my university students, however, received the full text of Hamlet by e-mail because his partner in Hong Kong thought that it would contribute to his line count!

Tandem Learning
While at first glance it might seem that native speakers would be the ideal choice for partners, consideration has to be given to what the other party would gain from the partnership. Correspondence with native speakers may place your students out of their depth (though this may not necessarily be the case with upper–level immersion students). However, native speakers’ correspondence has been shown to work well with tandem pairings where both partners are seeking help in learning the other’s native language. For details on tandem pairings, see This website has a search function where you can select the native language of your students and the desired target language. It then displays matches from teachers looking for the opposite set of conditions. The Tandem project even has suggested activities that can be accessed from the menu on the home page.

Keypals can be an extremely rewarding experience for your students but, like any other aspect of your teaching, it will take some experience to discover the best implementation for your own setting. Don’t be surprised to find some students exchanging snail-mail addresses with their keypals, turning a virtual friendship into an actual one. It happens!


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