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Pen Pal Friendships Connect Students

4 min read

The theme for 2022’s Better Hearing and Speech Month is “Connecting People” — and after two years of masking, Zoom play dates and assorted other pandemic-related social distancing measures, it’s an idea virtually everyone can appreciate.  

Pen pal friendships seem to be less common since quick forms of digital communication like social media and texting have become the norm. (Although several anecdotal reports indicated it rose in popularity again during the height of the pandemic.) And Emily Snow, MED, teacher of the deaf at Clarke, has been connecting her students this way for years.  

A Social Activity with Academic Benefits

Kyla, who receives Clarke Mainstream Services, works on a letter to her pen pal.

Having a pen pal can have social, emotional and academic benefits for students who participate. And while a pen pal project can benefit any child, students who have hearing loss are likely to reap even more significant benefits.  

Emily notes that many of the students she works with are the only students who are deaf or hard of hearing in their school, if not their entire district. Being able to connect with another child with hearing loss can be emotionally uplifting and even confer practical and pragmatic benefits.  

“It has been cathartic for elementary through high school children to have someone they know who understands hearing loss,” says Emily. “It was increasingly important during the pandemic. With masks and social distancing, children who are deaf or hard of hearing have felt more isolated, lonely and left out of conversations than ever.” 

She notes that virtually all her students have academic goals specifically regarding writing so having a pen pal dovetails with their IEPs. Specific writing skills—such as adding detail and using descriptive language—are often easier to practice in this style of writing since the students are writing about themselves and their own lives. It also helps build other communication skills, such as forming questions, conversational turn-taking and sequencing stories.  

In fact, Emily recommends including an objective to write letters as a direct goal in a student’s IEP under either pragmatics or social goals. “Regular ed teachers also find it beneficial,” she notes. And it can be helpful for students anywhere between second grade and high school.” 

For artistically inclined students, pen pals can also be a creative outlet. Emily has had students who shared their original artwork with each other or took pictures of their hearing aids to compare.  

A sample letter written by Emily’s student Kyla.

Encouraging Self-Advocacy

Having a pen pal who shares the unique perspective of someone who has hearing loss can also help boost a child’s self-advocacy skills. “You can guide them to ask their partner about issues they’re experiencing: Do you have an FM? Do you have trouble hearing in the cafeteria, too?” she says. “They can ask about hard situations and learn new ways to deal with them.”  

Emily generally pairs students of roughly the same age/grade level, but not always. For example, she had one second-grade student who had moved to a new district and was struggling. When her classmates asked questions about her hearing technology, she interpreted it as teasing.  

Emily connected the student with a fifth-grade student in another district. The older student was able to provide perspective and advice about how to reframe the situation — and it was all the more valuable since it came from a peer, not a parent or teacher. “It was really a way to help the kids feel empowered,” says Emily. “It has helped her perspective and she has a better feeling toward her classmates.”  

Logistics of a Pen Pal Relationship

To create pen pal connections, teachers of the deaf often pair students on their caseload from different schools and districts. Before connecting any students, Emily recommends explaining the pen pal project to caregivers and the mainstream school district or school team involved to ensure all connected parties approve of the plan.

Prior to the pandemic, Emily worked with her students to write letters, which she’d then deliver between students. Once so many students moved to remote learning, Emily took photos of handwritten letters to share between younger pen pals and she helped coordinate emails between older students. (In all cases, Emily reviews the content before it’s shared.)

Having a teacher oversee the writing of the letter also means they can provide real-time instruction by assisting with spelling, grammar, what a letter should include or how to format an email, for example.

For older students—with caregiver and school district approval—they might share contact information, like email addresses, social media handles or phone numbers to connect outside of the official pen pal program if they choose. Some students have even connected via Zoom in addition to sharing letters.

Emily says that one of the best things about the pen pal program is how easy it is to set up. “It’s incredibly easy to do, it’s a super motivator and the kids I’ve done it with have absolutely loved it,” she says, noting that the routine back-and-forth nature of pen pals is something her students have grown to look forward to.

In one case, two student pen pals both coincidentally had units on Helen Keller as part of their regular curriculum and were excited to share their thoughts. Other students have read the same book and discussed it in their letters, similar to a virtual book club.

At a time when so many students were feeling the loss of the regular connections they had before pandemic precautions took hold, pen pals have been a valuable way for children who are deaf or hard of hearing to maintain their social ties while also developing several other vital skills. And for educators seeking out unique ways to foster literacy skills, pen pal connections stand the test of time for generating student enthusiasm, forging friendships and making writing fun. 

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