Pen Pals

March, 2005

by Marcia L. Santore

10-186Last fall, Carrie Long went to first grade and made a new friend. Each semester, the students in Associate Professor Gerry Buteau’s Language and Literacy Development in Young Children course, like Carrie (a junior early childhood studies major), participate in a pen pal project with the first, second and third graders at Russell Elementary School in Rumney, N.H.

The school children exchange letters with the PSU students. Letters are delivered in batches to ensure that everyone “gets mail.” (Carrie allows that the elementary school kids wouldn’t be the only ones disappointed not to get a letter.)

Buteau explains that PSU students are often matched with more than one child so that they can observe how each age learns and what is meaningful to the children.

The PSU students also visit the school three times for language and literacy activities with their pen pals, such as reading aloud, writing together and putting on a “readers’ theatre” performance.

Between 55 and 60 elementary kids participate in the program every year. Marlene Taber, who coordinates the Lesley Collaborative literacy program at Russell Elementary, says, “It provides an authentic writing experience for our first, second and third graders, which can’t be underestimated. They get to write to a real person and see where the students go to school.”

Says Carrie, “There are specific things we’re writing in the letters, things for them to respond to. And, of course, you want your penmanship and spelling and grammar to be absolutely correct, because they’re looking at this, coming from an older person, and thinking that must be how it’s supposed to be done!” She adds, “Often we’ll leave the activity with the child for them to take home. So it’s not just the 30 minutes we spend with them, but all the experiences that branch off of that. The kids will come back and tell you about a discussion they had with their Mom about it.”

Carrie discovered that her pen pal, a first grader, was eager to learn, but also shy and concerned about how she would do. The girl lives on a farm and is very interested in rabbits. In her subsequent visits, Carrie made sure to use materials relating to rabbits and farms. After each visit, Carrie would document her pen pal’s progress in such areas as writing from left to right, sounding out words, and using upper and lowercase letters.

Buteau points out that the PSU students aren’t there to evaluate or assess the elementary students’ progress. Their purpose is to watch the children in the act of learning, and observe and understand that process.

Taber adds, “The literacy activities are really enriching and extend the curriculum. For instance, they’ll make hand puppets and have the kids act out a play. All the activities they do are based on literacy.”

Carrie says she discovered ways of teaching reading and writing. “I learned that it is important to give kids time to think. These young kids are taking in so much new information that often it just takes them longer to formulate a thoughtful answer. I also learned that you need to make sure that young kids know it is okay to not know everything, especially when it comes to reading. [Then] they are much more confident in themselves and reading becomes more fun.”

The trip to the PSU campus at the end of the term is the highlight of the program. For kids this age, a field trip to a university, even one in a small town, is a big adventure.

“The kids are really in awe of the idea that where they are is a school. They go to school in one building, so it’s very strange for a first-grader to understand that we go to class in lots of buildings,” Carrie observes. “They think it’s really funny that most of us live here.”

“We so appreciate the college students taking the time and effort to come out here to Rumney,” concludes Taber. “The value of the relationship with a college student is important to them. They look forward to meeting with their ‘college buddy.’ It builds their social skills, their language skills, it’s important for that.”

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