Sunday, January 2, 2011

Writing Thank-You Notes

Thank-you notes are one of my least favorite writing genres. I always struggle with expressing my true appreciation in a way that does not sound stiff and over-formal. It's not surprising, then, that I often put off this rhetorical chore.

But thank-you letters are an important genre for students to learn. Even as other forms of writing become less formal, thank-you letters are still required in many situations. I decided that a quick dip into thank-you notes would make a nice transition back to school from the holiday break. 

But, given my own problems with the genre, I decided to do some research before I created the assignment. Why are letters put together as they are? How is the form changing?

I did some searching and found a treasure trove of old letters--the Paston letters, from five hundred years ago. These letters are from various members of a gentry family in England. Margaret Paston, even though she couldn't physically write, still composed many letters to others in her busy household, sharing news, asking questions, taking care of business. Letters from her children had much in common with what children ask of parents today. They are fascinating to read.

 After reading some of these letters, and commentary about them, I knew that I had to share these interesting details with students. I wrote a short article to explain to students how these old letters are similar to the letters of today, and how they are different. My fourth graders wouldn't get very far with the irregular spelling and archaic language of the letters, but I included some snippets of the texts so that they would get a feel for what this kind of writing sounded like.

I didn't stop there. As I was reading the Paston letters, I started thinking about levels of formality in writing. When students write thank-you letters, getting the right tone is essential. Tone is easy for kids to hear in speaking, but harder for them to notice in writing. The correct tone for a thank-you letter to Grandma is going to be different from the tone to use as a thank-you for an interview. To help students start to notice this, I wrote a few example letters using appropriate and inappropriate tones. By the time I was done, I had an entire mini-unit with a writing checklist, compare and contrast article, examples for students to rate, and a rubric.

I posted the entire unit at TeachersPayTeachers:


  1. Speaking of thank you notes, I owe you one for your generosity in sharing your thoughts and resources. I have used your information on text features. I love reading your thoughts on the blog and it makes me think a little deeper on the topics. Thanks for being such a great resource!

  2. Thank you so much for the nice comments! I appreciate hearing from you!