Did anyone else watch Homestar Runner as a kid?
One of the characters, Strong Bad, used to answer emails by providing Dear Abby-esque advice or hilarious anecdotes.
While funny, Homestar Runner isn’t an accurate representation of email etiquette.
The emails we get as adults range from funny and informal to serious and professional, and can inspire a variety of mixed emotions depending on our situations.
No one likes getting those “Yeaaaah, if you could work on Saturday, that would be great” notes, even if they do help you remember your conditionals. An email from a friend, on the other hand, could spark warm, fuzzy feelings or excitement over future plans.
Today, we’re going to look at how to teach email etiquette and composition in English class, so your students learn how to write the best email for every occasion.
Go Digital with These 6 ESL Email Writing Lesson Plan Exercises
For most people, emails are a quintessential part of day-to-day communication—especially in the professional world. Because of this, you want your ESL students to know how to write professional and casual emails that accurately convey their feelings and intentions.
Email activities will help your students in their journey of communicating with native English speakers, regardless of the context.
Why Cover Emails in English Class?
Living in an age of smartphones, where we’re constantly connected by WhatsApp, Skype and other quick-to-use technologies, you may wonder why instructing about the art of emails should be a priority in your classroom.
But emails are the perfect place for creating rapport with a person, whether in a business or personal context.
A slower and longer form of communication than face-to-face conversations, emailing gives your students an opportunity to focus deeply on language and structure. This allows them a space to practice composing a natural-sounding English without feeling rushed or pressured.
And while emails may be less prolific than they were in the ’90s and early 2000s thanks to popular messenger apps, they’re still everywhere in the business, job applications and the social world.
Luckily for you as an ESL teacher, emails can also help you cover a number of different teaching points with your students.
What can emails teach?
Well, let’s look…
- They emphasize differences in personal and professional language
- They reinforce the grammar of conditional vs. present simple
- They offer flexible context for multiple grammar points, such as forming questions, teaching perfect tenses and reviewing verb conjugation
Your imagination is the limit.
But before we jump into writing in-class messages, let’s look at the foundation for teaching a good email lesson.
1. First, Introduce the Email Structure
The format of an email, whether casual or formal, will take on the same basic structure. Emphasize this format to your students to help ease them into writing.
First, have them take notes on the steps of composing an email. It will look like this:
- Greeting/How are you
- Paragraph 1: I’m writing because…
- Paragraph 2: Could you…?
- Paragraph 3: Thanks
- Paragraph 4: In closing
Next, you can give your ESL learners concrete examples of the email in a professional vs. personal context. Again, highlight the similarity in the structures, then prompt your students to tell you the similarities and differences they notice between the two emails.
Below are two written examples you can use.
Professional context email example:
Hi, Mr. Reed. How are you?
I hope all is well and that you had a pleasant weekend.
I’m writing because Sandra requested the budget numbers for fall quarter 2017.
Could you send them to me?
Hello. How are you?
I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to go over everything.
Can I tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done?
When I call, you never seem to be home.
(Yeah, I just gave a shout out to my girl Adele because her heartfelt love ballad is just an email in disguise.)
After you’ve explained the basic outline and given examples, have students write a sample email as homework. They can start out with personal or professional, whichever best suits their needs.
2. Embed a Grammar Lesson on Conditionals
While the two emails above are starkly different in tone, their structure is basically the same.
So, what difference can you focus on teaching?
This is a good opportunity to talk about formal and informal language.
When using the conditional vs. present simple, the conditional is usually employed when addressing a more formal audience. As seen in the email above: “Could you send them to me?” when referring to the budget.
In contrast, the present simple is generally utilized with people the speaker is emotionally intimate with. As seen in the personal email: “Can I tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done?” when Adele talks to her ex.
This formality with the conditional also shows up in other contexts, such as when you’re eating or going shopping. As an ESL teacher, this makes it easy to transition between email lessons and vocabulary, while also reviewing and reinforcing the same grammar.
To evaluate comprehension of this grammar point, have your learners compose a second email. Make sure it’s the not the same type of email they wrote when practicing structure. So, if they wrote a personal email for the previous activity, ask your student to write a professional one for this exercise.
Your students should have examples of the professional and personal style written. Ask them to highlight or underline five key differences between their emails, then write the second composition in class and mark the differences between the personal and professional email. After everyone has finished, grade the assignments and correct for any mistakes.
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3. Teach Tone Differences Between Casual and Formal Emails
While the structure between the personal and professional emails is slightly similar, their tones are miles apart.
In a business email, your ESL students will need to keep the language formal and conditional, without being too impersonal.
Helpful phrases to teach for a business email:
- I hope you’re well/Hope your weekend was good
- Could you/Would you
- Thanks/Thanks so much
- If you could ___, that would be great
- I’m writing because… /I was wondering if…
- Hi [insert name here]
- Hi, how are you?
- [Your name here]
- Dear [insert name here] (for something more formal)
Signing off on a business email
- Best wishes
- Thanks (if you haven’t already said “thanks” directly beforehand, of course)
- [Your name here]
You can also recommend that your students use some of these greetings and sign-offs common with personal emails.
As you can see from the examples below, personal emails are far more flexible with phrasing.
Some commonly used greetings in personal emails
- Hey, what’s up?
- How’s it going?
- Long time no see! (Definitely emphasize that this isn’t correct grammar)
- Hey, how have you been?
- Hey, what’s going on?
Let students know these greetings are commonly used between friends.
On to the personal sign-offs
I lived in Argentina for years, and the reverse culture shock around the lack of affectionate sign-offs in English was strong. However, now that I’m back in the United States, I’m recalling some good ones I used to use with friends:
- xoxo (resist the urge to follow with “gossip girl” here)
- -[your name here] (yes, you can just do a dash and your name. E.g. -Ariadne)
- Take care
The tone here is loving, yet not romantic. And all kisses are romantic in English, unlike in many, many, other cultures.
When teaching language differences with the business email, you should emphasize to your ESL learners that they should go for friendly, but more neutral in professional settings.
To give your learners an opportunity to practice tone differences, have them write two short emails. One will be professional and include an example of a greeting, sign-off and common phrase. The other will be personal and will include an example of a greeting and a sign-off. This should be a quick exercise that can be done in class.
Now that we’ve looked at greetings and sign-offs to express tone, let’s look at how the conditional structure and names can help your ESL learners.
4. Teach Rapport and Friendly Tone
The conditional structures will be your students’ friends when crafting an email.
If you haven’t already taught them conditionals, here are some ideas on how to teach and practice those bad boys.
A couple basic structures to emphasize are:
- If you could ___, that would be great.
- Could you ___ please? (E.g. send me the report)
- Would you like me to [do an action]? (E.g. attach the meeting notes)
Another important thing to note is how you refer to people in emails.
If writing to a friend or acquaintance, you can just use their name—or a silly nickname or last name, if that’s how you roll. But it’s a little more subtle when talking to coworkers or in other professional contexts.
Usually, when in an already-established office setting, these will work:
- [Person’s first name]
- Mr./Ms./Mrs./Dr. [Last name] (More formal)
- [Person’s first and last name] (More formal)
Job applications and cover letters have their own set of rules. If your students are applying for work, it’s best to use:
- Dear Hiring professionals (If they don’t know the name)
- Dear Hiring Team
- [Person’s first and last name]
Repetition is the best strategy when getting students to practice this structure. Have them write three example sentences of each basic conditional structure, as seen in the first three examples above: If you could ___, that would be great, etc.
For a more grammar-based emphasis, do a fill-in-the-blank exercise where they have to add “would” or “could” to a sentence.
Now that we’ve looked at tips for language and structure, how should you implement actually actively practicing email in the classroom?
5. Have Students Critique and Correct Emails
When I worked as a tutor at my university writing center, I discovered the best way to have people catch their writing mistakes is for them to do it themselves.
Literally just have students read their own writing aloud. I guarantee you that they’ll make comments along the lines of, “Wait, that sounded awkward,” or “Oh, I meant to put would, not will” and other similar aha moments.
I recommend putting your students into pairs for this activity. That way, if they don’t catch their errors, their classmates probably will.
For this exercise, you’ll assign students emails with mistakes embedded in them. For example, if you teach the conditional, you could include a sentence such as: If you could forward this email to Laura, that will be great. It must be corrected to would instead of will. Using their own knowledge of English grammar, students can then locate and correct any errors they come across in the email.
6. Bring the Email Structure to Life with Role Playing
Not everything revolves around grammar and structure. This ESL writing experience has to encompass fun and creativity too!
Emails have a lot of potential for helping students explore their creativity as well.
Students can invent characters and write emails in their voice. For this activity, it’s best to put students into pairs and have them write emails to each other, while pretending to be someone else. For example, they can choose two characters from the same world, such as the show “Adventure Time,” and then write business or personal emails. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what in-office emails between Marceline and Jake look like?
Keep in mind, your ESL learners may feel shy about this and want to do something more traditional. In this case, you can suggest a similar exercise, but between coworkers or bosses and coworkers. If they have time to practice outside of the classroom, you could even arrange a real pen pal for your students. Doing an exchange with a native English speaker is a great way to learn new realistic vocabulary.
Or, if your students are the dramatic types, you could have them structure their character emails as a narrative and do a staged reading. As an extreme example, a modern Romeo and Juliet story can become a pretty funny writing exercise.
The point of these activities shouldn’t be strict grading, but rather an opportunity to enjoy the learned material.
With a Little Imagination, Anything’s Possible
I trust you as a superstar creative educator to spin emails into an expanded opportunity for teaching points and play.
Transform your students’ feelings of dread and uncertainty around emails to something that’s no big deal.
Heck, make it such an evolution that they will have the same silly look on their faces as Homestar Runner when he exclaims: “Emailz!”
And One More Thing...
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On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word "searching," they'll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like "fill in the blank."
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