I’m a fifth grade teacher, and like every other elementary school teacher on the planet, getting children to write is quite a chore. To start, even the vast majority of adults are better readers than writers (wouldn’t we all be authors if we wrote as well as we read?). So it’s no surprise that the ability of children to write is often years behind their ability to read. Therefore, they aren’t very good at it, and they know it. Plus, it takes so long to write something compared to just speaking. Consequently, most children avoid writing if they can help it, and will usually give a meager effort when asked to perform.
Well, not anymore. I figured something out a long time ago, and I don’t remember when it happened (it could have even been from my own experience as a student, but I can’t recall). What I figured out is this: Have children write to companies.
Boring, you say? Well, not if they write to the right companies. Have your child or student send a formal letter to a company that makes a product they enjoy. Candy, cookies, sugary drinks, chips, fast food restaurants, and other similar enterprises are such great places because they almost always send back free stuff to the kids, and the kids go nuts with excitement. True, junk food is unhealthy, but forget about that once in a while.
Here’s what you do:
1. Give the kids a list of companies (and brainstorm with them to find some) that sell products the kids like. The key is to aim for products that are cheap, such as those mentioned before. Candy, chips, sodas, etc. are inexpensive and are the best in terms of getting a response that includes free samples. Some of my favorites from the last nineteen years of teaching are Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Hershey, Mars Corporation, Wonka, and more. Nine times out of ten these companies will send something free to the children.
2. Make the kids write a short business letter to these companies. The first time you do this you’ll have to motivate them with a bit of a pep talk as the first is always the hardest. They might get excited by the prospect of free stuff, but they still have to write, and they won’t want to do that. Get them through the first letter….trust me.
3. Have them address their letter to Customer Service or Consumer Affairs. Each company might have a different name for that department, but no matter; it will get to the right people if you choose either of these options.
4. Make them write the letter as follows: In the first paragraph the child tells about him or her self. For example, the child might say, “Hi, my name is Michael Fairbanks. I’m 45 years old and am in the fifth grade. I go to Bonnie and Clyde Elementary School in Middle-of-Nowhere, Alabama. I like math, reading and social studies. I have two brothers, a sister, and twenty-eight cats.”
You get the idea. The first paragraph is simply the child explaining who he or she is. If they use humor or appear cute, that can’t hurt.
The second paragraph should heap tremendous praise on the company and its products. The little writer should explain specifically what he or she likes, which products are their favorites, and why they chose to write to that particular company.
The third paragraph is extremely important in order to get some goodies sent back in the mail. The student must ask a question. I repeat: Always ask a question. This will send the letter in a different direction than the other letters. Those other letters will get a form letter stating, “Thank you for your feedback. We value customers like you and hope to continue making quality products for you to enjoy. Thanks again, now go buy more of our stuff.”
Okay, it might not say all of that, but the general idea is that a form letter isn’t so much fun for a kid to receive. By asking a question or two, the company now feels obligated to answer the letter personally.
The last paragraph should be short and sweet, thanking the company for its time and perhaps a sentence that says, “Please write back,” or, “I look forward to your response.”
Do not let the kids ask for free stuff. That’s tacky and rude. However, there is a better way to get the company to send free samples. Simply state something like this: “I love Coke, and learned that you make other products besides just Coke and Diet Coke. I hope I get to try some of these someday. They sound great.”
This is hinting, of course, but it’s not mooching. There’s a big difference, and it works great.
5. have the students put the school’s return address (if you’re a teacher) with the line, “C/O Mrs. Teacher” so that the teacher is the first one to receive the response from the company. If you’re a parent then just use your own address.
As a teacher, getting the letter first means you get to make a show out of it. The teacher picks up the letter from the front office, puts it behind her back, and enters the room saying, “Someone got a return letter from Hershey. Let’s read it.” Then have that student come up and read the company response to the class.
6. Watch as the child unfolds the letter and a coupon that says free. These coupons are real and aren’t buy-on-get-one-free type of coupons. They will say free. Sometimes the companies include other items such as pencils, stickers, patches, pamphlets and more along with a coupon for free items.
7. At this point you’ll see the enthusiasm build dramatically as the other kids realize, “Holy smokes. It works!” After than you’ll have every kid in the class eager to write, and some of them will go on a rampage at home.
You just got them addicted to writing.
Note: Over the course of nearly twenty years I’ve had students receive pencils, stickers, candy, chips, coupons for soda, free pizzas from Domino’s and Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Hershey, Mars Corporation and more. But the real whopper was from a lady named Lisa Frank in Arizona (http://www.lisafrank.com).
There was a little girl in my class one year who wanted to write to Lisa Frank, and since it was a company that made inexpensive products, I said “go for it.” I also said, “You know, I’m not sure if you’ll get coupons for free folders and such. You’re much likelier to get things from food manufacturers.” But she was determined.
This particular child was sweet and cute, but she had a pretty low self-esteem, and wasn’t always accepted by other children because she would often give negative attention toward others in hopes that she would receive positive attention in return. She didn’t understand socialization very well. So I was a bit bummed at her choice of company to write to because I thought she would fail to get a decent response.
But I kid you not: A few weeks later I got a knock on the classroom door and the UPS guy was the last person I expected to see. He asked if I was Mr. Fairbanks, and when I said yes he excused himself and started walking backward into my classroom with a hand truck stacked to the top with boxes. I had no idea what he was doing and assumed it might be textbooks, but at the same time I thought, “School supplies aren’t sent to individual teachers in this manner. How odd.”
After I signed the receipt he left, just like that. Upon further inspection I saw the return address: Lisa Frank. I wondered who that was, and it took me a couple seconds to process it. Finally I realized what happened, and asked the girl who wrote the original letter to come up and help me open the boxes.
Inside was a wonderful letter from Lisa Frank herself, along with over a hundred stuffed animals for all the kids in the fifth grade. In addition, she sent notebooks, folders, pencils, stickers and more. As you can imagine, not only were we shocked, but everyone was now impressed with the little letter-writer who earned stuffed animals for the entire grade level.
Of course, children aren’t always the most realistic about these situations, so many of them said, “I want to write to Lisa Frank.” I had to explain that it wasn’t likely they would get the same response, and that they should try something different.
The last thing I heard that day was a kid who said, “I know. I’ll write to Ford.”
I don’t think he ever did, but who knows? Maybe he’s driving around in a new truck somewhere. Or perhaps he just got a sticker. Either way, it’s a really fun way to get kids motivated about writing. It’s easy, takes little time, and gives them the kind of feedback they really want.
Note: Getting company addresses is simple. First, think of products that generally cost under five dollars (crackers, chips, candy, drinks, etc.) and look online for their addresses. Of course, these days the kids can send an email, but I wouldn’t recommend it. An email will get a similar response (a return email), but a letter is much better because consumers affairs might stuff something into it.