sealPurdue News

January 1997

Pupils improve writing with college student 'E-pals'

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the article, "Developing Electronic Mail Education: A School-University Collaboration," is available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University education project that uses electronic mail could become a national model for helping youngsters improve their writing skills by corresponding with adults.

Professor Susan Britsch and six graduate students in an advanced literacy seminar collaborated with Ron Berkson, a third-grade classroom teacher, and his 32 pupils 2,000 miles away in Northern California, using e-mail to help the children write more fluently.

"We decided to let the children's interests motivate the subjects for e-mail dialogue," says Britsch, assistant professor of literacy and language education. "We expanded on those interests, so that based on our analysis of what they wrote, we could help the students take their writing to another level."

At first, the third-graders e-mailed the Purdue graduate students telling generally about family and friends. As the children became more comfortable with the electronic exchanges, they began delving into other topics, and the graduate students asked questions to stimulate the children's thinking and to do further research. For example, one boy who owned a trampoline began e-mailing Britsch about trampolines, asking if she knew how they were built. Britsch e-mailed back and asked him the same question. Eventually, Britsch and the child exchanged various e-mails on the tension of cords and how to reassemble a trampoline if it's moved.

"We tried to avoid purely yes/no or listing answers to the children's questions," Britsch says. "We wanted them to do their own hypothesizing."

The children and the Purdue graduate students corresponded on such other topics as why leaves change color, the difference between mastodons and elephants, and why turkeys and geese don't get along. One boy's e-mails with Britsch added up to a 25-chapter fictional narrative with dialogue, plot, characters and an ending, Britsch says. The adults and children took turns acting as writer and audience.

There are a few similar projects around the country in which youngsters e-mail their peers, and some undergraduate students correspond electronically with children as part of teacher training, Britsch says. But the novelty of the Purdue project is that the graduate students were able to guide the children's writing and "up the ante," she says.

"The children may not have pushed themselves to higher levels of writing achievement if they had corresponded with people their own age," Britsch says. "The adults encouraged their research and inquiry."

Britsch says the third-graders liked the e-mail because it works faster than "snail mail," or sending paper letters. As a result, the children corresponded weekly with their "E-pals." Also, as the pupils became more comfortable and familiar with the adults, they communicated not only information but also feelings, she says.

"The children talked about how their college E-pals became their best friends," Britsch says. "The kids really recognized how a relationship can be built using language."

The project is in its second year. Britsch, Berkson and two Purdue School of Education graduate students, Priya Mathew Johnson and Rebecca Helm-Hill, presented results from the first year at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English.

CONTACTS: Britsch, (765) 494-5893; e-mail,
Berkson, (707) 421-4195; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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