E-Mail Keypals for Language Fluency

Thomas N. Robb
Kyoto Sangyo University

This article appeared originally in Foreign Language Notes (Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey), Vol 38, No. 3, pp 8-10, Fall 1996. I have since updated some of the links and other information.

School-wide Internet access is becoming more and more common. If your school is now, or will soon be, in the position to issue e-mail accounts to individual students, you may well be wondering how you can put this new tool to work for you in your language classroom.

Electronic penpals or "keypals" is a highly motivating way for your students to get valuable practice in both reading and writing. Not only can a keypal exchange improve specific skill areas, it can also have a profound impact on your students' attitude towards the target language and culture and provide them with their first chance to really use the language outside the classroom context.

Below we will discuss three types of keypal exchanges: 1) the "traditional" one- on-one type, 2) "tandem exchanges", and finally, 3) "Student List" participation. It's up to you to decide which of these will best meet your needs.

The teacher new to e-mail often thinks that all that is required is to find another class somewhere out there on the Internet that has approximately the same number of students. The problem, of course, is that this isn't usually isn't so easy. Since students tend to be human (at times) some of them may not be very good correspondents. Furthermore, some may not be very good at writing letters of interest to their partner which might cause the relationship to lapse. It only takes one non-writer in a pair for communication to stop altogether! Thus it is highly likely that some students will end up with no one to correspond with, which may or may not be their own fault.

You will probably not find a class with exactly the right number of students, either. While giving extra penpals to the better students in the class with the smaller number of students is one possible solution, a better solution to the attrition and the number-matching problem is simple: Pair up each student with two or three in the opposite class. While not complete guaranteeing that each student will maintain at least one partner, it stacks the odds against it. (See


for a discussion of the problem of 'non-response' in keypal relationships.)

Another possible problem comes from a mismatch in the number of times that each class meets per week or in the length of the school terms If both of the partner classes are in the same country, then there is a strong likelihood that the classes begin and end at the same time. There are, however, considerable fluctuations once national boundaries are crossed. The school term in Japan, for instance, begins in April and runs until the following February. The terms for most of Latin America are vastly different, as well. See my listing of school terms by country available at:


Finding Keypal Partners

  1. Using IECC -- Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections

    This is a set of 'mailing lists' run out of St. Olaf College in Minneapolis. Separate lists exist for K-12 and Higher Ed where teachers can post notices of what they are doing or want to do, and thereby find classes to collaborate with. There is a searchable log of past messages, all of which is available through their WWW page:


  2. Kidlink

    The following has been lifted and modified from the Kidcafe pages.
    KIDCAFE exists to promote a global dialog among 10 to 15-year-old kids all over the world. It is intended to encourage both discussion among groups of kids and the building of individual friendships. The KIDCAFE HELP page describes how the family of KIDCAFE lists work. The lists are:

    is for the teachers and other leaders responsible for students. If you are a teacher with a group of students participating in any of the KIDCAFE lists, you must subscribe to KIDCAFE-COORD. Once you subscribe you will get a Welcome Message.
    is a list for individual keypal exchange. Mail from all unregistered participants are moderated to make sure that mail is appropriate.
    is a list for school organized keypal exchange. To this list you can send batches of mail between classes but also individual messages between kids participating from your school. This list is only supervised by the schools that use it. Registration is required but we are currently changing routines so registration will not be possible until further notice. Do NOT subscribe to this list. Subscribtion can only be made by members of the KIDCAFE Team.
    is a list for open discussion. Youth can participate individually or as school participants. Mail from unregistered participants is moderated.
    is a list for young researchers. To this list you can send questions and organize polls. Do not send answers to the list, only surveys and the results of surveys. It is important that participants subscribe to the list for a long time otherwise the queries will have no answers. Mail from unregistered participants is moderated.

    You can subscribe to these lists by sending an email message to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.NODAK.EDU containing subscription commands for the lists you wish to receive. For example, if your name were Mickey Mouse, you might send:

    SUB KIDCAFE-COORD Mickey Mouse
    SUB KIDCAFE-QUERY Mickey Mouse

  3. ePals -- http://www.epals.com/

    This site caters to teachers and students of English, French, Spanish and German. There is a searchable archive of penpal requests, as well as a Hotmail-like facility for sending and receiving e-mail via their web pages.

  4. Other Web-based sites

    This site has a long list of sites for keypals.

    Places to Get PenPals!

    The following sites display ads for individuals or teachers seeking keypals.

    Linguistic Funland
    The form for posting pen pal requests is at:
    And the current postings are at:

    EF Englishtown. Sponsored by EF Media, Sweden.

    Rigby Heinemann Keypal List (Australia) -- The Australian office of Heinemann publishers sponsors this page.


    For French -- "Pen Pal Quebec" has listings of individuals of all ages who are seeking keypals. There are listings from people from approximately 20 other countries as well, but they are few in number.


    For Spanish -- Apparently sponsored by an employee of Qualcomm, the vendor of the popular Eudora e-mail software, this page contains an extensive set of messages in Spanish of people seeking keypals. The list is updated weekly.


    Another site, "E-mail Amigos" is described as follows: "Make friends in Spanish-speaking countries, practice and improve your written Spanish, and help your penpals to improve their English."

  5. Advertising your class on mailing lists.

    The following mailing lists have a large number of technologically-minded FL teachers. Posting a message stating your criteria for a partner class (language, student age & level, duration of term, number of students) might turn up a one or more partners rather quickly.

    To subscribe to FLTEACH, send a message to <LISTSERV@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU> saying: SUB FLTEACH yourfirstname yourlastname.

    To subscribe to the LLTI list( Language Learning and Technology International Information Forum) , send a message to <LISTSERV@DARTMOUTH.EDU> saying: SUB LLTI yourfirstname yourlastname.

  6. For more sources, albeit mainly targeted to the ESL/EFL audience, see:


Understanding The Other Class's Expectations

Be sure that you and your partner teacher(s) mutually understand:

  1. how each teacher plans to integrate the keypal relationship into his/her own curriculum. Is it a just an 'add-on' activity or is at an integral part of the course?

  2. how frequent the correspondence will be and of what general length.

  3. how the students' participation will be evaluated. Both teachers should be placing similar weight on the keypal project since this strongly affects the frequency and quality of the correspondence. If a mismatch occurs, students who are depending on the e-mail might be disappointed.

Preparing Your Students

Teach them: 1) the technical skills required for e-mail exchange, and 2) the language skills required for effective communication

Before your students send their first letter abroad, have them practice by sending messages to themselves.

Next, be sure to supply them a useful set of phrases for openings, closings and other functions. Students will need a few good models of complete messages so that they can observe the appearance of messages as a whole. Use these to point out the structural aspects of letters. Avoid the idea of supplying a simple template in which they fill in their own particulars since the students of the other class will then receive a full set of virtually identical letters! Multiple samples, or, at least, alternate phrasings will help.

Tracking Your Students

E-mail has at least one feature which can be challenging and perhaps frustrating to teachers: It's messy! The students have differing numbers of penpals and take differing amounts of time to read messages and create responses. This means either that some students may not complete their correspondence in the time allotted in class, or some students may complete it early and have nothing else to do. Time management thus can become a problem if there are not other activities to take up the slack, or if the slow students do not have access to the lab at other hours so that they can catch up.

Another management problem concerns the volume of correspondence and assigning a grade based on their performance. If the students are writing personal letters, you might not want them to submit copies of them to you as proof of their e-mail activity. You might, however, ask them to 'cc' you on at least their first letter so that you can see how well they do on this first, crucial message.

One solution is to the tracking problem is to have the students keep a log of their correspondence, perhaps with the following items to fill in per transmission:

    Date   From/To     Sent/Rec'd    Lines in Message     Total Lines
                         (S/R)       (without headers)      To Date

You might also ask them to submit a single long file of all of their correspondence, after they have done through it can replaced any private sections with x's. How easy this is to do, however, depends on your particular configuration.

One additional benefit to the log is that it can be used for assessment as well, a grade being given based on the total lines sent and received. Students who write stimulating letters will most likely receive longer responses than those who write brief, uninteresting missives. Thus a combination of both sent & received messages tends to work well. (One of my students, however, received the full text of Hamlet by e-mail because his partner in Hong Kong thought that it would contribute to his line count!)

Tandem Learning

While at first glance it might seem that native speakers would be the ideal choice for partners, consideration has to be given to what the other party would gain from the partnership. While your students' focus will most likely be on the language, correspondence with native partners will most often place your students considerably out of their depth. One way that NSs correspondence has been shown to work is with tandem' pairings, where both partners are seeking help in learning the other's native language. See the following URL for further details.

Learning in tandem is a form of open learning, where people with different native languages work together in pairs in order

to learn each other's language.
to learn more about their partner and his culture.
to exchange knowledge - e.g. about their professions.


The Tandem project even has suggested activities, which can be accessed from the following menu on their home page.

Activity Groups:

  1. Getting to know each other better
  2. Cultural differences and similarities
  3. This is what it's like in our country
  4. Studying and working in the two countries
  5. Points of view
  6. Making up stories
  7. Linguistic DIY
  8. More creative activities
  9. The art of good communication
  10. A mark of independance
  11. Simulation

Student Lists for Fostering Communication Between Learners

In order to solve address some of the problems inherent to one-on-one keypal exchanges, this writer with Mark Warschauer (then at Charles University, Prague) and Lloyd Holliday (La Trobe University, Melbourne) created the Student List Project, or "SL Lists" for short, in February of 1994 for students of ESL (English as a Second Language).

The concept is simple: Students send their messages to an e-mail list rather than to an individual, and the messages thus sent are re-transmitted to all current subscribers. Not only does this allow the students to reach a broader audience but it also provides a way for students to find one-to-one penpals who share similar interests.

Currently there are ten lists ranging from general ones such as CHAT-SL to ones on specific topics such as MOVIE-SL and SPORTS-SL. One list, ENGL-SL, is available for students to discuss their language learning problems and to ask questions about English grammar. Each list has, generally, two 'monitors' -- teachers who receive the postings and intervene when necessary to stimulate discussion or answer questions.

The SL lists thus allow students to receive mail in the target language without them having to worry about responding to what they receive. They can wait until the feel ready to write or until a topic comes along on which they have something to contribute.

This project is now in its third year of operation and has much to recommend itself. Cumulatively, there have already been over 5000 subscriptions to the lists. If any reader of this article is interested in setting up a similar set of lists for a commonly taught modern language, I will be glad to provide the technical details. For a more complete outline of the SL List Project, see:



Keypals can be an extremely rewarding experience for your students but don't expect everything to go well the first time. Just like any other aspect of your teaching, it will take some experience to discover the best implementation for your own curriculum. Even with first-time glitches, however, you can be sure that it will be an experience that your students will not forget. Don't be surprised to find some students exchanging snail-mail addresses with their keypals, turning a virtual friendship into an actual one. It happens!

About the Author

Thomas Robb <trobb@cc.kyoto-su.ac.jp> is Chair of the Department of English, Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kyoto Sangyo University. He is past president of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). He gives frequent workshops on using the Internet for language education.

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