Engaging English Language Learners with Virtual Pen Pals

Caylie Gaccione
Curriculum Specialist
News on September 22 2021

Are you looking for a unique way to engage your English language learners? Virtual pen pals are the way to go! By having students interact with one another outside of the four walls of their classroom, they will be able to develop a deeper cultural awareness, enhanced communication skills, and gain collaboration opportunities. Not only are pen pals enjoyable for students but they also provide a chance for educators to create unique learning experiences. 


Why pen pals for ELLs?

As technology has evolved, so has the way that students interact with one another. Our students love communicating through email, texting, and social media and having a pen pal provides them with a clear purpose for that type of communication. Standard pen pals typically communicate via letters through the mail. With the different platforms for students to work with pen pals, there are endless benefits, specifically for English language learners. Some of the benefits include:

  • Allows students to hone in on reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in a non-native language
  • Great for students who are not typically comfortable communicating face-to-face, which boosts confidence
  • Empowers students since they are writing to a peer rather than a standard writing assignment for a teacher
  • Allows for wait time and repetition — essential tools for language acquisition
  • Can integrate into all subject areas, which can help students process information and communicate about specific content
  • Learn from each other and their diverse perspectives, which will promote global empathy and broaden perspectives
  • Develops social skills as students communicate back and forth with one another
  • A fun way to learn and practice English!

Pen Pal Ideas

As we connect our students with pen pals, the goal right from the start is to build connections, have powerful conversations, and collaborate with one another. Here are some prompts for you to get started with your students:

  • Connection:
    • Have students complete basic “get to know you” questions, or share 3-5 facts about themselves (students can also record a video in their home language).
    • Have students share their love of learning (this can also be used as a formative assessment)
      • E.g. students can showcase art, science experiments, extracurricular activities, etc.
    • Show different parts of the school or community if possible
  • Conversation:
    • Discuss favorite books (have both classes read the same book and discuss)
    • Discuss specific foods that are customary in their country
    • Share a talent (dance, sports, art, etc.)
  • Collaboration:
    • If classes are working on the same unit, students can study and work together
      • E.g. Share answers to math problems and explain how you solved it and provide feedback and ideas back and forth.
    • This is also a great opportunity for you as the teacher to provide students with prompts or worksheets to guide instruction and give students some examples to work with.

    Platforms to Use:

    1. Flipgrid: If you’ve worked with Flipgrid in the past, you’ll know that it is a free video discussion platform that allows for creative expression and collaboration amongst students and teachers. The main benefits of Flipgrid are that students can record and share ideas, videos, and stories across all subject areas and grade levels. Within Flipgrid, GridPals are the perfect option for Pen Pals. This feature is great for connecting educators, classrooms, and students worldwide. It also breaks down the walls of the classroom, connects students, and creates meaningful learning experiences. You can find pen pals at the correct grade level for your students and find that perfect match. Once your GridPal is established, you and your “CoPilot” (the other teacher) can begin adding topics for students to respond to one another with. For more information on Flipgrid and pen pals, check out our OTIS course, Virtual Pen Pals for ELLs with Flipgrid
    2. PenPal Schools: This is another platform for connecting educators and students worldwide. Teachers will choose a topic and then you will be connected with a class at the same age/grade level, which will inspire students to share their insights. There are also several topic and lesson ideas, which prompts students to answer questions and engage in discussions.
    3. Google Workspace: This is a great option for students to utilize platforms that they might already be comfortable using. For pen pals, Google Docs, Slides, Classroom, Meet, and more can be utilized for students to connect with one another. The collaborative power of these tools is really what makes Google Workspace an excellent choice for virtual pen pals. Teachers can connect with one another worldwide and set up a space where students can work on writing and sharing their ideas. For example, teachers can create a “Pen Pal Google Classroom” where assignments can be posted for all students. Next, students can work together on Google Docs or Slides to share their writing pieces, letters, classwork, and more! Students can also utilize Google Meet to connect with one another “face-to-face” and share glimpses into their classroom, community, school, and even home.

No matter what platform you choose to use, our English language learners will thrive as they connect with one another and experience new opportunities for communication and collaboration. I recommend taking the time to explore the various pen pal platforms and determining which one will be best for you and your students! Email us your classroom success stories and ideas at OTIS@teq.com.


For more tips, tricks, and tools for teaching in and out of the classroom, check out more articles on the Teq Talk blog.

We also offer virtual professional development, training, and remote learning support for educators with OTIS for educators. Explore the technology, tools, and strategies that can spark student success — no matter where teaching or learning are happening.

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