IATEFL 2012: Using punctuation, modality and phraseology to teach email

Here’s my round-up of Alistair McNair’s session on developing students’ email-writing skills through punctuation, modality and phraseology…

We all use email.  But where is it in coursebooks?  It crops up occasionally but isn’t done justice.  Often it just looks like letters.  But are emails really the same genre as letters?  Some teachers may think so, but is that true?

Students need to request things, demand things, relate to others, etc… by email.  Their teacher needs to help them do this.  Impressions created by the emails someone sends are quite important!  Even IELTS 6.5 level students write “shocking” emails.  They hit “send” arguably without really caring, and almost certainly without proof-reading.

In coursebooks, email examples are almost always external – one company to another.  But Alistair’s intuition is that much of our daily email is internal – from one colleague to another within an organisation (or between friends?).  Students need to know how to write to someone who’s more senior than them, someone who’s in administration, someone who’s a (potential) friend.

Alistair argues that coursebook examples of emails are too consistent – formal ones always starting with “Dear”, informals only starting with “Hi”, etc.  But in his data, there were emails from directors to staff starting “hiya” – and this wasn’t exceptional.  So are coursebooks realistic?  Or simplistic?  Or both?  Or something else?  Is it as simple as categorising emails as either informal or formal?

OK, to be fair to coursebooks, they’re trying to teach email and trying to simplify it.  But this raises questions…

Some tasks are also unrealistic or unjustified.  For example: “take this informal email, and make it formal.” (e.g. Language Leader Intermediate, pg 67)  Well OK, but why, Alistair asks?  When do we do this?

Similarly, the amount of information given in business and general English coursebooks about example/model emails is often very limited.  It may say “this is similar to a formal business letter”, but how often does it say who’s writing, to whom, their history, their relationship, the wider context of their communications, the temporary context of their communications, etc.?  Even the physicality of a building can affect the formality of emails – how far apart are colleagues in the building?  When and how do they physically see each other during the day?  Furthermore, model emails are often presented as electronic letters – not as realistic emails.  But what are students likely going to have to produce?

One problem for writers (and therefore learner writers) is register.  How to define this?  How to quantify it?  It’s actually quite difficult.  Alistair suggests using systemic functional grammar to approach this – look at the mode (length, openings and closings), tenor (punctuation and modality) and field (types of email and phraseology).

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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