Writing Persuasive Letters for Personal Gain in Year 4

If we think that children don’t have anything to write about, we are doing them a huge disservice.  Given the time to think, question, dismiss, select and elaborate upon their own ideas, we find that all children have something that they want to say and – very importantly – be motivated to write about.  Children try to persuade adults to do things all the time.  After all, we (the adults) are the gatekeepers – the withholders of time, knowledge, information, choice (the list could go on).  Being persuasive is an important life skill.  We all need to persuade others at different points in our lives and for various reasons.  In order to get our point across succinctly, without being rude, and know enough facts about the subject to argue our case, we need to be clear and knowledgeable about what we want to say and how to say it.  When we really want something, we are ready to commit the thought and energy it takes to work out how to get it.

When asked what the children wanted to say in order to improve their own lives as a form of personal gain (The Writing For Pleasure Centre 2022), their ideas were plentiful.  Here is a small selection:

Asking for more Chromebooks to be available for children to use in Year 4
Asking to change the school menu to include healthier options
To request a signed copy of a book from favourite author
To request a family pet
To request that Sainsbury’s stop using unnecessary plastic packaging in their supermarkets
To ask their grandparents to quit smoking
To request that Laser Quest to make their equipment less heavy to carry
To ask for the local incinerator to stop burning rubbish
To ask a game company for some free samples
To ask the local council to do more about dog mess in the local park
To ask the Headteacher for swimming lessons missed because of lockdown
An example of one child’s ‘Ideas Party’

The children were given the time to discuss and think about these ideas deeply, and consider whether they knew enough or needed longer to research and find out more facts.  They could reflect upon whether the subject matter really meant enough to them to be able to write as persuasively as possible.  There were no pseudo-audiences or ‘fake’ content in our writing classrooms – we could allow ourselves to understand that when it comes to genuine, impactful writing to make real-life change, we need to write from the heart and to an authentic reader.

While a lot of children knew what they wanted, they didn’t necessarily know the appropriate audience for that letter; they didn’t know who actually had the power to make the change that they wanted to see. Speaking to the children about who could actually help with their cause was a process which to some extent demystified the workings of the world for them; they saw that real adults make decisions about how things work, and those things aren’t inevitable but can be changed, even if that change might seem unlikely or outlandish. Such an understanding encourages children to have opinions, to be critical, to imagine changes, to use their voice, as they can see that all of those things can be put to purpose.

The anecdotes mini-lesson (Young et al. 2021) was probably one of the most transformational in this project, partly because the idea was so alien to the children. Encouraging children to include their own personal feelings and anecdotes as part of their persuasion was a new idea to most of them, and something our classes really ran with. So many of them had assumed that what they thought and their own experiences wouldn’t be listened to by adults. We wanted to make clear to the children how they can use their age to their advantage, that their opinions and experiences might be valued because of their age, rather than in spite of it. Telling children that their experiences matter, and that events in their own lives might change someone else’s perspective, inspired them. Lots of the children could think of moving stories that utilised emotion and sympathy to persuade their audience, but possibly even more importantly, it was a key step in showing children that their personal voice could be meaningful and powerful.

Letting children choose why they were writing persuasively and who to, giving them a genuine purpose and audience, led to the children taking a rigorous and critical approach to their writing. When the children had decided who they were going to persuade, just asking them, “Do you think saying that is going to persuade them?” became a really powerful teaching point. Throughout the writing process, children applied that question to their own and other children’s drafts, and the children held themselves and each other to increasingly high standards. Persuasion is a life skill that to some extent or other, children will have already acquired, and it’s a skill that requires a huge amount of empathy. Asking the children to think from their persuadee’s perspective enables them to consider their audience in  a new way. It’s not just, “will your audience be entertained by this?” but “can you make your audience agree with you?”, a question which requires a perhaps more rigorous kind of scrutiny. In persuasive writing, thinking about your audience is of the utmost importance, and the children’s research extended from the topic of their persuasive letter to who they were persuading, as they began to see not just their own role in the writing process, but the significance of who they were writing for.

Once we all finished the letters, we learnt how to address the envelopes and post them correctly. We posted them in the hope of our messages to be read, understood and responded to by a genuine reader. 

After a week, one child came to class very excited, telling everyone that his dad received his letter in the post that morning. He announced that his dad had cried – proud tears after having received such a touching letter from his son. He said that his father had been persuaded to give him a hamster. “I couldn’t believe it! It worked!” the child said. His expression said everything. He told the whole class that he had tried several times before to persuade his family to buy a pet and in different ways (using the celebrations of birthdays, Christmas, Summer holidays, etc) but it hadn’t worked until the morning his letter arrived. The power of writing was becoming evident for the whole class to see.

A few days later, the school office called looking for a child to collect a letter addressed to her. The letter came, as the child said, in a “very sophisticated envelope” from Sainsbury’s. She read it aloud, initially in disbelief that it could be authentic. Another child said: “Yes, it is real! They hear you and they have responded!” She started believing it when she realised there was a serial number to track the response online.

The same day a grandparent asked for a few minutes to speak after school. Emotionally, she said that she had received a letter from her grandson. The letter was about the impact smoking has on our health and he was asking her to stop. She had been considering stopping smoking for several years but because of the letter, she made a final decision – she was quitting.

The impact of this project has been tangible.  As we wait to hear back from more of our recipients, looking forward to turning the envelopes over in our hands and poring over the contents, the belief is building in our classrooms that writing is a powerful and worthwhile pursuit.  We can’t wait for the next Writing for Pleasure project to begin.

By Ruth Arundel, Ellen Counter & Victor Guerro

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