Can emailing really be fun? Part One

Yet more of my stuff from MET. Must actually write some stuff, for here or there, at some point soon…

Although most Business English textbooks and some General English ones have a couple of sections on emailing, they are vastly outnumbered by the simulated meetings and shopping roleplays, despite the fact that my students are much less likely to use the language I teach them face to face than through the internet or on the phone (the subject of a future article).

Perhaps one reason for the comparative lack of emailing practice even in business books is that explaining how to write and practising that skill in class is the exact opposite of the lively, speaking-based, interactive classroom that most teachers have been told to produce. The aim of this article is to show that you can make the topic of emails full of speaking and/ or interaction in your class, so taking away the need to avoid it or relegate it to homework. If you agree with me that your students need more time spent on this most common way of interacting in English, the ideas here should make it possible to supplement your classes without too much (any?) pain. And if anyone wants to take some of the ideas here and make the photocopiable book of emailing activities that I’ve been waiting to see, please help yourself!

The invitations game

This is one of several classic ideas from New Cambridge English Course 1 that I still use, despite the agony of trying to teach 50 year old Turkish beginner civil servants with that book as a new teacher many years ago! In this game, students write “emails” to each other on scraps of paper and try to make as many new arrangements for the weekend as they can, with the person with the greatest number of new things in their diary at the end of the game being the winner.

As students finish writing their emails, they call over the teacher, who passes each slip of paper to the person that it is addressed to. That person then writes their reply underneath or on another piece of paper for the teacher to pass back, and this continues back and forth (concurrently with attempts to make other arrangements with other people) until they have arranged the event, time and place, or given up. After 15 or 30 minutes of frantically writing to their classmates and replying to “emails” that they receive, the teacher stops the game and asks each person to explain their new arrangements to the class (e.g. “I’m going skating with Katarina tomorrow at 7”). The people who the arrangements are supposed to be with should listen and confirm or contradict what is said. If anyone claims to have made an arrangement that the other person remembers differently, they are out of the competition. The person with the most confirmed arrangements is the winner of the game.

Other little things you might want to think about include telling students to only write to people on other tables (making writing a more realistic way of communicating, and helping them interact with people they haven’t been speaking to), and making sure they all know each others’ names.

This game could also of course be done with real computers or mobile phones and actual email, but I still prefer the paper version explained above, with the teacher usually getting a laugh while explaining that “I am the internet” and trying to reproduce the AOL voice as they deliver pieces of paper with a “You’ve got mail”. You can also collect in the “emails” to look for important mistakes. It is also possible to add speaking by asking students to write their emails together in pairs, but this takes away the element of speed that makes the game fun, and the novelty of actually enjoying silent writing in class.

A similar game can also be designed for trying to get the best price from several suppliers while the suppliers try to get as many customers as possible without offering too much of a discount, and perhaps try to find out what their competitors are doing by pretending to be customers.

Chain letters/ consequences

This is an even older and more well-known writing game, and involves folding a piece of paper after you have written something so that the person you pass it to has little or no evidence to base their continuation of the email on. This can obviously lead to ridiculous and amusing results when the email has been passed on again and again and continued by many people.

For emailing, this game works best if the students at least know how the next line should start, e.g. whether it should begin with “I look forward to…” or “Secondly,…” The easiest way of achieving this is to prepare a whole model email with sentence stems provided (e.g. “If you need… “ or “We regret to inform you that…”), each one of which is followed by a gap for them to write the actual content into. The email should be split into sections, with one sentence stem for each section and with dotted lines between them to show students where to fold, e.g.



Thank you for ___________________________


I hope you are ___________________________________


Give out one copy of the worksheet per student, and ask students to fill the top gap with anything they like. Then get them to fold that part of the paper back so the next person can’t see it when they pass it clockwise around the class. This writing and passing continues until the whole email is completed. It is then passed one more time to be unfolded, read, and usually laughed at. Here is a made up finished email to give you some idea of what the results can be (with the underlined parts being the bits that different students have written):

Dear Mr Clooney

Re: Your massage appointment

Thank you for your email yesterday.

In answer to your question, our price for the standard model is 400 pounds.

If you require the electric version, that would cost an additional 350 dollars.

Please confirm your order by March 2011.

Yours sincerely

Bill Gates

Manager, Taj Mahal Curry House, Eastbourne

I have produced templates for letters of complaint, responses to complaints, cover letters and letters asking for information, all of which have gone down well.

A more realistic, if less amusing, way of using the chain writing idea is for students to continue an email correspondence while only being able to see the previous email rather than the whole sequence of communication so far. Again, this is done by passing the paper (in this case probably a long strip of paper, an A3 sheet or several pages stapled together) around class and folding or covering all but the last email before writing the next piece of communication between those people. This works well for situations in which many emails often go back and forth, e.g. demanding a refund, negotiations, and making arrangements.

This/ that/ both/ neither

There is an awful lot of language that students might need in order to write different kinds of email, and it is rather difficult to predict what their needs are and what they are already familiar with. I therefore like to introduce a whole load of language fairly soon after introducing the topic of emailing, and to use that to judge what is new to them, what is relevant, etc. To be able to do this, you need a task in which you can check their understanding and improve how much they learn by getting them to interact with the language, but in a very manageable way. The way that I do this is to read out words and phrases in one of two categories and get them to hold up cards representing those two categories depending on which one they think it is. I like to think that this is similar to the real-life communication strategy of just trying to work out whether the stream of speech coming back at you means yes or no (one I am very familiar with in my own travels).

Here is one example of this game that I use fairly often. I give each student two cards, one saying “Formal” and the other “Informal”. I then read out sentences like “To whom it may concern” and “Hugs and kisses”, and they race to hold up the right card. I try to make the language that I use in the game mainly stuff that they can guess in some way even if they are totally unfamiliar with it, in the way that in those two examples they might be able to work out the answer from the first one being in a form that is very unfamiliar in modern speech, and the second from it being very affectionate. They then label such words and phrases with the two categories on the worksheet I give them, and then test each other in pairs. To add more fun or further practice, you can also get them to put just set of cards on the table between them and race to slap their hands down on the right one.

Other ways I have divided emailing language into two categories have included complaining/ responding to complaints, email/ other writing, email/ telephoning, and starting/ finishing (meaning things near the beginning and end of an email). You can add further language such as typical mistakes to any of these categories by asking the students to hold up both cards if they can be used in both situations (e.g. are neutral for the formal/ informal split) and leave them both down if they match none of those categories or are simply incorrect.

Email reversi

The opposite approach to emailing language is to get students to learn a few useful phrases really well and this memory game, which is a much simplified version of Grammar Reversi from the classic Grammar Games, is by far the best and most fun way of doing it that I’ve found so far.

The original version of Grammar Reversi is based on the board game Othello, which is similar to the Japanese game Go but has the players turning the pieces over from black to white and back again rather than taking them off the board as they would in Go, draughts or chess. In the TEFL version, if they want to turn a piece over so that it becomes their colour, they also have to correctly predict or remember what words are on the other side, such as what phrasal verb is on the other side because it means the same as the words that they can see, e.g. guessing that “Look for” is on the other side of “Search”. When the other player wants to change the colour back to their own, they then must do the opposite, e.g. say what another way of saying that phrasal verb must be.

This is a great game, but takes some explaining and also quite a lot of time to prepare the exact number of identically-sized double-sided playing pieces that you need to play the full game. The pieces also have to be fairly small, limiting how much language you can put on them.

In my variation, the two-sided playing cards are just placed on the table in a single column and in order to win the game one student must go from the bottom of the column to the top whilst saying what is on the other side of each card in turn without making any mistakes. Only the exact words on the cards are acceptable in the game, even when other words might be okay in real emails. Until one person manages to get through the whole lot in one fell swoop, everybody has to start from the bottom of the column each time. This means that the first few cards will probably be seen 10 to 20 times by the end of the game, and so be impossible to forget! When students turn over a card to check what is on the other side, it stays that way round for the next person to transform back the other way, meaning that they can use their memory of what they have already just seen on the other side but must learn how to transform the words, phrases or sentences in both directions by the end of the game.

The emailing topic I have found this game most useful for is formal and informal language, giving the students sentences with the same meaning but very different formality on either sides of the card, e.g. “Hi John” with “Dear Mr Smith” and “Write soon!” with “I look forward to hearing from you soon”. Other possibilities include two different ways of saying the exact same thing (e.g. “Dear Sir or Madam” with “Dear Sir/ Madam”), abbreviations (including some tricky ones like “CU” for “See you”, “e.g.” for “for example”, and “P.S.” for “I forgot the mention” or “Just one more thing”), beginnings and endings of very fixed phrases (e.g. “Dear Sir or” on the other side of “Madam” and “If you need any further information” on the other side of “please do not hesitate to contact me”).

For students to play this game you’ll need to prepare a set of 10 to 15 two-sided cards, each consisting of a set of two words, phrases or sentences that can be transformed into each other. The easiest way of preparing a pack of cards is to make a page-wide one-column table in a word processing programme (e.g. Microsoft Word) and put the paired sentences, words or phrases above and below each other. After photocopying, cut the table along every other horizontal line so that each card contains one matched pair. Fold the cards along the remaining horizontal lines. You can also glue or sellotape the two halves together to make the cards look neat. Students then put the cards on the table in a vertical column, with one side down so that it can’t be seen. The vertical column is meant to represent the ladder that they will be climbing, falling down to the borrow and starting again if they slip.

All this is a fair bit of work for the teacher, so I tend to get the students working in fairly large groups to cut down on the number of sets I have to make, e.g. fours and fives split into two teams of two or three students. Alternatively, you can do the cutting but ask the students to fold them while having an initial look at the cards that they will be using. You can also use sentences that you have used in class before, because students are unlikely to remember them word for word (yet!)

Test each other

Two particular bits of emailing language that students find difficult are, unsurprisingly, prepositions and articles/ determiners. I have practised both in the same way recently, and it seems about as fun as you can expect given the topic and grammar points involved. I’ll only explain the prepositions version here, but the article/ determiners version is almost identical.

Prepare a list of at least forty typical emailing phrases or whole sentences containing prepositions, e.g. “Thank you for your letter last week”. As with Email Reversi above, most of these can be ones you’ve used in class before if students don’t know them word for word yet. Arrange the examples by preposition (all the “at” sentences together, etc) and split them into two approximately equal pages for Student A and Student B. In each pair, one student starts by choosing the most difficult example from the most difficult section and reads it out with the preposition missing or replaced by a sound, e.g. “Please reply ____ your earliest convenience” or “We apologise HMMMM any inconvenience caused”. The person listening can only have one guess which preposition is missing. If they get it wrong, they get to hear another example with the same missing preposition and can guess once more. This continues until they finally get the right missing word from all the examples that they have heard, or their partner runs out of examples. If you want to keep score, students get one point for each time their partner guesses wrongly.

As I mentioned above, it is easy enough to play the same game with “a/ the/ -/ his/ her/ my/ your/ some/ any” instead of prepositions. If your students have different problems (e.g. missing pronouns), it should be just as easy to adapt the game to those things too. You can also combine several language points on one set of Student A/ Student B worksheets, as long as they are testable by one word being removed from the sentence and you have several examples of each.

The extreme emailing game

This is a more creative way of students competing with each other. Give students a list of ten to twenty stripped-down versions of typical emailing sentences, e.g. “The TV you sent me doesn’t work” or “The documents are attached”. The students choose one sentence and take turns trying to make it more and more extreme in the way that you tell them to, e.g. more and more polite or longer and longer. They can change, add or delete any words they like, but the basic meaning of what they are saying must remain the same. When they can no longer make it any more extreme, the person who came up with best version gets a point and they move onto another sentence from the list. For example, making the first example more and more polite might go like this: “Unfortunately, the TV that you sent me doesn’t work”

 “Unfortunately, the TV that you sent me doesn’t seem to work”

 “Unfortunately, the TV that you sent me doesn’t seem to work properly”

 “Unfortunately, the television which you were kind enough to send me doesn’t seem to work quite as I would have expected”


After students have finished the game, you can discuss what level of formality/ length/ etc is most realistic and useful, and/ or give them some typical polite language such as “regret” to add to the sentences.

Definitions game

This is a much simpler game than the ones above, and is perfect for starting a class or adding speaking to one with little in it.

Give students a list of emailing words, phrases or sentences that are worth remembering or understanding, e.g. “CC”, Yours faithfully” and “With reference to your email last week,…” Ask them to choose one thing from the list and explain which one they are thinking of without saying any of the words that make it up, e.g. defining “I am writing to you about…” as “This is a way of starting an email that says the topic” rather than “This says what you are writing about.” They should continue explaining which one they mean until their partner successfully guesses which one it is. By listening into students’ conversations, you can quickly pick up whether they have misapprehensions about the language, and this can also be a good time to introduce phrases that they will need to talk about the language you are introducing during the course, such as “It stands for…”, “It’s quite formal” and “This is used in a cover letter”.

For more of a challenge, it is also possible to play this game with the person listening not having the list of things that are being defined, or with the person defining them choosing one card from a pack and so having no choice which one to explain.

Emailing roleplays

Roleplays in an emailing class can never quite have the interactive fun of those of a speaking or functional language class, but with a little imagination you can create situations that produce the same challenge and laughs as a good speaking roleplay. Examples include “Write to a shop asking them to give you a refund for the good that you have which came from there. You don’t have the receipt because it was a gift from someone else, but you haven’t opened the box”. Students can give their answer by writing it down or just saying what they would write, then the other students can either reply or judge how effective the emails would be. If you are going to ask students to judge the emails, you can arrange the roleplays as a board game with students progressing one square for each point they are given by their classmates (rather than moving by the roll of a dice as in most board games).

It is also possible to do speaking roleplays on the topic of emails in order to discuss what people should and shouldn’t do while emailing, e.g. “Explain to someone in your department that they won’t be getting a performance-related bonus this year because their emails don’t meet the required company standards” or “Pretend your partner is trying to write an email while you are looking over their shoulder. Keep stopping them to correct them on what they have written”.

An edited version of this article was first published in the October 2010 edition of Modern English Teacher magazine. Exclusively republished here online with the permission of the publisher and author (me!)

Many of the activities mentioned above are available here.

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3 Responses to Can emailing really be fun? Part One

  1. Ann Foreman says:

    Hi Alex,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.



  2. Alex Case says:

    Thanks Ann, will do.

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