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Paper Pen Pals
New Africa

Paper Pen Pals

Summer may be over for another year but writing to new friends made at home or abroad during the long summer holiday has been a rite of passage for children and young people for generations. These days, however, correspondence is more likely to be an exchange of messages on social media than time spent chewing the end of a pencil while composing a letter about life back home from holiday.

Most people over the age of 40 will have had a pen pal or pen friend of some description with whom they would have corresponded via letter or perhaps postcard: a friend made on holiday, a holiday romance, or a friend who has moved away to live in another area or country.

It has to be acknowledged that digital correspondence just isn’t the same; you’ll never find it sitting dustily at the back of a cupboard like hidden treasure – paper’s longevity is just one of its many remarkable qualities. Yes, digital is quick and it’s easy and it’s immediate, but that’s also part of the problem – texting requires little thought or effort. How many friendships have suffered as a consequence of a lazily written text message misconstrued by the recipient?

A Brief History Of Pen Pals

The term ‘pen friend’ dates back to 1919 and ‘pen pal’ to 1931 although people have been writing to one another ever since the invention of something to write on and with, plus the means of passing the correspondence to the recipient.

We might write to relatives or long-distance friends, but the concept of pen pals or friends is perhaps broader than that and can involve writing to someone you have never met. Schools have commonly been a place where writing to a pen pal has been encouraged, usually a student of the same age from abroad as a means to support language and cultural learning.

Newspapers and magazines would often have a section dedicated to those seeking a pen pal, so it’s popularity as a past-time went far beyond schoolwork; people of all ages had a friend that they would write to on a regular basis. In August of this year, pen pals of 68-years standing finally met up in person. Patsy Gregory, 80, from Hoghton in Lancashire travelled 4,000 miles to Pennsylvania to meet Carol-Ann Krause, also 80. The two have been pen pals since they were 12.

There have been some famous letter writers over the years. Naturally, many literary figures are also prolific writers of letters. George Orwell apparently chronicled his entire life in his regular correspondence with family, friends and important cultural and political figures; JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were pen pals as were Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was also a profuse letter writer. She began writing to political leaders, writers and other luminaries when she was 11, principally to request their autographs for her collection. Her letter writing continued throughout her life, even corresponding with airmen during World War II so she could hear first-hand their experiences of it.

Are Pen Pals Making A Comeback?

It would certainly seem so.

A brief search of the internet suggests that the art of letter writing has been making a comeback for a while, even pre-pandemic, which saw lots of people once again take up pen and paper. A factor in this resurgence of interest could be digital fatigue. Modern methods of communication, whether texting or social media, are usually brief and limited to making arrangements or sharing quick quips or memes; they don’t encourage deeper thought or give us the opportunity to share thoughts, experiences or feelings in the same way that sitting down with pen and paper to write a letter does.

There is a charm to handwritten letters that perhaps people are once again beginning to appreciate; the sound of letter from a friend or a lover being pushed through the letterbox thrills in a way that the ping of a mobile phone just cannot match. Beyond charm, however, there are other, quite significant benefits to be found from both sitting down to write a letter and receiving and reading the reply.

The Benefits Of Having A Pen Pal

Having a pen pal brings numerous benefits for both adults and children. It’s a great way to:

Make a new friend – you can, of course, write to someone you already know, but there are lots of pen pal websites that link of individuals looking for someone to write to on a regular basis.

Learn a language or improve your language skills – writing to a pen pal whose first language is different to your own can be a great way to learn or improve foreign language skills. Taking it in turns to write to one another in your own language and theirs will help to develop reading and writing skills for both parties.

Be creative – writing to a pen pal doesn’t just have to be about words on paper, although they are integral to it, it can also be a great way for visual expression using art and crafts. This can be particularly effective in encouraging reluctant children to sit down and write a letter. From choice of texture and colour of the paper to the writing instrument(s) used, there are endless ways to make letter writing interesting.

Improve literacy – writing to or reading a letter from a pen pal is a highly effective way to improve literacy skills and expand vocabulary. Parenting website Romper quotes an article in The Reading Teacher, which states that having a pen pal could “potentially provide an atmosphere for learning that incorporates a safe social context, an attentive audience, a meaningful exchange of ideas, and individual and personal response – all of which are situations likely to increase motivation to write better and to write more.

Letter writing is not a fast process, it can take time and effort to formulate what you want to say. Your letter might not have a specific purpose, rather it might be that you and your pen pal share similar interests or views, and writing is a wonderful way to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas. As with most things, the more you do it, the better you will become at it.

Promote cross-cultural learning – research has shown that “people who engage in a cross cultural pen pal relationship are more culturally intelligent and culturally sensitive. In addition to that, students who were economically disadvantaged were bolstered by their conversations with people in other class groups, and showed more confidence in their own potential.”

How To Find A Pen Pal

There a numerous websites dedicated to helping people find pen pals and to the art of letter writing. Good, family-friendly places to start are Global Penfriends and PenPal Community.

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