Oliver Pritchard shows how to use a timeless English tradition to practise your writing
At this time of year it is traditional in England and the United States to send letters and Christmas cards to friends and family. On the British side of the Atlantic, they are called round-robins and they explain what has happened in the last year. Facebook has more or less killed this tradition, but they are still a nice exercise for language students, because they allow you to practice multiple past verbs, provide excellent personal language and have a clear purpose.
When writing this kind of letter, structure is very important (see our dummy letter below). Think about how you write in Spanish – there should not be much difference in English. Start with a nice warm greeting and then choose a subject for the first paragraph, second paragraph, etc. Check your conjugations and edit if necessary. Finish with a nice warm send-off. It’s not complicated, but sometimes students worry too much about the language and forget about composition.
The language is also important though. For this letter, try to use as many past tenses and verbs as you know. It’s important to learn past conjugations, but even more important to practice using them! This is a good chance. ‘Used to+verb’ might be difficult (we used to have a natural tree but now we have a plastic one) but past simple, past continuous, past perfect; present perfect and present perfect continuous should all be easy to include if you know them. The important thing is how you use the tenses together. Think carefully about what has finished, what is background description and the sequence of events.
Next is content: make it interesting (although these letters are famously boring in the UK). Think about the 3-5 biggest events of the year (for me: trip to the Amazon, new job, mum visiting Colombia) and focus on these. If you have a family, simply expand it to include more people but NOT more events (Carlitos learnt to walk, my partner had a 30th birthday, I visited Cartagena).
Remember that your life is not a telenovela and people don’t need to know EVERYTHING.
Finally, think about connectors and flow. Punctuation is important – no-one wants to see a wall of text without paragraphs. Also, many students seem to forget that full stops exist in English as well as Spanish. We don’t have these – ¡¿ – but we do have the normal punctuation, so please use it. I often receive texts from students with 100-plus words and no full stops.
English and Spanish punctuation are very similar. Connectors (so, because, and then, however, although) are very important in long writing. Again, think of Spanish – you don’t always use these at the start of sentences, and you don’t need to do that in English either. It often looks strange when all the connectors are at the start of sentences.
Now you’ve covered all of the bases, all that is left is to find some poor, unsuspecting friends and family to send your round robin to. Or alternatively, send it to us, at firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can get feedback from our resident English teacher (that’s me!) We may even publish the best ones.
Dear person I met once at a party five years ago,
Well, it’s that time of year again. December has arrived and I have no doubt you’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the postman with my boring family’s news.
What to tell you first? So much has happened this year, from little Gerry coming top of the nursery class in finger painting- we think he could be the next Monet!- to Bubbles the goldfish’s tragic demise. We held a lovely little service for him in the bathroom before we flushed him down the toilet, which made us all feel much better!
Earlier in the year we took a wonderful family vacation to the Seychelles,and liked it so much we’re thinking of buying a house there. But we’ll have to tell you the outcome of that dramatic saga in next year’s round robin!
We had a slight issue in the summer when our eldest son went down for multiple murder charges, but I’m told the prison has some lovely facilities!
That’s all our news. Hope you and your wife and children are doing well (are you married? we only talked for five minutes at that party so I really have no idea) and you can expect another action-filled letter this time next year.