The Return of the PenPal for the Internet Age

For decades, students have been connecting with pen pals to learn about other countries and cultures. Pen pals have formed friendships that last for years, and many have even traveled to meet in person after decades of correspondence.

Prior to the Internet age, students wrote with pen and paper and waited for weeks to hear back from their friends around the world. One might think that fast and easy communication through the Internet would have made pen pal exchanges even more popular — but in fact the opposite has happened. PenPals, whether online or through letters, have fallen out of fashion across the United States. Why? Teachers now face intense pressure to use every minute of classroom time to prepare students for standardized tests that have implications for their school’s reputation and funding. This heightened focused on testing leaves little time for activities such as pen pal exchanges that don’t focus on the skills that will be tested at the end of the year.

This decreased popularity of pen pals couldn’t come at a worse time. Due to the rapidly expanding network of cultural and economic ties between nations, students are graduating into an increasingly international workplace. Whether students pursue careers in technology, manufacturing, professional services or almost any other industry, they will be working side-by-side and online with colleagues from China, India, Mexico and dozens of other countries. In an age when employers are increasingly setting their sights overseas, we can’t afford for our schools to shut themselves off from the world for the sake of better scores on a test.

While students in other countries may not suffer from the same focus on standardized testing, they face another challenge that is even more urgent: learning English. For students around the world, the ability to understand, write and speak English can often mean the difference between a life of poverty and an opportunity to build a career. More than 80 percent of the information stored electronically around the world is in English. Schools, governments, businesses and nonprofits have invested heavily in English instruction, but despite these efforts many schools are still challenged to find qualified teachers. Even in wealthier schools, many students struggle to learn English without every having the opportunity to interact with a native English speaker.

At PenPal Schools, we seek to address these deficiencies in both American and international education through modern, learning-centered PenPal exchanges. We connect over 60,000 students from more than 60 countries to learn together through standards-aligned curriculum designed to encourage both the development of critical reading and writing skills, as well as authentic conversations about foreign cultures, current events and a variety of other subjects.

What began as a program for middle- and high-school students in the U.S. to discuss current events has evolved into a global community of learners from kindergarten through adulthood connecting to practice English, Spanish, Chinese and French while learning about life, food, history and art in their PenPals’ communities. In addition to these cultural topics, students connect from around the world to discuss issues such as the environment and poverty, or from across the U.S. to exchange opinions on national issues such as healthcare, the economy and immigration. All communication takes place through modern apps for computers and mobile devices that make PenPal exchanges fun for students and easy for teachers.

While our focus will continue to be on promoting literacy and cultural awareness for youth around the world, we’re expanding our curriculum options to encourage learning about a variety of subjects for learners of all ages. Our PenPals are already discussing environmental sustainability, gender equality, human rights and other subjects, and we plan to develop full-fledged courses to promote collaboration on these issues. We’ll also connect youth and adult learners to learn about world religions, international trade and politics, literature, cooking, athletics and many other subjects. When PenPals connect to learn together, it helps to build the foundation for a more peaceful and collaborative planet, regardless of their age or topic of conversation.

In order to make sure that everyone is able to join our global community, we offer PenPal Schools on a pay-what-you-want basis. Teachers and learners voluntarily contribute, knowing that they are funding the program for learners around the world who can’t afford to pay. Schools and adult learners who don’t pay provide value in other forms: Often, students from low-income areas in Africa, Latin America, and within the U.S. provide the most interesting perspectives for their PenPals to appreciate what they take for granted and to learn how family and community can enrich lives where financial resources are limited.

Pen pals may have gone out of style for a few years, but that’s quickly changing thanks to rapidly expanding access to internet throughout the developing world and the universal desire to connect, learn, and share experiences.