An “Agony Aunt” letter lesson plan

Levels: pre-intermediate to advanced.
Ages: teens; adults.
Type: reading and replying to agony aunt letters.
Skills: listening; speaking; reading; writing.
Language focus: revising/teaching grammar, register and vocab structures of informal letters.

Materials:
some “doctored” agony aunt letters (pre-intermediate examples are here, upper-intermediate examples are here and advanced examples are here);
the original letters (examples here);
some blank paper for students to write replies;
and some blu-tack.
You may also like to use the original agony aunt replies (examples here).

Procedure:

  1. Board “Agony Aunt column,” explain that this is a column in some British newspapers, and ask students if they can guess what an agony aunt is. Board their ideas.

  2. Sit your students in groups of three or four, preferably around a table, and explain that you will show them some examples from an agony aunt column, and they can check to see if they are right.

  3. Hand out the gapped texts – a different one for each group (see above) – and give students two minutes or so to quickly read the text. What do they think an Agony Aunt is now? Elicit the correct answer (an agony aunt receives letters from readers about their personal problems, reads the letters and replies. Note that the agony aunt may be a man, a woman, or a team of writers, and that replies are usually also published; also note that the students have the readers’ problems, not the agony aunt’s reply).

  4. Ask students to discuss in their groups what the problem discussed in their letter is, and elicit answers.

  5. Ask students to work together in their groups and fill in the gaps (note that only the pre-intermediate and intermediate tasks have words given in a vocabulary box; from upper-intermediate above, students should use the language clues given by the context to try and discover in the missing words.) Depending on the level and ability of the class, allow up to 12 minutes or so for this.

  6. Hand out the original letters (see above). How close did the groups come to the original? Make yourself available to answer any grammar or vocabulary questions as the students read the original letters.

  7. Ask students to discuss within their groups how they would reply to this letter. Give them about five minutes to brainstorm ideas and to write these down.

  8. Hand out the blank pieces of paper, one per group, and nominate a writer within each group. Explain that the students are now the agony aunts, working together in a team, and that they should reply to the original letters using the ideas they’ve just brainstormed. The student writing should pass the paper to his left after five minutes, so a new student can write. Explain that the writing must be legible! Set a time limit (15 to 20 minutes, depending on your students’ level and enthusiasm) and monitor students, offering encouragement and suggesting ways of formulating ideas as necessary.

    If you want, you can then hand out the original replies to the groups; ask them to quickly read these replies and see if their ideas are the same. Is there anything else they’d like to add to their draft replies?

  9. When the groups are ready, stick the original letters on different walls of your classroom, and ask each group to read those they haven’t replied to, and to brainstorm ideas on how they would answer them.

  10. Finally, ask each group to read out their replies; students guess what the original letter was and give feedback on the reply – did it address the problem? Was it the same as their solution? Do they think the advice was good? Do they think the reader will listen to the advice? etc.

  11. The students’ replies could then be collected and either marked by the teacher at home, or (in a later lesson) given to a different group to correct. If you choose this latter option, once the letters have been collected, they could be read again by the groups that wrote them, who can make any final changes they wish, and the original letters and the amended replies could then be published in a class magazine, or on the walls of the classroom.

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