International penpals for our techno-saturated kids

Starting an international penpal program can give your kids an new experience. Check out our blog to learn about the benefits of international penpals.

As I begin to write this article, I look guiltily at the bottom of my rucksack where I carry around with me a letter received from one of my regular penpals which is long due a reply.

Despite being in constant contact with all my penpals by e-mail and social media, we all agree that there is nothing quite like receiving a letter in the post! Therefore, this month I am going to encourage you to look for snail mail friendships for your children as a non-electronic language learning and life enhancing option for your children, especially if this friendship can be with peers from countries with limited internet access.

Gone are the days when I struggle with my French dictionary and phrase book to write a few Tippex-encrusted lines to the penpal assigned to me via my French teacher at secondary school. These days we write in English and it is all credit to my friend that she keeps up this fluid communication in a foreign language. What began as a language exercise under the guidance of our languages teachers has grown into one of the closest friendships I have.

When I started browsing the internet to find penpal exchange sites I was overwhelmed with the number of offers out there. As I have no first hand experience with any of these sites I thought it best to write a check list of what to look for from an international penpal site.

Mission statement

Penpal websites with mission statements explaining why they operate this service, what purpose it serves and who they aim to help always inspire confidence. Although they needn’t necessarily be professional bodies, it is important to check that they are serious about the service they provide.

Social media presence

A quick search on social media proved that many penpal service providers have profiles which can be easily accessed and joined. Although the aim is to encourage our children to have a snail mail relationship with their foreign penpals, knowing that there is a credible, active and current Facebook page or Twitter account gives the service provider exposure and accountability to parents.


Be aware that not all penpal services are suitable as language learning tools. Some sites are interested in linking likeminded people across the world with a common interest in a particular sport, hobby or pass time. Children corresponding with fellow fans of Real Madrid football team may not be as patient with their peers’ struggles with the foreign language as those who sign up to a penpal relationship knowing that it is a language learning activity for their friend.

Fee-charging or free?

Some sites charge a handling fee which is perfectly reasonable as they are providing a service which includes data protection and requires certain levels of internet security. However I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss a website that provides the service for free, so long as they can prove that all sensitive data is correctly handled.

Cancellation clause

Make sure the site has a cancellation clause to avoid your data appearing on their records long after your child has found a penpal and/or has moved on from the scheme.

Discussing this article with Geeta Raj from Global Sleepover she decided that they could implement two penpal schemes in Global Sleepover. One will enable children to correspond with the Global Sleepover Stars in a chat-room on the website using electronic postcards as the format. The second scheme will be classroom based, syllabus orientated and will require the commitment of forward-thinking globally aware head teachers. The hope is to engage teachers and their pupils from across the world in meaningful dialogue on global issues using guidelines, logistics and material provided by Global Sleepover. The aim is to have children correspond three times each school year with peers in another part of the world. By the end of the project many will hopefully continue this friendship by pen, e-mail or social media for years to come! Watch this space…

I’d be delighted to hear your feedback on penpal friendships you have or sites that you have used, especially those such as the Lakota Children penpal project that focus on communication between children of different socioeconomic statuses.