Composing Professional and Academic E-mails

Sometimes I hear teachers complain about so-called lack of appropriateness of student e-mails, such the absence of a greeting, a signature, or a subject line. The winning award for “the most unprofessional e-mails” goes to those students who simply send a blank e-mail with an attachment.

Well, believe it or not, most students have never been taught the professional e-mail genre. And this is true not only for English learners. I made similar observations when I taught a composition class for native speakers of English. When I first started teaching, I realized that many students don’t know how to compose an e-mail in an academic setting. However, instead of getting frustrated by students’ lack of professionalism, appropriateness, or even politeness, we—teachers—could take time at the beginning of the semester to help our students acquire the conventions of writing a professional e-mail. In what follows, I will share some activities that I used in the past.

E-mail Structure

Step 1: Present the components of a professional e-mail:

  1. Addressee
  2. Message:
    1. Subject line
    2. Greeting
    3. Message
    4. Signature
  3. Attachment (optional)

Step 2: Define and give examples of each of these components:

I found it useful to explain how CC (carbon copy) is different from BCC (blind carbon copy), and in which situations we should use either of these options.

Subject Line
Students need to understand that a subject line should be short, precise, and informative and it should 1) announce or summarize the content of the e-mail message or 2) preserve the thread of a prior discussion. I also discourage students from asking questions or including strange punctuation in the subject line simply because it can be identified with spam or computer viruses.

Some students may think that a greeting is not that important in e-mails. Give students examples of both appropriate and inappropriate e-mail greetings related to your cultural and academic context. Help them understand the effects and the consequences of sending the e-mail with an inappropriate greeting.

Closing Phrase and Signature
Once again, both a closing phrase and a signature may be viewed by students as unnecessary elements of the e-mail. Give examples of appropriate closing phrases. In my freshman composition class, I also helped students create their own signature bar, and some students decide to keep it as a default setting in their e-mail accounts:

Full Name
School and year of graduation
E-mail address

Tell your students that it is important to let their recipient know the reason for sending the attachment. It is also important to give a name to the file attachment that accurately identifies its contents and allows the recipient to save it easily.

There are lots of activities that you can do in your class to help students compose an organized and well-written e-mail to their instructor. Below are some examples of activities.

Example Activities

Composing an Inappropriate E-mail
In small groups, students will compose an e-mail according to the following scenario (you can modify the scenario according to your teaching situation):

Bobby is a freshman in a first-year composition class. He just received a “C” for his first writing assignment and he is pretty upset about it. He feels that he put a great deal of effort into this assignment, but somehow his hard work was not appreciated. Now he is writing an e-mail to his instructor, Ms. Brown, to express his feelings and concerns, but he seems to have little understanding of how to write e-mails with an appropriate tone and content. In addition, he has some spelling mistakes and his punctuation is not accurate.

Students will write an e-mail from Bobby’s perspective. To follow the scenario, the e-mail should violate the rules that you have previously taught them. After the groups are done with the e-mails, you can ask the students to share them with the class, point out these violations, and discuss the ways they can be corrected. Students like this activity because the e-mails they compose in their groups are usually quite funny and visibly “wrong.”

Dos and Don’ts
Discussing dos and don’ts can be a great activity to either introduce the concept of professional e-mail or to summarize what has already been taught.

Prepare strips of paper with dos and don’ts. Divide the board in half and write “Do” on one side and “Don’t” on the other. Give each student a piece of paper with either a “do” or a “don’t.” Each student has to go to the board and put their paper on the correct side of the board.

Examples of Dos:

  • Write a clear subject line
  • Write a greeting appropriate to the addressee
  • Include a signature bar with your full name and contact information
  • Have the content of the e-mail spell-checked and proofread

Examples of Don’ts:

  • Have no reference to an attachment (the recipient will see it anyways!)
  • Contain as many attachments as you want (Internet has lots of free space!)
  • Have no greeting (Why bother? The recipient knows that it’s him that the message is being addressed to)
  • Have lots of exclamation points for something that is considered important

I hope that some of the activities and suggestions will help your students acquire the skills of writing professional e-mails.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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2 Responses to Composing Professional and Academic E-mails

  1. Randa Malhas says:

    Great article on some very relevant information. Incorporating technology in the classroom is very important. When students leave us, these are the types of things they will have to do and is important to teach them how to interact not only in person but in writing. I will be incorporating some these ideas in my lesson plan!

  2. Heather Torrie says:

    Great advice and ideas, Elena. For activities, another idea (and probably more practical on your part as a teacher) is to simply print out copies of “bad” emails (we all have them!) with the identifying info blacked out. Have the students evaluate them against your standards and then re-write them. Also, I think one of the most important points to drive home is for students to simply REVIEW their email before hitting the send button. Nearly all of my students admit that after writing it, they do not go back and re-read it to check/fix any grammar mistakes. I am always disappointed at seeing so many grammar mistakes in emails from students in my advanced classes.

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