Informal, formal and semi-detached-formal emails

In my current position I spend a large portion of my time speaking to students by email…which is great.

What I’ve noticed is that in general, my students tend to be either overly formal or overly informal or an odd combination of both. I also find ridiculously inappropriate sentences nestled in amongst otherwise normal emails.

In an effort to get them thinking about this issue, I came up with a quick and easy lesson for any level from pre-intermediate upwards. It’s can be used as an introduction to a larger lesson on formality in writing or it can be expanded and be a lesson in itself.

This lesson works particularly well with older students who are already using English at work but doesn’t need to be.

Time: 30minutes – 90 minutes

Materialsinformal semi-formal formal emails



As an intro, I like to ask sts to discuss some the questions on the top of the page. It gets them thinking about how they use English in their countries and what they find difficult.


I always introduce this honestly, telling them that I find students often miss the level of formality. I tell them we will analyse two emails and decide on the formality.


I display the first one on the board, explain that both emails are between 2 colleagues (but they aren’t very close) and ask students to answer the following 2 questions:

  1. what is the objective of this email?
  2. is it formal, semi-formal or informal?

Without checking, I move on to the second one and repeat the questions.

We then discuss both of them and come to the conclusion that they are both looking for details of Friday’s meeting but the first is overly informal and the second overly formal.


Focus on language chunks:

Next, I hand out both emails and let students discuss in small groups which words/phrases are too informal / too formal or just downright inappropriate (I’m thinking of “I fell asleep” and “Proudly attended”).

After a few minutes we check this as a class.


Writing practice:

I then get the students back into their groups and have them write their own version of the email in an appropriate, semi-formal register.


We then combine the answers and write one definitive answer which sts can take a photo of on their phones and take away with them.



The homework is the reply to the email in an appropriate register.

Being succinct – walk me through your CV!

This lesson works equally well in a general English class as in an English for Work class but I tend to do it as a nice opener in new English for Work groups as it helps them to learn a little about each other. It helps if they’ve had a job before…so maybe don’t do it with a bunch of teenagers, not without changing it massively anyway.

The main aim is to encourage them to be clear and concise. The context here is an interview but this applies to most situations. I very often find language learners tend to panic and ramble and leap off on circular stories that don’t answer the question you asked because they’ve forgotten it in their panic over being asked a question in the first place.

This aims to work on that a little bit.

Level: Pre-int and above.

Time: 1.5 – 3 hours

Materialbeing succinct – walk me through your CV




To get the sts in the right frame of mind, hit them with the discussion questions at the top of the page. Pay particular attention when they describe their career thus far. I’ll bet they go off on a long rambling explanation of their job, which is fine at this point, but you may want to refer back to it later on.


Gist reading

Direct them to the partial conversation and ask them to decide where in an interview this question might come. The idea is that this, or some version of this question is usually one of the first questions in an interview and is often used to get a snapshot of the person so it’s important to make a good first impression.



What we want is for them to analyse the answer a little. I’m not saying it’s the most perfect answer in the world, and if they have suggestions, take them on board. But what we want to get from them is that it’s a clear, succinct overview of his career and all of the information mentioned is relevant.

You could ask them if their own answers had been the same.


Vocabulary focus:

As always, a nice little matching exercise to encourage a bit of vocab analysis never goes astray.


Language focus:

The idea here is to get them to notice the different language used without going into too much detail. My experience is that learners will overuse the past simple when talking about their career, instead of bringing in the perfect aspect, which implies something which is still continuing, instead of dead and buried, which is not what you want when describing your career.



Get each student to make notes on their career. NOT FULL SENTENCES!!! stress this and beat anyone who is writing their answer out in detail. You want them speaking in a moment, not reading.



Sts tell each other about their careers  in pairs. Give them a time limit of 1-2 minutes each but if they go over, let them.

When they’re finished, get them to analyse their partner’s answer. They were, after all, the audience. who better to judge it?!

I’ll bet, they went off on tangents, gave extra irrelevant info and went over time. I’ll also bet it wasn’t very linear or easy to follow.

So…reflect, chat about what impression this gives of you and then get them to do it again with a new partner.

Repeat as often as needs be!