Office English 4 – Tone in Writing

Now this lesson didn’t go as smoothly as the previous one, but it was still a good lesson and at least I get the chance to do some reflection of the things that could have been better. Firstly, I ran out of time because I underestimated the time needed for the actual writing. I realised later that with speaking you can cut people in the middle of a sentence, but in a writing class, you can’t tell them to stop if they haven’t finished the email. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Secondly, one student didn’t get my instructions, and that is bad, because there were only three students and I even monitored his work and I just didn’t see it. More on this later.

The topic was recognising and using tone in emails and I was mostly using information form the Nick Brieger’s Writing, a book which I really like. Here is the flow:

We started by talking about what tone is, what different ranges of tone the students knew (unsurprisingly only formal x informal) and how can tone be achieved in writing.

Then I asked them to match different contrasting tones: formal x informal, direct x indirect, neutral x emotional, and simple x complex.

Next we did something unusual. Now to understand this, I must tell you that I am reading John Fanselow’s latest book Small Changes in Teaching Big Results in Learning, which I strongly recommend you read, and I am experimenting with the ideas the author suggests, such as coding words into signs – which is what we did here. So I invited the students to create a sign for each of the tones, which we later used in the reading of emails.

We came up with this:


After that, students matched some sample sentences – pairs with similar content but different tone to the ranges of tone by drawing the above signs.

In the next stage, I had prepared two emails with the same content but written in different tones. I asked the students to read them and draw the coding signs next to parts which indicated the range of tone. We also compared the two emails and talked about how tone is achieved. I told them they as the writers have the power to play with the tone to achieve the result they wanted. It seemed to me they think that they can achieve the right tone by using a list of adequate phrases, when it fact, it is the choice of words, structures, precision, basically a mix of tools. But I don’t see myself as a strong writing teacher, really. Before the lesson, I’d had a look in textbooks of Business English but I didn’t find anything useful. I really think there is space for teaching writing in the market.

Then we played a lot with transforming the phrases from complex to simple, deleting extra words, etc., until they understood. We also did two more exercises with sentences with similar meanings but different tones.

Then came the main part of the lesson, which should have lasted longer. However, the first part was very important to clarify the meaning of tone, so I could not have made it shorter. I cut a sheet of flipchart paper into long strips. And then I basically did what Eily suggested in her extremely useful comment Office English 2. I had written up five situations. By now, I know the students’ jobs so I wrote relevant situations to their work and I asked them if they wanted to write an email similar to the one they write at work, or a different one. To my surprise, they all wanted a different one. So I swapped the situations.

Here are the situations:

Write to Prof. Giacopo Papalomamas, a leading world expert in global warming solutions, to invite him to a XXX conference on modern environmental technical solutions. Exchange several emails to deal with the details.



Write to Mr Ngueyn Linh, the head of the Vietnamese students studying English at XXX, to inform him that the number of students attending class is larger than the number he had given you. Also, the names of the students don’t correspond. This is a problem. Exchange several emails to deal with the issue.
Write to Professor Federica Lefevre, your tutor, and ask her to complete a recommendation form which you will need to enter a study programme abroad. Offer any help she might need.




Then I explained that they would use the long strip of paper to write the email for the situation and send it. The next person would write a reply, send back, and so on, until we got a nice chain of emails. Everybody seemed to understand so we began, but we only had twenty minutes left till the end and I knew it wasn’t enough time. Anyway, the first emails went pretty smoothly, they got sent to the next person, and it is here that one of my students didn’t understand he was to write a reply, and instead wrote the same email, just using a different tone. I don’t know how I didn’t see it, but I just didn’t. (Always check your instructions, Kamila! – obviously I was trying to save time, but I only made things worse).

Finally, we had three chains of three emails and five minutes till the end of the class. What would you have done?

I pinned the emails to the board, asked the students to read them and mark the tone using our, by now familiar, code. This would have been very good hadn’t we run out of time, but we managed to do something at least, skipping the self-assessment task which was part of the worksheet. We had a quick talk, though. I asked how the students felt about the code signs and they liked them, because it was something new and enjoyable. I advised they could use the signs when editing their own work. The symbols can indicate, perhaps better than words, whether they are using the right tone.

I told the students we would use the emails later on in a class on editing and proofreading, which we will. Do you reckon I should type them out, or leave them hand-written and maybe just scan them and print?

For homework, again as Eily suggested, they are to write emails to the others and ask for tips for a healthy office space and healthy company culture, which will be the topic of our last lesson.

Let me know what you think and thanks for reading.


4 thoughts on “Office English 4 – Tone in Writing

  1. I like to type up my students’ work if we’re going to analyze/correct it in class. I don’t really think people would spend time thinking about who made which mistake based on the handwriting, but it somehow seems less personal (and maybe even less vulnerable) typed up.
    The timing issue has often come up in my classes – the introductory part takes much longer than I’d planned for it to take, especially if the students seem to be getting something out of it. If I can pick up where we left off in the following class, I try to do that. Anyway, sounds like another really interesting class. I like the tone idea and the idea of assigning each tone a symbol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Vedrana, thanks so much for your opinion. I now have lots of other emails also from what the students’ homework and I can use these as input for the other writing classes. I’m quite excited about that. I think I’ll type the handwritten ones as you suggest and highlight parts I want to focus on to speed things up a bit. I’ve already noticed some inappropriate use of tone, ie. too direct so it will be interesting to look at that.
      Thanks again for reading and all the stars!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Office English 6 – Business Reports – Kamila of Prague

  3. Pingback: Office English 9 and 10 – Finito! – Kamila of Prague

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s