Setting up a penpal program

        *In about 2002~5 I had ESL students write
        to penpals. This is a notice I sent at
        that time to teachers elsewhere who
        wanted their students also to write to
        penpals–April, 2021*

This semester I want my 130 junior college students to write to penpals outside Taiwan again. Last semester, these same students were writing to students in Korea, Japan, Canada, the US and Europe.

In the final exam essay, “Email & Me”, some said this penpal experience had been exciting. However a significant proportion did not write, even though I made it clear their weekly grades depended on it.

This semester, I have written software programs to match students. Last semester, I just presented them with lists of addresses teachers had sent me and had them go to websites where they could find penpals.

I thought that it would be too much work for me following up on students who had not written to the penpals they had been assigned to and forcing them to write. So I told them and the teachers who sent me lists of their students that I would instead ask them to choose a penpal and then I would grade them on whether they wrote and whether the penpal they had chosen wrote back.

This resulted in 10-20 students not writing at all, 10-15 all writing to the same Hong Kong student in Canada, and only a few writing to penpals I hadn’t introduced them to.

This semester I am depending more on my software to match students and encourage them to write. I have been getting them to feel at ease writing to people they don’t know in a simulation of the penpal experience within the class situation in the form of anonymous exchanges of emails with each other.

They send email to and the software automatically strips the From: address from the mail and forwards the mail to either a student I have arbitrarily assigned them to beforehand or to one which the software pairs them with on the fly, on a first-come, first-matched basis.

Now I want to match them up with real penpals outside Taiwan, that is your students, and have them write once a week, on Thursday or Wednesday and Friday.

The simple program I have written to pair your students with mine is a development of the one I wrote to pair students within my class. Instead of all students writing to the same address, however, it sets up a different address for each pair of students named after their email addresses and it also doesn’t conceal their actual email addresses.

Of course, they could write directly to each other, but by using an email address on the Chinmin college server, I can get a better view of whether they are writing or not, and more easily archive their mail. Of course I can give you archived mail too.

The matching of your students with mine works on a first-come, first-served basis for your students. I have ordered my students in terms of the speed with which they wrote their first emails to and according to section, so the quicker your students write, the more likely they are to get one of my students who is eager to write too.

First, a student overseas writes to The software matches this student with one of mine and creates a 2-person mailing list with a unique address. The student gets back this message:

Hi, I am the computer program at I have matched you with your new penpal, [name of student] at Chinmin College, Taiwan.

To write to [name of student], send email to penpals-[name of list] Remember that name. I have sent your first email on to [name of student]. The next time you write, send your email to penpals-[name of list] Don't use my address. Dr Bean asked me to tell you: Write to your penpal at penpals-[name of list] Don't use [name of student]'s email address.

I created the name of the list from the first 3 small letters of your email address and the first 3 letters of [name of student]'s address. If you have any problems contact Dr Bean <>

OK. I have done my job. Another computer program will now help you. It lives at penpals-[name of list]

Then your student’s first email is forwarded to my student with the Reply-To: header set to the list and my student also gets this message.

Hi, I am the computer program at I have matched you with a penpal overseas. Check your mail for his/her first email. To send mail back, write to penpals-[name of list]

Dr Bean asked me to tell you: Don't write to your new penpal at his/her email address. Write to him/her at penpals-[name of list]

Emails sent by the two-subscriber mailing list will have the Reply-To: header set to the mailing list.

This system will hopefully encourage an exciting, instructive penpal experience, but ultimately it is the students who make what they will of it. I intend to grade students on whether they write or not. This however may not provide enough motivation for a few students. And students may stop writing if they find their penpal uncongenial.

I’m thinking of allowing each penpal to have multiple penpals.

2021 Postscript

    *The penpal program was a success, though
    not all students wrote. But I didn’t do
    penpals in the following semester, and
    haven’t done them since.

    I think I felt I needed to move on with
    further CALL app achievements but I’ve
    forgotten what I developed next. Perhaps
    it was card or homework form software.

    But I’m still proud of the penpal
    program and feel this account of it
    should be preserved.*