As you and most of your colleagues well know, email is an incredibly powerful tool. You, your teachers, and your students can use it to keep in touch with your family and friends, enroll in a graduate course, coordinate school district projects, schedule staff meetings–do a virtually unlimited number of things.

In many ways, email has taken the place of letters, faxes, and even phone calls.

Because email is easy to use, saves time, and provides a powerful new way to communicate, it is fast becoming an integral part of our lives (just as it has been for our students for a long while now).

But just because email has become ubiquitous for students and educators these days, that doesn’t mean we make the best use of it. For my money, instruction in the proper use of email should be a vital part of any child’s education, and educators should seriously consider adding email instruction to every school’s “technology” curriculum.

But beyond the mere technical aspects of email, it will be even more important to ensure our children know how to use email to communicate effectively.

Obviously, you aren’t going to write a letter to your mother the same way you would write one to your chief state school officer, but with few exceptions, here are some baseline elements that just about everyone should include when writing emails.

1. The Subject line. The subject line of an email message should, as succinctly as possible, explain what the message is about. If you are writing to someone to get them to do something for or with you on a specific day, be sure to note that in your subject line. Otherwise, your email message might not be read in time. The worst thing of all is not to even bother with a subject! . . . doesn’t sound very important, does it?

2. The Salutation. In education as in business, it is essential to have a salutation, and in general, it’s just good manners to formally address the person you are writing to. It isn’t always necessary to write “Dear Someone,” but you should at least use a first name. And it’s usually best to skip at least one line before your salutation. (Formal correspondence via email should include the name and address of sender and recipient, just like any other business correspondence.)

3. The body. The body of your email is obviously the place where you write what you have to say. You should use double spacing between paragraphs, without indents or tabs.

4. The Signature. Like the salutation, the signature line depends on the sort of email you are writing (business or casual), but it is always proper to sign your correspondence. Contact and similar information normally would follow your signature.

These are very basic points. But I’m surprised every day by how few people take the time to prepare a properly structured email message.

Sure, there are many instances when all of the above isn’t necessary. For example, if I’m writing quick email messages back and forth with a co-worker, there isn’t always time (or need) to greet and sign off on every email. But like everything else, you should understand the proper way of doing something before you decide to “break the rules.”

Even more important than the form of emails, however, are the words you write. I know I’m going to sound like an English teacher here, but I can’t help myself. The 20th century saw many new technologies that diminished the importance of the written word–television, radio, telephones–but email has rekindled the need to be able to read and write well. And as the use of email grows, especially for business purposes, effective communication through the written word is going to be even more important to the success of our children.

But that’s an article for another day . . . .

Meanwhile, here’s some other perspectives on the effective use of email.

The Art of Writing E-mail

Student Writing by E-Mail: Connecting Classmates, Texts, Instructors

Writing Effective E-mail Messages

E-Mail Writing Ability and Style

Writing Effective E-Mail: Top 10 Tips