5 key tips for language and literacy programs on how to use letterhead and envelopes effectively

December 30, 2011

It makes me crazy when I receive a letter with the printed address crossed out because the organization moved and is trying to save paper by using outdated letter head. Your program deserves its own letterhead, with matching envelopes.

Even worse, I shudder when I receive a poorly formatted letter from an organization that prides itself on helping others build their skills through language and literacy education.

Among the 9 Literacy and Essential Skills, one of them is writing. It is important for language and literacy organizations to lead by example when it comes to written communications. Not only does this help you with your organizational branding and marketing, it also helps to ensure that you are demonstrating leadership when it comes to the art and business of written communications.

Tip #1 – Letterhead must contain your contact information

Proper letterhead will include organizational information such as:

  • your mailing address, including the postal code
  • telephone and fax numbers, including the area code
  • organizational logo, if you have one
  • general e-mail address for the organization (e.g. info@…)
  • your website address

It is also becoming common to include social media contact information such as your organizational Twitter account or Facebook page, but these are less critical than your basic contact information.

If your program is housed within a larger organization, ensure that your specific mailing address, including the location of your program office, is indicated on your letterhead. If this information is left out, written correspondence is more likely to get lost or take longer to arrive because it can be delivered to the wrong office in error.

Tip #2 – Have matching envelopes in different sizes

All too often, I have seen literacy or language program letterhead with matching standard-size letter envelopes, but when it comes to mailing out program information and brochures, only plain brown envelopes are used. And worse, sometimes in the busy office environment, staff may forget to make labels for the return address.

If costs are prohibitive and your program can not afford envelopes printed in a variety of sizes, at the very least, buy some inexpensive labels that can be printed off at your office that contain your contact information. Ensure that all staff, including part-time or evening staff who are allowed to send mail on behalf of the organization, have access to organizational stationery, including return address labels.

Tip #3: Include the date and the recipient’s information near the top of the letter

Traditionally, this information is printed on the left-hand side of the letter. If you do not use a word-processing template that automatically tells you where to insert this information, insert 6 to 10 lines before writing the date. Start with the date and follow it with the recipient’s address.

Abbreviations of the date are not usually used in letters. There are two generally accepted formats:

North American format: December 30, 2011

European format: 30 December 2011

The North American format includes a comma between the day and the year. The European format contains no comma.

Two or three lines below this, the recipient’s information is written in this format:

Name (write out their full first and last name)

Title or position

Address Line 1

Address Line 2 (if necessary)

City, State (or Province), postal code, Country

There are accepted variations on this format, but it is important to include the date and the recipient’s information in a relatively standardized way that it is used consistently across the organization.

Tip #4: Fold letters appropriately

For letters that are inserted into a standard-size envelope (in North America, that is a #10 envelope), they should be folded twice, so that the end result is a piece of paper that is divided neatly into thirds.

The proper method is to fold the letter into thirds starting and the bottom and ending at the top, so that when the process is reversed and the letter is unfolded, the top third of the letter is what shows first. In other words, when the flap of the first fold opens outwards, it reveals the recipient’s name and address. The reason for this is rooted in office traditions where a secretary would receive and open all the mail for an organization. Envelopes were generally opened all at the same time using a letter opener. The letter opener was slid along the long side of the envelope, which had been sealed by the sender. Letters were taken out of their envelopes one by one.

In the event that a letter had been received by the wrong recipient in error, the secretary would know immediately, when she (and it was usually a she) opened the first flap of the letter. The intended recipient’s name and address would be visible, but the main body of the letter would remain hidden, due to the fact that the letter had only been unfolded part way.

Knowing immediately that the letter had been received in error, the discreet secretary would refold the letter (supposedly without bothering to open it the rest of the way and read it) and then ensure that the letter was delivered to its intended recipient.

If the folds are reversed so that the first flap reveals the senders signature, the entire letter has to be fully opened before any errors might be detected.

Tip #5: Use proper salutations and closings in your letters

Business letters traditionally start this way:

Dear (Title – e.g. Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) (Recipient’s surname):

Business letters use a colon, not a comma, after the recipient’s name. Commas are used in personal, hand-written letters.

Though it has become common place in North America to use a person’s first name in the salutation of a business letter, the tradition with a typed or computer-printed letter is to write out the person’s title and last name. If the sender knows the recipient well and they are on a first name basis, then the sender strikes out the title and last name with a pen, and writes the person’s first name by hand above their printed name. This shows  formal respect, acknowledgement of the first-name relationship and attention to detail on the part of the sender. Ideally, this is done with the same pen that the sender uses to sign the letter.

Having said that, I have been known to opt for the increasingly accepted method of addressing a letter to a colleague whom I know well by his or her first name. When I do though, it is a conscious choice on my part, rather than accepted standard. It is important for those working in literacy and educational organizations to know the proper standards in order to make informed professional choices.

I have also taught this tradition to students in my Effective Learning courses, as all too often, they seem to think it is acceptable to start a letter with salutations such as: “Dear Miss” (no name, just “Miss”), “Dear Teacher” or “Hi”. Heaven help them if they start a letter with “Hey there!” Once you know the proper way, you can make your own choices from there, but at least they are informed choices. There is a difference between breaking the rules and not knowing them in the first place. Language and literacy professionals, in my professional opinion, should be the last to plead ignorance in matters relating to writing. (Boy, that sounded snotty, didn’t it? Well, so be it…)

Moving right along, appropriate closings for business letters are:


Yours truly,

Best regards,

Closings are followed by a comma. Four or five lines are left below the closing for the signature. Then, the sender’s name is computer-printed. His or her title or position may be written on the line below, if desired.

There are minor variations on these guidelines and some readers might think that I’ve suddenly become very stuffy or nit-picky by suggesting that letters need to be folded in a particular way. I confess to a certain amount of sadness and dismay when I receive letters on letter head that has an address from two office moves ago, envelopes with no return address or letters folded so that the body of the letter shows on the outside of the folds, rather than the inside of the fold. When these gaffes happen in letters from literacy and educational organizations, they make me downright me crazy.

Your program stationery is part of your organizational marketing and branding. If you intend to market your program effectively, start with the basics. Ensure that you have a complete set of stationery with up-to-date contact information.

Your organizational image, however, goes beyond having letterhead with your logo stamped on it. Insist that everyone working in the office use official stationery for all office correspondence and use it in a way that demonstrates high levels of text literacy and leadership in the art of writing professionally.

This post is adapted from “Idea #19: Have letterhead and matching envelopes made for your program ” in 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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