The average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives 3,339 text messages a month.
And a good portion of those messages is comprised of abbreviations like LOL, OMG and L8R, as opposed to beautiful, flowing prose.
Text messages are notorious for shortcuts like these, since length is restricted to 160 characters (hence the name, “short messaging system” or SMS) — thus encouraging “emoticons” to be used to express emotions rather than words, letters to be removed, words shortened, acronyms inserted, apostrophes left out, etc.
For many adults, it’s like trying to read a foreign language.
In fact, James Billington, Librarian of Congress, has suggested that young Americans’ electronic communication might be damaging “the basic unit of human thought — the sentence.”
But is that truly the case?
The answer, it would seem, depends upon whom you ask.
The general thinking is that the more teens text, the more likely it is that abbreviations and simplistic syntax will seep into their schoolwork. Some educators, however, say those concerns are without merit and not based in research. In fact, some teachers even contend that texting has educational tie-ins that can actually teach positive language skills.
Let’s take a look at both sides.
The Downside of Texting
Educators and the media have decried the use of texting shortcuts, suggesting that they’re causing youth — whom Crispin Thurlow of the University of Washington has labeled “Generation Txt” — to lose the ability to write acceptable English prose.
“We have a whole generation being raised without communication skills,” says Jacquie Ream, former teacher and author of the book, “K.I.S.S. Keep It Short and Simple,” who contends that texting and the Internet are negatively impacting the way our kids read, think and write. “Text messaging is destroying the written word. The students aren’t writing letters; they’re typing into their cell phones one line at a time. Feelings aren’t communicated with words when you’re texting; emotions are sideways smiley faces. Kids are typing shorthand jargon that isn’t even a complete thought.”
Kenmore High School 10th grade American Literature teacher and newspaper adviser Stephanie Andrews agrees, saying texting is negatively impacting her students’ writing. “I see so much use of abbreviations, acronyms and shortening of words, even in formal papers,” she says. “Usually, it’s only with handwritten work, but it still is affecting the quality of work.”
A national sample of 12- to 17-year-olds by the Pew American & Internet Life Project found that despite 86 percent of the teens believing that writing well is important to success in life, 64 percent still admitted that they had incorporated some informal writing into their school papers — with 50 percent removing capitalization and punctuation, 38 percent using shortcuts like LOL and 25 percent using emoticons. However, when asked about the effect of their electronic communication, only 11 percent said it harmed writing, while 73 percent felt it had no impact.
To help teens realize that it does have an impact, Andrews encourages students to use appropriate words by showing them what not to do. “Sometimes, if a piece of written work is really bad, I’ll create an overhead of it — anonymously — and each of my classes will analyze what the writer did wrong and how to improve it,” she says.
The Upside of Texting
Some teachers contend that the informal writing style that defines text messages can be incorporated into class lessons. In fact, a 2009 study from California State University researchers found that texting can improve teens’ writing in informal essays and many other writing assignments.
Building on that, some forward-thinking teachers are asking students to translate passages from classic literature to “textisms” to demonstrate language comprehension in different contexts — a concept supported by a finding from the CSU study: “Texting-speak is not a mangled form of English that is degrading proper language but instead, a kind of ‘pidgin’ language all its own that actually stretches teens’ language skills.” (The CSU study does, however, concede that too much texting can hurt students’ performance on formal types of essay writing.)
Longtime Archbishop Hoban High School teacher Tina Braman contends that texting is just the latest form of informal language — but doesn’t necessarily present a new challenge.
“Teachers have always dealt with teaching the difference between formal language and informal language,” she says. “Texting is just another form of informal language … There will always be new forms of communication. We can’t turn our backs to it. Rather, we need to embrace it and show the students the appropriate and responsible way to use it.
“Technology may keep changing, but the written and spoken language isn’t going anywhere. An effective communicator is a person who can articulate his thoughts while at the same time, understand the value of being an active listener.”
Braman says that with her students, she stresses the difference between formal and informal language and also teaches them about writing for different types of audiences. “Because of this,” she says, “students do not put acronyms in their writing unless it is appropriate for the assignment.”
Guiding Generation Txt
While research on teens’ affinity for texting and its effect on their writing is still inconclusive — and, at times, contradictory — parents can be proactive in making sure their children’s grammar doesn’t deteriorate.
Proactive is exactly the right word to describe moms Geraldine Onorato and Donna Harrow — New Yorkers who recently teamed up to create a grammar guide for the text generation.
Onorato had begun noticing that her son’s grammar skills were slipping while he was in middle school, which inspired her and Harrow to create the 16-page grammar guide, “Facts for English” — a quick-reference reminder about essential elements of grammar, spelling and sentence structure, answering common questions like: “Should I use ‘I’ or ‘me’ in this sentence? How do I make that word plural? Is that spelled correctly?”
“It’s important to form the basic skills of grammar that we were raised with,” says Harrow, whose 15-year-old daughter attends a private school and receives about an hour of daily grammar instruction there; still, says Harrow, the language she uses with friends often bleeds into her classroom training, which motivated Harrow to take matters into her own hands. (To order the booklet, go to http://factsforenglish.com/)
Clearly, texting isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But, then again, neither is writing.
As aptly surmised in the report, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution” from the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges: “Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.”
And it’s up to all of us to make sure today’s youth understands just how essential.