Can Texting Develop Other Writing Skills?

Flickr: English106

As more schools begin allowing students to bring their own devices and actually use them in class, the debate around the value of "digital writing" -- texting, taking notes on mobile devices, tweeting, etc. -- is heating up.

Some educators (and even a linguistic expert) believe kids who text are exercising a different, additional muscle when texting, writing, and note-taking -- and that skill is actually adding to a student's growing and changing repertoire.

"Children know that when you’re in school, you do not use texting language," said linguistics expert Susana Sotillo, an associate professor at Montclair State University in an article in the North Jersey Record. "...No one is destroying the English language; the English language just keeps changing. It’s not a good idea to present change as a negative aspect."

The ability to switch between formal writing and texting comes naturally to kids, tweets Sunightingale in response to the article above. "Kids know how to code-switch by learning when to text-talk & when to use a grammatical register: language evolution :)," she writes.

Critics of this genre of writing fervently disagree with the premise. "Seriously? As a teacher, I do not accept texting language. Texting is ABSOLUTELY hurting youth's grammar and spelling. I can't believe this is even a debate!" writes Cindy Barnes Herron in response to the link to the article on Facebook.

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Apart from anecdotal evidence from educators and parents, research of this subject is also contradictory. The New Jersey Record article cites a study showing that kids who "recently sent or received a text message performed considerably worse on a grammar exam than those who had not." The study included 228 kids age 10-14. This shows that traditional writing is being compromised, according to S. Shyam Sundar, a professor of communications quoted in the article.

But these findings are being contradicted by Sotillo, the proponent of texting, who says going back and forth between texting and traditional language expands kids' vocabulary.

THE VALUE OF DIGITAL WRITING

Apart from whether texting is degrading or adding value to traditional writing, there are other factors to consider when it comes to the digital writing genre. Jeff Gabrill, a writing professor at Michigan State University, and his colleagues just released a study called Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students.

The study, which examined 1,366 students enrolled in first-year writing class, shows that texts on mobile devices, emails, and lecture notes are "three of the most frequently written genres (or types) of writing." In fact, almost half of the participants -- 46 percent -- said that "texting was the kind of writing that they performed more than any other."

Compared to school work, students surveyed said they valued texting (47 percent), writing academic papers (45 percent), and taking lecture notes (43 percent), as the top three most valuable forms of writing. "This was surprising to us," Gabrill said at a talk at the recent SXSWEdu conference. "The lore for writing and literacy teachers is that students would rather be beaten with a stick than do writing work, but it's not true."

But what's also noteworthy is here that 93 percent of participants said they wrote for personal fulfillment. Why's this important? "This finding is especially interesting given the fact that participants were solicited through academic avenues (e.g. college email addresses, course websites) and sometimes took the survey in college classrooms, where we might expect them to focus on school-sponsored motivations for writing."

And that might be the connection between texting and "work" writing -- one form might feed and facilitate the other.

"Our students write more than any generation in history," Gabrill said. "They have to be doing something right."

Gabrill said some of his colleagues "freak out" when they see students typing on their cell phones. "They want all the attention on them, and they think that many are screwing around," he said. "I just assume that I'm so engaging that they actually are using their devices to write notes."

Students' mobile devices are legitimate platforms for writing, Gabrill argues, and it would behoove schools and teachers to accommodate what changes that might bring on.

"We are in the midst of massive changes in our writing lives," he said. "Digital writing matters, and our challenge in education is to figure out how it matters in order to ensure that we can be useful to those interested in leveraging it."

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