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Four Ways Texting Enhances Students’ Literacy, and One Way it Hurts it

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment

In my prior post, I discussed why one study fails to convince that texting is hurting the grammar skills of middle schoolers, and I challenged the apocalyptic prediction that texting will destroy the English language.

In the current post, I take a position that runs even more contrary to conventional wisdom. I’ll point out four ways texting actually enhances students’ literacy, and one way it hurts it.

1. Texting Improves Audience Awareness

Andrea Lunsford conducted research that showed that emerging digital technologies have given college students a better awareness of their audience. Knowing your audience and how to meet their needs is one of the many keys to being a successful writer—whether you’re writing a memo for work or you’re a student trying to figure out what makes an A-paper in the eyes of a particular teacher.

With text messages, the sender is especially aware of the needs of their recipient. If they suspect that the recipient doesn’t know what “lmao” or “yolo” means, then most texters wisely choose something else. In this way, using textisms is no different than a professional choosing whether to use the jargon of their field.

2. Texting Teaches Students Concision

In all genres, writers must balance the need to express themselves economically (with as few words/letters as possible) against the need to express themselves with accuracy. These two constraints usually operate at cross purposes. Genres such as scholarly research writing favor accurate expression over concision, whereas others, such as haiku, place a premium on economy of expression. Since texting also heavily values economy of expression, students who text should be expected to learn the necessity and power of brevity—as Shakespeare put it, “the soul of wit.”

3. Using Textims Improves Phonological Awareness

Some evidence shows, counter-intuitively, that students who regularly use textisms actually learn to spell and read better. A 2009 study by Beverly Plester et. al found that 10 – 12-year old children who had a higher ratio of textisms to total words in their texts tended to do better with word reading, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. Similarly, a 2011 study by Clare Wood et. al found that  students’ use of textisms at the start of the school year was able to predict their spelling performance at the end of the school year.

How can using non-standard spellings help students improve with standard spellings? Self-consciously manipulating standard spellings enhances their phonological awareness—their understandings of the ways in which written letters relate to the sounds of spoken language. Phonological awareness skills help students not just learn to spell with greater accuracy but also to decode unfamiliar words in readings and more fully comprehend.

4. Texting Provides More Reading/Writing Practice

Don’t forget that just a few decades ago, for most people writing was something that happened primarily when a teacher required it. A narrow segment of the population went into white-collar professions that required writing. Those outside of the workforce, or in blue-collar jobs, wrote infrequently, if at all, once they left school. Teachers know how rusty student writers go over a 12-week summer break; imagine the same rust accumulating over the course of one’s adult life.

As Andrea Lunsford puts it, we’ve never had a generation of youth like today’s, where authorship has spread to the masses. Youth today of all walks of life write constantly outside of school—email, social media, texting, etc. Don’t expect them to stop as they age. Even if it’s not formal school writing, such constant practice with writing has real benefits to their overall skills with literacy. Summarizing the research, Beverly Plester et. al note that one factor “reliably associated with reading attainment is exposure to the printed word” (147).

The Real Danger: Texting as a Classroom Distraction

Most teachers have had that student—the one who sits towards the back of the classroom, their eyes focused downward towards the smart-phone buried in their lap. They text away, thinking that teacher doesn’t see the busy thumbs underneath their desk.

Smartphones can introduce a huge distraction into the classroom. When you’re fiddling with your phone, you can’t learn what’s being taught. One Wilkes University study found that 91% of college students admit to texting during class time. In a composition classroom with 20 to 30 students, students have to work harder to hide their texting than in a large lecture hall, but it still happens.

How should college teachers deal with this? It’s tempting to take the tone of the anti-texting fascist on day one, sternly warning students of the consequences of not turning off their electronics before they enter the classroom. And while these rules must be made clear, as the semester progresses, students will test these waters.

I think of cell-phones less as the cause and more as the symptom of a separate problem—students not being engaged by the teaching. In other words, if my students are pulling out their phones, I might need to find a better way to engage them.

The Wilkes University study points out the importance of how the student desks are configured in the classroom, and whether the teacher is focused on the blackboard or on interacting with students. In my experience, this is correct. I disallow students from sitting in the back rows of the classroom, where it’s easy to hide their texting. My students also spend much of their class time engaged in discussions or working in small groups, where it’s harder to text inconspicuously.

Yet I still catch the occasional student texting in class. When I see it, I’ll conspicuously stop what I’m doing and personally ask them if they have a question. I might say they looked a little puzzled. They usually get the message (pun intended).