Archive

Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Grammar Terminology and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy

October 20, 2013 Leave a comment

For literacy educators, E.D. Hirsch’s dubious yet influential Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) is a must-read—partly because Hirsch often gets caricatured in graduate seminars as the stand-in for what Paolo Friere calls the “banking method” of education. But Hirsch also indirectly helps explain a key problem teachers encounter when we teach about grammar and mechanics, a problem which—in this post—I will focus on.

Yes, everything you'll ever need to know, all in one book!

Yes, everything you’ll ever need to know, all in one book! And as a bonus: the cure to our benighted educational system!

Hirsch’s thesis holds that the K-12 educational system leaves students with a low level of literacy because it over-emphasizes teaching general skills (word decoding, summarizing, or making text-to-self connections), and it under-emphasizes the importance of familiarizing students with the broad range of background knowledge shared by highly literate Americans; Johnny can’t read, according to Hirch, because he doesn’t understand our cultural symbols.

It’s hardly controversial that background knowledge helps readers more deeply understand a text. What English teacher hasn’t seen a class of students overlook crucial textual allusions to things that most teenagers know nothing about?—things like the filibusters, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jim Crow. That’s why reading teachers, as part of a venerable pre-reading activity, build and activate students’ schemata.

But Hirsch’s undoing stems from the way the book exemplifies a genre that today seems all too familiar. This genre:

1. starts from the premise that the K-12 education system is failing.

2. focuses not on what students can do, but on what they can’t.

3. takes a glib approach to examining competing pedagogies.

4. presents the author’s prescriptions as a panacea.

When it comes to our sentence-level pedagogies, how are Hirsch’s ideas relevant? He infamously ends his book with a 65-page list of items titled “What Literate Americans Know” —everything from “abominable snowman” (152) to “Zionism” (215). Introducing the list, Hirsch professes that he’s describing and not prescribing, but his list betrays his prejudices, since it includes “a rather full listing of grammatical and rhetorical terms because students and teachers will find them useful for discussing English grammar and style” (146). (Hirsh holds a Ph.D. in English)

Here Hirsch implies that college writing teachers cannot assume all students enter college knowing common grammar terminology. He’s right. But this doesn’t mean our high schools are failing. It’s just an objective fact about our students.

A comparison: I once taught in a community college that served high schools dominated by whole-language instruction. In such contexts, many of my students sat mystified when I first mentioned terms like subject, verb, and preposition. Over time, I learned to presuppose that only one group of students was familiar with common grammatical terms—those with coursework in ESL.  That was in California. Now I’m in Illinois, and things are different: my current writing students mostly tell me that in high school they already learned grammar terminology. Neither high school system is inherently better; each chooses to emphasize different things.

When students enter our classrooms without background knowledge in grammar terminology, it constrains how much we can teach when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies. Conversely, when students bring such knowledge into the classroom, we’re enabled to do more. (And even when they have that background knowledge, their prior teachers may have used differing definitions for the same term, a problem I discuss in another blog post.)

A practical example helps: how do you address subject-verb agreement if most students don’t know what a subject or a verb is—not to mention related terms like noun, suffix, tense, grammatical number, auxiliary verb?

This obstacle certainly can be surmounted. I see two general approaches:

1. The traditional approach: you could start by explicitly teaching students the definitions of subject and verb. When we label the parts with jargon, the jargon makes the discussion easier to follow. But this approach has some pitfalls: it can bore students; grammatical definitions lack inherent sexiness. This also subtracts more instructional time from other topics. And you risk walking down the slippery slope of having to define many more grammatical terms.

2. The inductive approach: the concept of agreement can be taught through intuitive example sentences, while skirting the technical names of the sentence parts and thus saving time. I discuss the advantages of this approach here. The major disadvantage is that students do not acquire knowledge and definitions of grammatical jargon that they can use in the future.

Either way, it’s a trade-off.

My point is this: if you have an ambitious agenda when it comes to sentence-level pedagogies, think carefully about what your students already know. You might need to scale back your ambitions.

Three Fun Videos on Grammar

In a prior post, I discussed how to keep your sentence-level instruction fresh and fun. In addition, you can also break up the usual classroom routine with some YouTube videos on grammar topics. As a bonus, videos appeal to students with varied styles of learning.

Here are my three favorites:

Victor Borge’s Phonetic Punctuation

A student of mine showed me Borge’s video when we were discussing the differences between written and spoken English. I had been pointing out that writers who write how they talk tend to mix up different punctuation marks, since punctuation marks all sound the same—like silence.

Borge’s comedic routine leads us to a similar point much more cleverly. He starts from the premise of a spoken language where each punctuation mark is pronounced with its own distinct onomatopoetic flamboyance. From there, it just gets goofier.

The shtick had me laughing so hard that at first I overlooked Borge’s questionable implication that written language prevents miscommunication better than spoken language. Most writing teachers would take issue with this implication, especially after trudging through a particularly bewildering stack of student essays.

 

Schoolhouse Rock’s Conjunction Junction

This Schoolhouse Rock animation is a classic. In fact, can hardly finish my lesson on conjunctions without some student singing the Conjunction Junction refrain.

The catchy, repetitive tune succinctly explains the function of conjunctions. By today’s standards, the animation is clunky, but students get a kick out of that too.

As a teacher, I appreciate that this video gives students another way to conceptualize how the pieces of sentences fit together—like boxcars in a train. As a linguist, I instinctively want to point out the inaccuracies of this metaphor for sentence structure, but by the time the video finishes, many of my students look like they’re ready to start dancing!

 

College Humor’s Grammar Nazis

On the topic of metaphors, this College Humor video extends the metaphor that people that self-righteously correct your grammar resemble Nazis. This parody of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds addresses the troublesome details of English usage, including the “dangling modifier” and the “double negative,” as well as the case marking of conjoined personal pronouns (“me and her” versus “she and I”).

This video can be used in a variety of ways. It offers a good jumping off point for distinguishing important issues of usage from the distraction of prescriptive “rules.” It also raises the issue of why people have such Nazish zeal in their beliefs about issues of usage. Of course, logically we all know that a slip in linguistic usage differs fundamentally from a real atrocity like the holocaust. But why do some get more irked by linguistic slips?

Since the dialogue unfolds quickly, it helps to transcribe key exchanges onto the board. From here, the usage issues can be examined and teachers can address the pseudo-logic that motivates many of the prescriptive “rules.”

Warning: the video is ends with graphic violence that’s not appropriate for all classrooms, but that part can be skipped without loss.

Where do Errors Come From?

storkLet’s consider some common explanations of the sources of linguistic error and disfluency, explanations I see reiterated over and over (both explicitly and explicitly) in handbooks and the professional literature. Even if errors are being blamed on text messaging or bleeding-heart teachers or whatever else, the source is reducible to one of the following:

1. The Standard Theory: students make errors because they don’t fully comprehend the grammatical patterns of English, as well as the idiomatic expressions and the conventions of usage. Students simply lack linguistic knowledge. This view has been around since the invention of writing, and most teachers still turn to it as the default.

2. The L1-Interference Theory: multilingual writers commit errors when they over-generalize the grammatical patterns of their native language (L1) to English. (Similarly, this theory suggests that students will transfer the grammatical patterns of native dialects of English into their school writing.) This theory comes to us courtesy of our colleagues who teach ESL and foreign languages.

3. The Speech-Based Theory: many students write in ways that are closely modeled on the way they talk or the way people around them talk.  Standard written English differs substantially from speech, which is fragmentary and halting, and which is aided by para-language and contextual cues. This theory is often connected with scholarship on “Generation 1.5” learners.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” theory: students commit many errors that they know how to identify and fix. Their performance in the writing task misrepresents their actual competence—their true knowledge of the language. Errors emerge when writers are tired or distracted, when they simply fail to invest enough time, or even when they don’t know how to use their word processing software effectively. Other times, our brain just hiccups. This theory is usually attributed to the early work of Noam Chomsky.

5. The Complex Ideas Theory: students who otherwise write grammatically clean prose make more errors and write more clumsily when they are asked to write about complex ideas or use academic registers that they can’t fully control. The complexity of the writing task overloads their ability to process syntax. Amongst others, this theory is articulated particularly well by David Bartholomae in Inventing the University.

Different theories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the source of any given error can usually be explained by some combination. For instance, #4 and #5 both suggest that errors often belie our true abilities in ideal circumstances. Or a student may lack linguistic knowledge about how standard English enables two sentences to be joined (#1), and might thus fall back on the patterns of their native language (#2) or the patterns of their speech (#3). For any given error and any given student, discovering the source requires thoughtful inquiry.

Still, as teachers, we often lack the time to conduct such inquiry, so we make hidden assumptions about where errors come from. We should be aware of these assumptions, because each theory suggests something different about how to respond:

1. The Standard Theory suggests that we should teach students the grammatical patterns of correct English, and how these patterns are distinguished from the incorrect. Such pedagogies typically include teaching students “rules” or having them correct errors and/or demonstrate correct usage in workbook exercises. Alternatively, students could be encouraged to spend lots of time reading grammatically correct prose, so they can internalize and unconsciously imitate the patterns.

2. The L1-Interference Theory suggests a similar response to the standard theory, except that instruction should be tailored to the specific errors and disfluencies that characterize particular groups of ESL students. For instance, if students speak a native language that lacks the inflectional morphology on verbs that characterizes English and they tend to leave endings off of verbs, instruction should focus on the patterns of English inflectional morphology.

3. The Speech-Based Theory suggests that students need to be made more aware of the differences between the conventions of spoken English and written English. Since the two are essentially different dialects of the same language, the approach suggested is akin to #2 above. Since speech-based errors suggest students have been under-exposed to the written word, students should be encouraged spend lots of time reading, similar to #1 above.

4. The “Competence versus Performance” Theory suggests that students need to learn the steps and strategies for effective proofreading. Further, they may need to learn academic success skills, such as how to budget ample time for their writing process or how to manage the mental exhaustion of academic work.

5. The Complexity Theory suggests—somewhat counter-intuitively—that errors and disfluencies often represent a necessary sign of linguistic development, rather than a cause for concern. When writing lacks errors, the assignment has failed to challenge. Many errors will resolve themselves without a teacher’s intervention as students grow more experienced and comfortable with writing tasks of greater complexity.

Again, no one way is “right.” In my own teaching, I integrate a little of each into my classroom instruction. Once I have a good understanding of a particular student or group of students, I tailor my instruction to their grammatical needs.

Review of Joseph M. Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error”

I recommend that you read Joseph M. Williams’s The Phenomenology of Error as a companion piece to Patrick Hartwell’s Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. Both readings form the foundation for thoughtful discussions into the specifics of sentence-level pedagogies. Just as Hartwell questions what “grammar” means, Williams questions what linguistic “error” means, and what epistemologies and methodologies underlie labeling an expression an error. Williams and Hartwell help us see that “error” and “grammar” are often used in a sloppy, untheorized way, which forces us to lump disparate items into the same broad category.

Joseph M. Williams, author of The Phenomenology of Error.

Williams begins by comparing linguistic errors with social errors. This comparison lets us view error not in the usual product-centric perspective, where error exists on the page of a text, but in a transactional perspective, where error is socially situated within a flawed transaction between writer and reader. At the same time, Williams points out a hole in the analogy between social error and linguistic error: social errors can cause big problems; linguistic errors largely cluster into the domain of the trivial.

Williams views the common methodologies of defining error (and the rules that demarcate error) with skepticism, for several reasons:

1. One common methodology has researchers survey people about whether a given expression contains an error. Such surveys, Williams believes, are flawed. The question itself is leading. It entices us to read more self-consciously, and self-conscious readers over-report perceived errors.

2. We report our own linguistic habits inaccurately. How we profess to use the language differs from how we actually do. As evidence, Williams cites several prominent handbook authors whose attested usage contradicts their own prescriptions for usage (sometimes in the same sentence!).

3. In determining error, we tend to appeal too trustingly to the authority of a handbook or a teacher.

4. Regardless of our methodology, no one can ever agree on what things constitute grammatical errors.

How do we address these issues? Williams begins by contrasting two ways of reading: how we read when we hunt for errors (the way many teachers read student essays), versus how we read when we read for content (the way we read experts’ writing). Williams believes that if we read the second way, we can develop a formal classification of at least four types of rules:

1. Those we notice if followed and if violated.

2. Those we notice if followed but not if violated.

3. Those we don’t notice if followed but do if violated.

4.  Those we never notice, regardless of whether followed or violated.

This last sort strikes me as an interesting category—vacuous errors printed in some handbooks but with no psycholinguistic reality. Each person might categorize any given rule into different categories. That’s expected. Crucially, when we read for content, not every rule (or “rule”) will enter into our consciousness.

Williams’s categorization of rules could be further elaborated in the way suggested by Hartwell’s five definitions of “grammar.” For any rule posited, what forces are said to motivate it?

• Does the rule differentiate “standard” written English from less prestigious dialects?
• Does it help to enhance rhetorical style?
• Is it a core part of the grammar of all dialects?
• Does it distinguish native speakers from ESL learners?
• Is it some grammarian’s pet-peeve?

Williams prescribes a big change for teachers and language researchers. Regardless of what “experts” posit as error, teachers and researchers should focus their attention on the sorts of errors that rudely interpose themselves when we read for content, rather than defining error by appealing to outside authority. (At the end of the essay, Williams makes the much celebrated revelation that his own essay embodies this principle: he has inserted numerous errors into the article, errors which most readers will—on their first read—overlook.)

At the end, Williams concedes that his proposal might prove futile. Why? We get more satisfaction from hunting for errors and chastising supposed linguistic transgressors. Grammar Nazism and the “gotcha!” approach to language satisfy us more than merely noting what jumps out to us on a non-self-conscious reading.

Three decades after this article was first published, Williams’s proposal has carried more influence than he could have predicted. For one, linguists and psycholinguists have developed even more sophisticated methodologies for carefully assessing various shades of grammaticality. Linguists search corpuses of actual speech and writing to see what usages are attested (Google enables anyone with an internet connection to do a crude version of this sort of research). Psycholinguists rely on furtive research techniques to gauge grammaticality, such as cameras that track reader’s eye movements, reaction-time tasks, and even brain imaging.

At the same time, the grammar Nazism of prior generations has faded somewhat from the collective consciousness. Consider three pieces of evidence:

1. The specific prescriptive rules that Williams discusses throughout his essay seem dated. In fact, when I recently assigned this essay to my advanced composition students, they were confused because they knew nothing about these rules.

2. Two of the most influential language commentators in the popular media—Geoffrey Nunberg and Grammar Girl—base their analysis and usage advice not on cocksure pronouncements of correctness or dogmatic appeals to authority, but on careful historical research and corpus research that takes into account an impressive range of linguistic subtleties.

3. If they’ve been trained in the past three decades, every writing teacher I’ve met tends to take a non-dogmatic approach to sentence-level rules and error.

But one force will always be working against Williams’s proposal: native-speakers’ over-confidence in what they know about their language. As native speakers, we are swimming in the English language. And we’ve been using it since we were toddling. So any native speaker can easily authorize themselves to wear the hat of the grammar Nazi, and inveigh against whatever “error” so happens to bug them.

Although I embrace Williams’s rejection of the handbook’s authority when it comes to my own writing, my principal critique of Williams’s article stems from this fact: Williams taught at The University of Chicago. His classrooms were composed of the country’s elite students. The sentence-level needs of his students share little in common with those of the under-prepared students that most of us teach. I’m guessing that Williams’s students wrote relatively clean, sophisticated sentences and found it easy to navigate the subtleties and ambiguities of English usage.

Under-prepared students don’t cope as well with these complexities. A legitimate argument can be be made that they benefit from the authoritarian clarity and structure of the rigid prescriptive rules that characterize handbooks. In this view, handbook rules function as a necessary evil that serves a purpose at a certain stage in writers’ development, like the five-paragraph essay. Williams probably lacked the perspective to appreciate this.

Ten Ways to Keep Grammar Relaxed and Fun

February 19, 2013 Leave a comment

To too many teachers and students, the term “grammar” is synonymous with “boredom.” Further, Patrick Hartwell has suggested that teachers use grammar instruction to assert power over students.[1]

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I was recently asked how I keep my sentence-level instruction relaxed and fun for students. Here are ten ways:

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn't like that.

Did you know that ancient Greek manuscripts contained no punctuation? Be thankful English isn’t like that.

1. Don’t play the drill sergeant.  Teachers easily default into drill-sergeant mode when discussing grammar, trying to explain every detail with confident authority. I avoid this. For one, most rules (or “rules”) aren’t as clear-cut as is suggested by the cocksure writers of handbooks. Things change over time. When we look carefully, we see countless exceptions and countless areas of controversy in the language where attested usages disagree and where respected writers also disagree. Yes, you should generally avoid starting a sentence with “and,” but who cares if you do it every now and then?

2. Ask students to read a paragraph without any punctuationYou can take this to the extreme: no capitalization and no spacing between words!  Not surprisingly, students struggle with the reading. But this struggle helps them understand that punctuation  wasn’t invented for English teachers to torture their students; it serves a real purpose for readers.  (I sometimes accompany this activity with a picture of an ancient Greek manuscript, which shows that the convention of no punctuation was once widely accepted.)

3. Discuss slang and neologisms. When I was recently discussing parts of speech and the discussion moved to articles, I not only gave the standard examples (“a,” “the,” and “each”), but I also added “hella.” (it’s the way youth in northern California make “many” superlative.) When we arrived at verbs, I mentioned “chilax,” and asked a knowledgeable student to define it for the class. When we talked about verbing nouns, I mentioned mention the act of “Tebowing.” When students hear these examples, they light up.

4. Make fun of silly prescriptive “rules.”  These “rules” were invented by 18th-century grammarians who worried that English was a degenerate version of Latin sullied by “false syntax.”[2]  The classic example include the “rule” against splitting and infinitive and the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition, both modeled on Latin grammar. Yes, in Latin and the romance languages, you truly can’t end a sentence this way or split an infinitive (because it’s one word). It’s unattested. But English isn’t Latin. It’s not even a Romance language. So the “rule” against ending a sentence in a preposition makes as much sense as applying to English the patterns of Sanskrit or Swahili.

5. Contrast the conventions of school writing with texting. This is a subject where students have so much to say. Most students are keenly aware of the difference, especially when it comes to spelling and punctuation. I ask them about the impacts of texting on their writing. Students are shocked to find out that—contrary to what many assume—texting probably won’t destroy their language skills.

6. Question what we assume about people based on their linguistic habits. These assumptions relate to one’s morals, intelligence, and  manners—as pointed out by Patricia Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom. I ask students if these assumptions are based in logic, prejudice, or both. Again, students have tons to say about this rich topic for discussion, in part because many have themselves been judged based on their linguistic habits.

7. Make fun of the ridiculousness of language. Every language, when carefully examined, contains patterns that are the antithesis of intelligent design, as I’ve written in this post. For instance, we drive on a “parkway” and park on a “driveway.” Uh? Also, English very logically uses the same suffix to pluralize nouns as it does to make present tense verbs agree with third-person, singular subjects. Why? Because.

8. Use memorable or goofy example sentences. Many of my teachers, a long time ago, used goofy examples to prove a grammatical point that still sticks in my head. These sentences featured death metal and violent zoo animals.  Too often, we default to sentences about Dick and Jane. Yawn. The best examples are ones that you’ve designed in advance, rather than generating them on the spot. Quotes of politicians putting their feet in their mouths work well. So do sentence with pop-culture references. I’ve written about good examples sentences in this post and also in this one. A good pair of example sentences often illustrates a point much better than a long-winded technical explanation.

9. Play the typo game. This game reverses the usual power dynamic: usually the teacher catches student errors. For the typo game, the students catch the teacher’s errors. Whenever the teacher makes a typo on the chalkboard or a handout, the first student to bring it to the teacher’s attention gets a point. At the end of the term, the top point-getters receive extra credit. The typo game helps students see that yes, even English teachers make mistakes, and it teaches them to shed their paranoia about the tiny mistakes we all make and instead focus on what’s important.

10. Admit what you don’t know. Just like in Psychology, Astrophysics, or Medicine, the study of language contains many mysteries and idiosyncrasies that defy easy explanation. Some questions about grammar I truly don’t know how to answer, or might require research. For instance, when students ask me whether certain compound words are written as two words, one word, or a hyphenated word, I often confess that I don’t know, more than one way might be accepted, and we could use Google to research what actual writers are doing.


[1] Patrick Hartwell. 1985. Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. In Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Second Edition. 2003. Edited by Victor Villanueva. P. 228.

[2] Brock Haussamen. 1997. Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern LinguisticsP. 14 – 19.

Out with “Teaching Grammar,” in with “Sentence-Level Pedagogies”

February 15, 2013 1 comment
Chalkboard at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

Chalk at LeConte Hall, The University of California, Berkeley.

After many years of thinking, I’ve decided the term “teaching grammar” is problematic. If I could control how English is used, I’d abolish this term from the vocabulary of writing teachers.

Here’s the problem: first, the term “grammar” is in many ways ambiguous, as I’ve discussed at length in this post and this one. It could mean anything from helping students learn to proofread for run-on sentences, to sentence diagramming, to rhetorical style, to teaching students Chomskyan transformational grammar.

If something doesn’t help us disambiguate, each speaker interprets “grammar” however they want. And often times each teacher has a different assumption guiding their interpretation. To most, the most salient interpretation holds that “grammar” means a rigid set of clear-cut prescriptions on the correct structure of English (whatever that means).

Now the common phrase “teaching grammar” carries all these problems, and more. “Teaching grammar” seems to entail the following:

  1. Students lack “grammar.”
  2. Teacher possess “grammar.”
  3. The act of “teaching grammar” is completed when teachers have deposited “grammar” in the minds of their students.

So when we say we’re “teaching grammar,” it seems to suggest we’re operating in some sort of authoritarian, anti-Freirean regime—contrary to what I think most intend. (Interestingly, if we talk about “teaching writing,” I don’t think it carries a parallel set of entailments.)

I propose replacing “teaching grammar” with the less explosive “sentence-level pedagogies.” Why? Because it more accurately captures the meaning I think most intend when they say “teaching grammar.” As a plural, it entails multiple approaches. It defines the domain it encompasses—everything that goes on inside the sentence—from spelling, to syntax, to mechanical correctness, to style.

The rest is left conspicuously vague. And that’s good! “Sentence-level pedagogies” suggests nothing about what the end goal is. It says nothing about the pedagogical methods used to reach the goals. It says nothing about whether our pedagogy is Freireian or the banking method. It practically forces teachers and scholars to clarify the rest.

To be fair, my proposal here will probably prove futile. For one, “sentence-level pedagogies” sounds clunkier. And If I followed my own advice, I’d have to change the change this blog’s URL. I’d also lose traffic from search engines. When I Google “teaching grammar,” I get over 400,000 results, compared with less than 1,000 for “sentence-level pedagogies” and “sentence-level pedagogy” combined.

But more broadly, communities of language users naturally resist schemes to replace one word with another. For a classic example, consider the countless failed attempts to artificially engineer a gender-free replacement for the expression “he or she.” These sorts of proposals only gain traction amongst the highly educated and self-conscious, and rarely for long.[1][2]

I’ll keep campaigning in favor of “sentence-level pedagogies,” but I’m just one teacher in California. In the meantime, I’d be happy just to see teachers and scholars clarifying exactly what they’re talking about when they’re talking about “teaching grammar.”


[1]  John H. McWhorter. 2001. Missing the Nose on Our Face: Pronouns and the Feminist Revolution. In Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. 2009. 10th edition. Edited by Paul Escholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. p. 373 – 379.

[2] The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. 1996. p. 172 – 174.

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).