Chau: Effects of texting not typed in stone

Chau argues that text messaging is helping students fine-tune their writing skills.

Michael Chau

Michael ChauTeens nowadays are communicating more through text messages than ever before. With this comes fear that the texting era is impacting students’ abilities to write formally, but, really, it’s expanding knowledge of the written word.

Texting has become the most used mode of communication amongst teens ages 12 to 17. In a 2011 survey, 63 percent of teens reported texting their friends every day, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Teens are much more likely to text rather than use other modes of communication. When polled about other types of communication used on a daily basis, 26 percent of teens reported calling others with cell phones, 35 percent socialized face-to-face outside of school and 29 percent messaged on social networking sites.

Just three years ago, only 36 percent of teens texted on a day-to-day basis.

As the slang, abbreviations and acronyms that are common with texting creep their way into student essays, some educators and critics are pointing toward texting as eroding students’ abilities to write formally. Others are hesitant to label texting as the problem behind the formal writing of students. Whatever the case may be, more research is needed.

“There has been little definitive research on the topic,” Ronald E. Riggio, professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in Psychology Today.

“Linguists are divided, with some seeing deterioration in writing skills that they attribute to text and email, and others believing that text messaging constitutes a different form of language,” Riggio stated. “Treating texting as a different sort of language, then there can be academic (and practical) benefits to actually studying it: students can learn more about syntax and grammar (and improve their texting at the same time).”

Professor Gabriella Kecskes, assistant professor of teaching and instruction, has seen the influences of texting in her classroom first-hand.

“In the beginning, or in certain cases, I’ve seen students totally converting to the texting grammar,” she said. “There was a period when students would come with this and they would just write using this grammar in their papers — not necessarily intentionally, but just because they were so used to it — and in the emails communicating with the teachers they would just revert to this format.”

As time went on, Kecskes noticed a shift.

“Interestingly, in the last couple of years, I haven’t seen [texting grammar] so much,” Kecskes said. “So what I’m observing or concluding from that, is that the students, as [they] learn to live with texting, and as [they] learn to work with this new technology, students learn that it’s appropriate for certain things and not appropriate for other things.”

If Kecskes’ teaching experience is seen as an example of a larger trend in education, then students and society may be learning to better adapt to texting technology. And if that’s the case, texting might not be harmful, but rather helpful, to formal writing.

“Texting is a pretty good medium to bring into the class,” Kecskes said. “Not for the reason of writing, but for the reasons of discussing how you have to learn different types of literacy in order to be literate at this point.”

Informalities of texting don’t have to creep into formal writing if students learn about the differences. Ideally, students should know those differences before they go to college. And it’s up to educators to help students figure that out.

So instead of condemning texting as the bane of formal writing, students should be taught about texting as soon as they are exposed to a cellphone. We could teach about texts as early as grade school.

Texting is one distinctly different tool amongst the many different tools of writing. And if texting is like a tool, or a different language as linguists claim, then what happens when someone uses that tool or speaks that language every day? They become more proficient at it.

But how often do we young people actually have to use the tool or language of formal writing in our daily lives outside of school? Zilch.

Texting can also be more than just a differentiator to informal writing. Consider this: How many times have you sent something that you immediately regretted because you wish you had said it better, or in a different way, with a different tone?

Though texting may not necessarily build our formal writing skills, they most certainly make us think in the same ways in which successful writers need to think.

Who is my audience? Who am I writing for? How would they receive this text? Is the tone too harsh? Should I take away the period? Maybe I soften it with a “LOL”? These are all things good texters think about.

They’re also things good writers think about. Well, maybe not the “LOL” part.

Mike Chau can be reached at or on Twitter @MichaelChau215.

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