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New Study: "Text Messaging May Harm Grammar Skills"

Sep 10

Written by: Suzanne Klein
9/10/2012 12:11 AM 



"The human race wasn't very advanced... They mostly spoke in monosyllabic grunts... In fact, the last words from their civilization before the meteor hit were "OMG" and "WTF."

This cartoon would be hilarious if it weren’t so ominous. It’s ominous because it pokes fun at a distressing problem: text messaging may be harming kids’ language skills. That's the finding of a new study published in New Media & Society, a top-ranked, peer-reviewed journal. The authors of Texting, Techspeak, And Tweens say:

The question to date was whether or not adolescents were able to switch between writing text messages and using correct English grammar for class work. The results of this study indicate that most adolescents are not able to do so.

Does this worry you? It worries me. But my friend Chris Drew is unconcerned. In the spirit of friendly debate, we decided to trade blogs on the topic. I’d love to know what you think, too!

First, here’s what you should know. Chris is the creator of Pocket Literacy Coach, a very clever resource that provides activities to help parents improve their children’s literacy – and he shares these via text messages to parent subscribers. I, on the other hand, create and share teacher resources for improving children’s writing and grammar – the very skills that appear threatened by “text-speak.” So I guess it’s no surprise that we’re on opposite sides of this discussion.

The fundamental question is, Will kids be able to limit their text-speak to a texting context? Or will the frequent use of text-speak bleed into kids’ use of language in more formal settings? If the latter is true, then we’ve got a problem on our hands.
Does texting degrade kids' grammar skills? From WriteSteps, a Common Core writing resource for K-5 teachers. "They spent the summer texting. It takes a while to wean them."
The study does not definitively answer the question. But it gives enough cause for concern that we should be paying attention. The authors leave us with this fundamental message: "Adolescents should be educated to understand the differences between techspeak and standard English grammar, recognizing that there is a time and a place for both."

How Text-Speak Impacts Grammar
So you can decide for yourself, bear with me for a quick synopsis of the research. Don’t worry – it’s not hard to follow. The researchers compared 6th, 7th, and 8th graders’ scores on a grammar test to the frequency with which they used common adaptations in text messages:

Word Adaptations
  • substitution of homophones (like gr8 for great, or b4 for before)
  • omission of non-essential letters (like wud for would)
  • abbreviations (like btw for by the way)

Structural Adaptations
  •  omission of punctuation
  • omission of capitalization
The study showed that frequent use of word adaptions in texts correlated to lower grammar scores. But frequent structural adaptations (capitalization and punctuation) did not impact test scores.

“Disconfirming Data”
This brings me back to the debate with Chris. Chris calls that last finding disconfirming evidence. In other words, he believes that because kids can still answer test questions even though they misuse punctuation and capitalization frequently in text messages, we needn’t worry about texting degrading language skills. Sorry, but this is a big illogical leap. There are two reasons why.

  • Three of the five forms of text-speak still correlated with lower test scores
  • The two forms that did not correlate with lower test scores – punctuation and capitalization – are the most basic grammar skills in the English language. Children start learning capitalization and punctuation rules in kindergarten.
I guess we can relax knowing that 6th, 7th, and 8th graders still have a grasp of kindergarten-level grammar rules even though they abuse those rules while texting. But this doesn’t erase the fact that more sophisticated language skills seem to be hard for kids who frequently misuse them in texts.

Eloquent, But Off-Topic
Here’s another thing. Chris has written a eloquent refutation of the study’s warning. The problem is, much of it is off-topic. Here’s one example. Early on, Chris challenges the notion that kids who use text-speak are lacking in cognitive sophistication.

I’m willing to acknowledge that the shortcuts in text-speak demonstrate a certain basic level of “cognitive sophistication.” But that’s not really the point. The study is about the association between texting and kids’ grammar skills. There’s a difference. These aren’t the same at all.

Chris is also off-topic in dismissing this research by equating it with the English-only movement, and then diving into the Oakland Ebonics debate of 1996. Whoa! Does this research really merit a recap of the Ebonics vs. English-only controversy?

(For the record, I believe that using Ebonics – as some scholars call African-American English – or any form of vernacular is can be appropriate in writing personal narratives. But that’s not the point.)
Grammar skills matter, from WriteSteps, a Common Core writing resource for K-5 teachers. Concern about evidence that texting may degrade children's grammar skills is not ideologically motivated. It springs from a desire to help students succeed in college, in the workplace, and in society.
Linking the Oakland Ebonics debate to this topic is a distraction into a highly-charged issue. Concerns about text-speak seeping into kids’ schoolwork have nothing to do with it. They are about a sincere desire to prepare kids for college and good jobs. Kids who don’t know how to use formal language in real life contexts (tests, job applications, college essays, etc.) will suffer the consequences. Let’s not lose sight of this by throwing Ebonics into the mix!

It’s Not Politics
Chris says there’s no empirical evidence that texting is degrading writing skills, because grammar tests are not literacy tests. Personally, I don’t think we’re going to serve our young people by splitting hairs over these fine points. We are talking about a skill set. We are talking about test scores. We’re talking about a pathway to success.

Chris believes concerns about texting are motivated by politics. But that’s not what’s driving my concern. If we don’t care whether children have the chance graduate from college or get a high paying job, then let’s excuse their poor grammar. If we don’t care if children are judged by others for their poor use of language, then we needn’t bother about this research. But we teachers are supposed to help our adolescents succeed. Plenty of us are concerned, and we pay attention because we care.

Limitations of the Study
Still, there’s one point we agree on. It’s Chris’ statement that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, frequent text-speak is connected to lower grammar test scores, but this doesn’t prove that text-speak caused poor test performance. It may be the other way around: perhaps kids with poorer grammar skills simply use more text-speak.

I hope that’s the case. But rather than dismissing these findings, I suggest we pay attention. Until more studies can shine light on this topic, teachers can help by stopping text-speak at the classroom door. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that we all need to throw away our smart phones. Texting is an extremely effective way to communicate in instances when speed is more important than formality. Chris’ company is an outstanding example of an appropriate use of the technology.

What do you think, teachers? Is this a problem? Is text-speak creeping into your students’ classwork?

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