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Tweens, TechSpeak, and Writing

Why We Can’t Write Off Our Kids

I once read that the average teenager texts the equivalent of “War and Peace” in one year’s time, but like most adults, teenagers don’t consider this time spent as real writing. This disconnect is problematic. WDIMBT?

It leads to what researchers Drew P. Cingel and S. Shyam Sundar call language adaptations, or techspeak. Their recent study reveals a correlation between a tween’s texting habits and progressively lower scores on grammar assessments. Apparently, while adults can shift with ease between languages, from the informal world of e-communication to the formal world of academic writing, tweens especially tend to inadvertently carry over to other settings the incorrect word adaptations and grammatical shortcuts they’ve become used to texting. KWIM?

This slow erosion of the English language may not trouble linguists, who view it as dynamic 4COL, but other people are taking notice. All of this texting has to be bad for kids, right? Well, while the National Commission on Writing acknowledges the concern, it also points out how many of us wonder if this return to text driven communication is actually inspiring a new appreciation for writing. Their report indicates “86 percent of teens believe good writing is important to success in life.” This high percentage captures the essence of an argument made by Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed: “Even a poorly constructed tweet reflects a poorly constructed thought.”

The ultimate irony? Since social media kidnapped adolescence, teenagers have an incentive to learn to effectively convey their ideas using written language – even if it is tapped on a very small keyboard.

Still, Harvard educated businessman Kyle Wiens, founder of two tech companies, iFixit and Dozuki, knows being proficient in techspeak is not enough. He finds it necessary to require a grammar test of job applicants. According to Wiens, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the Internet.” Interestingly enough, he doesn’t limit the test to prospective employees with writing in their job description. FYI even salespeople, operations staff, and programmers complete this mandatory step to work for Weins. “I’ve found people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing – like stocking shelves or labeling parts,” Wiens claims.

It’s sad to think a grammar test is necessary, even after completion of higher education, but as author and speaker Ken Robinson claims, it’s not enough to have a college degree anymore. How can this be the case? In an effort to raise standards, people have lost sight of this fundamental truth with regards to language acquisition: No one learns grammar in isolation.

Consider the game of basketball. Players can’t practice only foul shots and expect to win without ever having played in a scrimmage. JTLYK the same is true of the English language. Grammar is a convention of language that must be mastered along with others, such as providing focus, supporting details, and a logical progression of ideas. Success is only achieved when there’s a balance between what Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated, calls deliberate practice of grammar skills and authentic writing experiences under the guidance of a skilled mentor.

Translation: To achieve this balance, teachers need time – something that’s in short supply these days.

As class sizes continue to soar and more time is devoted to test prep, there’s less and less class time available for students to practice the different writing genres. Imagine a swim instructor, who explains to students seated poolside how to do the breaststroke, and then evaluates them as soon as they jump into the water. That’s what English instructors are up against. Combine these conditions with extras like character education and a plethora of other sociological issues schools and teachers are now being expected to sort through and it’s easy to see how literacy has taken a backseat.

The implication of this is students end up spending more time texting daily than they do engaged in formal writing. At many schools, teen students complete mostly short writing assignments, according to the National Commission on Writing. These aren’t significant enough to outweigh the damage being done by texting. Therefore, if we hope to combat the negative effects of texting’s word adaptations and grammar shortcuts, we need to immerse our children in written language.

Looking for the moral of this story for parents who may feel like they’ve lost control of their own little texting monsters? Don’t let your kids get out of writing real thank you notes this holiday season – especially if you’ve gifted him or her with a new mobile device. Not only will it reinforce good manners, but it will force your child to go beyond the bad habits acquired in word adaptations like this one: u no u r gr8thx.

Texting Key:
WDIMBT – What do I mean by that?
KWIM – Know what I mean?
4COL – For crying out loud!
FYI – For your information (we hope you knew that one without looking)
JTLYK – Just to let you know…
u no u r gr8 thx – You know you are great. Thanks!


Home/School Connection: Creating a Language-Rich Environment

Be clear on what writing is. It is not penmanship. Although having the ability to write in cursive helps you write faster, it is a rote act, just like typing, that requires no understanding of the conventions of language.

Create a writing space. Rituals and routines are an important part of the writing process. Have your children set aside a place to work. Everything within their line of sight should inspire them to write, not distract them.

Embrace the writing process. Stop thinking of writing as a linear process: prewriting, drafting, revision, and editing. Writing is recursive. Proficient writers move fluidly between the different stages.

Nobody’s perfect. I once had a parent tell me during a teacher conference that he always advised his son to get things right the first time. As a result, his son’s writing lacked development as well as a sense of voice. The pressure to write perfectly prevented him from reaching his potential.

Encourage writing every chance you get. It’s a craft, not an art, so the more they do it the better they’ll get. Lists, thank you notes, journal entries, and blog posts are wonderful opportunities to hone their craft. If your child uses email to communicate, encourage her to follow traditional letter writing guidelines.

Experiment with different writers’ strategies. I read of an author who wrote blindfolded because he couldn’t resist the temptation to revise and edit as he typed. Therefore, I advise my students to turn off their computer monitors when they write so they can get their ideas down. Ralph Fletcher has a series of writing books designed to promote such experimentation in kids.

Stop saying, “My kid only likes creative writing!” All writing is creative. Maybe, your child prefers fiction, fantasy to be exact, so call it that. Masters of any trade know the correct terminology for it.

Use writing as a way to heal. Local teen author, Rachel Coker, wrote her first book, Interrupted: Life Beyond Words, at age 15, as a means of dealing with the death of her uncle. Confused and angry, Coker never planned on writing a book, but writing offered her a coping mechanism and once she started she couldn’t stop.

Support writing across the curriculum at your child’s school. Writing is thinking. The more children engage in the writing process in all disciplines, not just in English class (or in workbooks), the greater their chances for success. Nod your head in support and appreciation when you hear teachers use the word interdisciplinary.

Victoria Winterhalter
Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.
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