Chelsi's Educational Musings

Is Texting and Instant Messaging Ruining the English Language?

Posted on: September 25, 2011

I recently watched David Crystal’s talk Tweets and Texts – Myths and Realities.  Crystal attempts to dispell the top five myths regarding texting and tweeting, stating that “technology is not the enemy.”  I found his information very interesting.  I have been thinking about two of the myths in particular – that texts and tweets are full of new abbreviations and a new-fangled language that is negatively impacting our ability to use the English language, and that texting is ruining young people’s ability to spell and use correct grammar.  Crystal feels that both statements are myths, but I will argue that one, in my experience, is seemingly a reality.

Crystal had me hooked when he said that technology is not the enemy.  I have been witness to teachers who treat technology as the enemy and not only refuse to use it in the classroom, but also refuse to embrace the fact that it is not going to go away!  Students often DO know more about technology than their teachers, and that may be unnerving to some, but it is a fact that they should accept.  I liked how Crystal compared today’s technology to yesterday’s inventions.  Texting and tweeting is a more (rather, MUCH more) efficient version of a telegram.  A message was relayed through very few characters – that is nothing new.  Those who argue that texting’s abbreviated method of writing is ruining the English language forget that telegrams and secretaries’ shorthand writing is much the same.  Crystal also said that we needn’t worry that everyone will begin writing in abbreviations, as only 10% of text messages are abbreviated anyway.  Crystal also gave some interesting information pertaining to this “new-fangled abbreviated language” that many people are worried will ruin the English language.  He said that abbreviating words, such as “C U l8r” is nothing new.  Victorian parlour games were based on rebus puzzles much the same as these text abbreviations.  I give my students different rebus puzzles each week to solve, and now that I look at them, they ARE very similar to text abbreviations!  I was discussing this talk with some of my teacher friends, and one who teaches Information Processing to grade 9 and 10 students said that she had them complete a typing test.  One student said that she could type the test entirely abbreviated, text-style.  My friend said that she flew through the test and abbreviated it all in a record amount of time.  We both agreed that her abbreviated texting was not to worry about – her efficiently would have been applauded in a secretarial position when typing everything in shorthand was required!

Crystal argues that texting and tweeting need not be seen as something damaging to the English language.  He gave examples of how Lewis Carroll used to play with language in his writing, and poets of days past used to create amazing images and ideas in short passages of text.  He said that teachers should use texting and tweeting in the classroom in creative ways, such as challenging students to write a poem in only 140 characters.  There are some examples of this on Twitter, and I checked some out and was very impressed!  When I teach my poetry unit this year, rather than simply having the students write a haiku, I’m going to have them write a Text Poem as well!

The one myth that Crystal presents that I must argue is that texting and tweeting is damaging students’ ability to spell and use proper grammar.  Crystal says that this is a myth, and that students actually ARE aware of the difference between text speak and spelling, and grammatically correct language.  I must disagree.  I am aware that I have only been teaching for seven years, so most of my students have been on instant messengers or texting since I began teaching.  Their spelling may not be as affected, but their grammar definitely is.  Each year, as more students own cell phones and use instant messenger and Facebook more often, I see a decline in the use of capital letters and punctuation.  Capitalizing “I” and names is particularly bad.  I often see students using “u” , “ur”, “r”, and even “lol” in their daily writing.  Thinking that my experiences were maybe an exception, I asked several of my friends who are teachers (ranging from teaching grade 5 to adult education) if they had found a decline in their students’ grammar or spelling, and if they think that the decline is related to texting and messaging.  (Incidentally, I sent this message over Facebook at 10pm and had a number of replies by morning, showing the efficiency of social media!).  Every one of their replies stated that they had seen a dramatic decline in students’ ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly.  A few, but not all, said that spelling had gotten worse, but everyone was in agreement that capitalization and punctuation was a constant struggle in their classrooms.

In discussing this issue through many messages, my friends and I agreed that texting is not a trend that is going to simply die out.  Thus, we must work WITH it!  I have found that the best way to combat my students’ lack of capitalization, punctuation, and inappropriate use of text abbreviations in formal writing is to teach them not to do it!  It sounds simple and no, it is NOT fixed in one lesson, but if one is consistent, I think that it can definitely help the problem.  I use my students’ spelling words in grammatically incorrect sentences on the board a few times a week.  I often include abbreviations, uncapitalized pronouns, and “text speak” in my examples.  When the students consistently see these errors being corrected, I’m hoping that they will pick up on how to use them correctly.  I also show them examples of answers to questions on my blog that are done correctly.  When a student writes a grammatically, correctly spelled response to one of the blog questions, I will show it to them and positively praise that student.  That way, they can see that proper writing mechanics also must be used online in certain circumstances.  I also teach them when it is appropriate to use text-style abbreviations and language, and when to avoid it.  I compare it to answering the telephone.  You may greet someone in real life saying, “Hey, what’s up?” but would you answer the phone that way if you did not know who was calling?  I feel that it IS possible to teach students the difference between the two forms of language.

Have you found a decline in your students’ usage of grammar, punctuation, and spelling with the rise of texting and instant messaging?  If so, what do you do to combat this issue?

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17 Responses to "Is Texting and Instant Messaging Ruining the English Language?"

What a great post! I completely agree with you on many of your points. Texting is not going away. We, as educators, need to jump on board and teach our students the differences between formal writing and texting. I am, however, horrified when I receive an email from a student and they use text language. Do they not know better? Are they being lazy? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that these are teachable moments. I now explicitly teach my students how to respond to email and when abbreviated text is acceptable.
I have also been reading about how people are using Twitter to teach writing. I see this as a great connection between their comfort with short responses and our wanting them to learn to write. I have heard about the 140 character stories, as well as a six word memoir. There is a lot of thought that must go in to narrowing your life story into six words.
I am definitely interested in hearing more about this topic.

Thanks for the response, Brooke!
My friend teaches Communications at an adult education facility. Like you, she says how horrified she is when students email her using text speak (and it’s a COMMUNICATIONS class of all things!). I totally agree – it provides for a teachable moment. It’s easy to forget that many of the students (mine are only 10 and 11 years old) have not grown up WITHOUT text messaging and MSN, so perhaps no one has taught them proper language usage.

The six word memoir sounds so interesting! That would be a great project! On Crystal’s presentation, he talked about how you can subscribe to novels, and each day you receive a tweet of one page of the story. It would definitely be a practice in being concise to write something like that!

You’ve posed some good arguements. As I read an idea began to formulate. Why not have your students bring in their “tweets” and have them “translate” them for you?
You are correct in that this form of communication is not going to disappear but be happy in that your students are communicating.
I have been in education for almost forty years and my Twitter experience has enriched both my personal and professional life. Kids get it, but remember, yours isn’t the only subject they need to get.

Thanks for the response, JoAnn! Having the students translate their tweets would be neat!

To be honest, I haven’t found a decline in my student’s ability to spell and use grammar. While they might not use grammar correctly, it’s often because they don’t know the rule in the first place. And they’re quite aware that the spelling they use to text is not academic spelling.

There is the odd student I have whose spelling is atrocious, but I find it’s due to academic gaps, rather than texting. The biggest problem my students have is relying on spellcheck, rather than finding someone to proof-read their writing.

Hi Shelley,
That’s good to hear that not everyone is having problems with their students’ spelling and grammar usage. Some of my colleagues replied to me regarding this post and said that their biggest problem is the spellcheck reliance too.

I believe that if students are writing, then that’s something we can work with! In my teaching, it’s not a particularly huge issue for me since my students are all learning English as an Additional Language. The question I often ask is whether or not I should teach “texting” language as part of their language development. If you look into the literature on teaching multiliteracies, there are some strong arguments that these new literacies shouldn’t be ignored. They are becoming part of everyday language. Indeed, languages does evolve over time and new words and phrases become part of our lives. Of course, teachers must continue to teach Standard English as long as it is an expectation in academia.

Incorporating texting into a class may be useful for the simple reason that it engages students. It’ll be interesting to see how your students receive your poetry writing assignment. It might be fun to ask them to re-write other pieces of writing in text language or vise versa. Pointing out the differences and engaging them in writing activites could be the best way to use texting language to your advantage.

Let us know how your lesson plan goes!

Hi Trudy,

Interesting that you should comment about EAL students learning “texting” language. My friend who I referred to above who teaches adult education has many EAL students. She said that it seems most difficult for them, out of all of her students, to understand what is text speak, and what should be used when writing their assignments. I would think that it would be a good idea to teach EAL students the “texting” language as part of their language development, as I bet that they’re using that language more than some of the English that they’re learning!

That’s a great idea to have the students rewrite things in text language to show the difference between the two language forms! Thanks for the idea!

[…]  Chelsi’s post and comments on David Crystal’s interview on Texts & Tweets – Myths & Reality  motivated me to share comments from Erik Qualman’s book, Socialnomics  regarding the erosion of interpersonal and language skills.  As Chelsi found from the survey of her social network, eHow has also summarized similar findings where the significant numbers of teachers do believe that texting has harmed English language. […]

I too believe that technology is not the enemy and usually this issue doesn’t bother me much, HOWEVER, my cousin posted a photo of her college computer class textbook – http://www.amazon.com/Computers-Technology-CourseMate-Printed-Access/dp/1111527997 – for some reason this really, really bothered me! I’m not a fan of textbooks in the first place – but the combination of the “txt” title and magazine type cover strikes me as a bizarre attempt to be “cool.”

Hi Leigh,

Oh wow, that is really bizarre! It makes the subject matter seem like it is is casual and informal!

Very interesting read! This debate is always sure to hit a note with people of different generations! I really believe that language is a living entity that changes and grows as the people that use it change and grow. It is a part of our culture and our understanding of our environment. I also see the importance of proper grammar and sentence structure so I suppose we, as teachers, are responsible for finding a balance between the two. Alec posted a TED talk video about language with a speaker that works for National Geographic (http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html) that isn’t necessarily about the reasons for the decline of formal language but rather the importance of language to those that use it. Language is an overwhelmingly complex topic so I love the idea of engaging students in playing with it – the 140 word poem sounds so fun!

I will definitely check out that video! I agree with you – language has to evolve and grow. Our language is still similar to, say, Shakespearean English, but also quite different to fit the times. That’s what makes language so interesting, I feel! It’s a pretty exciting time to live in when we’re adding so many new terms to our language, even if they are what some may view as ‘simple’ text speak!
Thanks for the comment!

Hi Chelsi,

I agree with you and many of the comments posted here. I haven’t noticed a decline in ability to correctly spell, punctuate etc. However, at the beginning of the year, I always warn my students that in formal writing, I expect there to be correct spelling and grammar (in French and English) and that slang or text versions of words are not acceptable. I also give examples andd it seems to work out.

I am however looking forward to using some of these ideas in my own poetry unit!

That’s a good idea to warn your students early on so that they know your expectations. Thanks for the reply!

I shared your post with some of my English teaching colleagues who often utter the same ruminations; I remind them all the time that rap inspired a new generation of poets, and Shakespeare (the master of making up new words) contributed more the development of the English language than any other writer.

Thanks for sharing my post! I completely agree with you about rap inspiring poetry. Each generation seems to think that something or someone is the next generation (rap, Beat poetry, rock and roll, etc.) and it is neat to look back and see how instead, what they found threatening actually shaped language and pop culture in a new way!

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