by Alex Der-Kazaryan
Alex is a management major with a concentration in accounting from Belmont, MA. While writing this essay, Alex wanted to investigate “how our writing has evolved over the last thirty years or so.” Noticing a “retraction of socialization from other people,” since we introduced ourselves to new technologies, Alex focused this essay on the common complaint that “texting has only done damage to formal writing.” Alex has also come to enjoy writing as a way of self-expression and writes that it “can now be used in a way that benefits me.” Alex is also a huge history buff and has recently gotten into woodworking.
Before the cell phone, communication was fairly limited in that you couldn’t just pick up a phone and get to whomever you wanted to talk to. You could leave a message for them to call you back, or you’d call their pager and leave your number so they know who to call back, and maybe if you were really smart, you’d make a collect call to your parent and instead of saying your name you would tell them as fast as possible where they could pick you up from. These limited communication issues were essentially solved with the advent of the cell phone. Calling anyone you wanted, at any time and anywhere, became possible instantaneously.
With the advent of cell phones came the phenomenon of texting, a short messaging style similar to email. Early texting wasn’t what it is today, early flip phones had an alphabet embedded in the dial numbers, but there was a little problem – to get 26 letters onto 12 buttons was a challenge. This was remedied by putting 3-4 letters on each button, excluding a few. To get the letter C, you would have to press the number 2 button three times, and for the letter U, it would be the number 8 button twice.
This poor design flaw led to what is now known as “textism.” People prefer convenience over most other things and when it comes to texting, pressing 10 different buttons a total of 40 times isn’t exactly the best form of convenience. Instead of writing out words in full, people would instead abbreviate them, allowing them to send messages faster than typing out words completely. ‘You’ became ‘U’ and ‘are’ became ‘R’. It seems that nowadays, everybody uses some form of textism when sending messages to one another, whether it’s a simple ‘lol’ (laugh out loud) or a full sentence such as ‘c u tmrw @ 8’ (See you tomorrow at eight). These word adaptations and abbreviations are really easy to type up, especially when you are in a rush, and oftentimes it feels like second nature. Sometimes we even just type them because we are too lazy to move our fingers the extra inch. Textisms are often created and used by adolescents, and today it seems that sometimes the best answer you can get out of someone young is ‘k’ (OK).
Because of young people’s perpetual use of textism, many people think that students’ writing abilities have been slowly eroding, as younger and younger generations become more involved in technology use. Jean Parrella, Holli Leggette, and Tobin Redwine note that “75% of high school teachers believed texting negatively impacts students’ writing skills,” and who would blame them for thinking that (Parella et. al 2)? How could spelling words incorrectly, word adaptations, and other transmutations help students in the slightest? But according to some researchers, it does help. Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, and Puja Joshi found a positive correlation between students’ use of texting and their reading and writing abilities, highlighting that texting may have its advantages when it comes to helping students learn how to write (Plester et. al 155). In contrast, Drew Cingel and Shyam Sundar found a negative correlation between texting and adolescent grammar skills in their study, showing us that there may be circumstances where texting and social media could provide both a positive and negative when it comes to writing (Cingel and Sundar 1316). Common sense tells us that practicing something the wrong way will not help us but harm us by creating a ‘bad’ habit, but what we see here is that there may be some exceptions to that rule.
One area where textism may influence writing skills is in the practice of informal writing. Early in school, we learned that there are certain assignments where we can be less formal in our approach, especially when it comes to writing. This clicked with me when my teachers would make us buy a journal for daily writing but then, they never checked to see what we wrote. At first, I kept to the assignments but after a while, my writing looked completely different, it was filled with misspellings and abbreviations. However, the formal assignments that I turned in never saw a single one of those misspellings or abbreviations. This logical separation of formal and informal writing is very important in life and for many of us, it helps in our future careers.
Parella and her colleagues studied the separation of formal and informal writing and learned that “college students could differentiate appropriate and inappropriate instances of textisms in their writing” furthermore the “students knew which language to use for formal and informal contexts” (Parella et. al 3). Seemingly, we can see that textism has no effect on the differentiation between formal and informal writing. This I found interesting because there is evidence to show that textism can affect writing abilities negatively, and because of that I expected that students’ differentiation between formal and informal would become more blended, resulting in the deterioration of the distinction between the two types of writing. BUT…
Certainly, I didn’t think that writing formally would disappear altogether but rather that the constraints in formal writing would become loosened. With a further investigation, I found that Cingel’s and Sundar’s study of textism’s effect on adolescents exposed that 60% of adolescents don’t view online writing as “real writing,” and a further 64% of adolescents say they use informal writing online (Cingel, and Sundar 1306-1307). This told me that, though adolescents did not view online writing with the use of textism as “real writing,” they did differentiate it from a formal type of writing which provided an interesting contrast in thought process. This differentiation shows that in Cingel’s and Sundar’s study most adolescents viewed informal writing as not real, making me believe that possibly texting and social media could have a positive effect on how students learn to differentiate between formal and informal assignments.
Interestingly though, Cingel and Sundar come to the conclusion that, for the most part, adolescents were not able to switch between writing text messages and using correct English grammar for assignments (Cingel and Sundar1316). The findings from Parella, and others, tend to match what Cingel and Sundar conclude when they write, “Students who did incorporate textisms into their work, however, lacked proficiency in the English language and had extensive spelling errors, suggesting that the carelessness for the proper spelling of TM [text messaging] may negatively influence students’ ability to recall proper spelling when necessary” (Parella et. al 3). From what we see here I think it’s fair to say that the differentiation between the two styles of writing doesn’t play a large part in helping students with grammar skills though there may be some benefits to linguistic flexibility.
Some things that I found interesting, based on the studies I observed here, is that students can make the differentiation between informal and formal writing, but at the same time their grammar and basic English writing skills remain the same throughout. This can mean two things, either textism has negative effects on students’ grammar and basic writing abilities, or the way English grammar and basic writing skills are taught in early elementary schools is not sufficient enough for students to hold on to that information. If the latter is true then teachers will need to find new ways to help teach students proper English grammar and basic writing skills, if it’s not true then we should figure out how to limit the effects of textism on students’ grammar and basic writing skills. Either way, there is plenty of work on educators’ part in the ways of incorporating this new form of writing into classroom education. This incorporation of texting and social media use in the classroom is important because as there are more and more adolescents using this type of communication, engaging them becomes harder if teachers don’t have the correct tools to do so.
Texting and social media are often frowned upon in the classroom, however, it seems that these two mediums for communication are much more effective in drawing students’ attention. Something that is overlooked far too often as a teaching tool is texting and social media. These can be used in a variety of ways to help students engage with about a multitude of topics that they are interested in. If students become interested in the things that they write about, then surely there will be an increase in the quality of their writing because they won’t be dreading the assignments that they are tasked with. The platform used to engage students shouldn’t matter because students by themselves determine what interests them and teachers should use methods that students engage in rather than following a curriculum that doesn’t have student interests in mind.
While I was in high school, I always felt that my English assignments never piqued my interest. We would be asked to write about movies, books, stories, poems, and articles, but even though we were given a variety in the type of media I never felt that the topics of these media forms were interesting to me at the time. As a student, I would complete the assignment for the grade and I never considered myself to be improving my writing, I was just writing for the sake of the assignment. Though this may have given me lots of practice composing, it never sparked my interest in writing, I never felt like this was something I wanted to further immerse myself into.
This is where texting and social media come in. When texting, and on social media, you can not only find forums about any topic imaginable, but you can also create forums for topics that you think are interesting. Social media is one of the places where a lot of these forums reside. Twitter is one of the biggest melting pots for ideas and a lot of different discussions can be held at once between members. You can talk about religion, politics, sports, cars, general news, and even the weather if you wanted to. Lots of students, including myself, think of texting and social media as one of the best ways to explore topics that are interesting to us and to write about things that we enjoy writing about.
Sarah Galvin and Christine Greenhow explored how social media helps engage writers and found that teens felt that social media was less restrictive than their classroom composition and that the open expression and social interaction afforded to them by social media made writing more enjoyable (Galvin and Greenhow 57). This contrast of how teens feel about writing on social media, versus classroom composition, provides us with an idea of how writing online can be used to help get students interested in the topics they write about. Sheelah Sweeny agrees when she writes, “Texting or IM [instant messaging] can be used to create a community of writers where their ideas and writing struggles are shared…” (Sweeny 128). Galvin, Greenhow, and Sweeny all note how technology, specifically in the forms of social media and texting, can be useful in engaging young people with writing. Sweeny also notes that writing in the form of texting is a really important part of teenagers’ day-to-day lives. I believe that if there is something that encourages and engages someone to do something then there’s a good reason for it, and if texting and social media are what encourage teens and adolescents to engage in writing then I think teachers should take more advantage of something that is already part of students’ lives. If students are willing to spend hours outside of school texting and using social media, who says they won’t jump at the chance to do it in school?
We face many issues when it comes to how texting and social media affect writing. However, I think that the main problems are that the style of writing portrayed in informal writing has been slowly bleeding into formal writing in the form of bad grammar and poor basic writing skill, and at the same time, we see that students prefer their writing to be more informal because it allows them to be more confident in their writing. I think that fixing the grammar in the context of formal writing will be an easier issue to fix in that there are multiple solutions that are available for educators to try, like more grammar and basic writing skills being taught in the early elementary years. The bigger issue I see for the future of writing is that students feel more comfortable and more confident in their informal writing, which is not a bad thing, but when we compare that to how informal writing affects formal writing we might first need to reverse the effects of textism on formal writing, before we can find solutions.
Texting and social media are great places for informal writing, and as we’ve seen, those forms of communication are much more preferred by adolescents. But how can we ensure that their use of informal writing doesn’t bleed into their attempts at formal writing? Adolescents will only continue to use texting and social media, so it is important that we can figure out how we can make sure that students’ English writing abilities do not erode, while at the same time making them feel comfortable in their writing.
Cingel, Drew P., and S. Shyam Sundar. “Texting, Techspeak, and Tweens: The Relationship Between Text Messaging and English Grammar Skills.” New Media & Society, vol. 14, no. 8, 2012, pp. 1304–20.
Galvin, Sarah, and Christine Greenhow. “Writing on Social Media: a Review of Research in the High School Classroom.” TechTrends, vol. 64, no. 1, 2019, pp. 57–69.
Parrella, Jean, et al. “Measuring the Correlation Between Digital Media Usage and Students’ Perceived Writing Ability: Are They Related?” Research in Learning Technology, vol. 29, 2021, pp. 1–14.
Plester, Beverly, et al. “Exploring the Relationship Between Children’s Knowledge of Text Message Abbreviations and School Literacy Outcomes.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Received 27 June 2007; revised version received 8 May 2008, vol. 27, no. 1, 2009, pp. 145–61.
Sweeny, Sheelah M. “Writing for the Instant Messaging and Text Messaging Generation: Using New Literacies to Support Writing Instruction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 54, no. 2, 2010, pp. 121–30.