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What is the evidence of literacy decline caused by texting?

addicted by matthew rogersI’m working on a post about taboo words (that means swearing or profanity) that’s not ready for prime time — and recovering from the flu. In the meantime, I highly recommend  today’s post over at Motivated Grammar. Gabe’s point is that, when people don’t actually understand how language works, they see decline and deterioration in language different from their own instead of the underlying patterns. Another linguist makes the point in Teens and Texting and Grammar.

For those of you who worry about the effect of texting on literacy, there are several studies showing no negative effects. But beware of popular media on this topic. The idea that texting is ruining civilization sells papers (er, at least, advertising) just like the topic of overpaid and underworked college professors.  One exception is this piece from the UK’s The Telegraph, which reports responsibly on research by Clare Wood in this area. Note that the comments from readers, however, were profoundly negative.

Linguistics Research Digest — which appears on my Blogroll — blogged about research on texting by Ditte Laursen not long ago. You should also check out David Crystal‘s 2008 book, Txtng: the Gr8 Db8. Here are some of his findings:

  • Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations – typically less than ten percent of the words use them.
  • These abbreviations aren’t a new language – they’ve been around for decades.
  • They aren’t just used by kids – adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days.
  • Pupils don’t routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
  • It isn’t a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
  • Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.

I will agree that the majority of college students appear to misunderstand the appropriate formality level for communicating with college professors. And, for some of them, that appears to cross over into the workplace. Most of us expect a more formal, professional tone that can’t be conveyed by text-speak. But that is rhetorical deficiency — a serious one!  It has nothing to do with literacy.

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  1. Here’s the one issue I have with the research that says there is no decline in grammatical skill: where is the data coming from? According to a video interview I saw with David Crystal, a lot of his data came from just chatting with school kids for a couple of hours and asking their teachers if they use texting abbreviations in essays. Self-reported behavior? Notoriously unreliable. I don’t know what research he looked at to put his entire book together, but I don’t know if he does any of the original research himself beyond collected some anecdotal data. (That’s not a veiled insult – I really don’t know). I also saw another interview with a researcher at Stanford that did her own research. She tracked a few hundred students throughout their 4 years at Stanford and found no detrimental effect. Again, however, she relied on the subjects to submit their own raw data (in the form of their completed schoolwork essays) and she’s also looking at students who are already both highly-skilled and highly-motivated.

    I wrote about both of the videos:
    the David Crystal video: http://asalinguist.com/2011/03/22/253/
    the Andrea Lunsford/Stanford study: http://asalinguist.com/2011/05/24/who-will-inherit-the-language/

    I’m not saying that I’m joining the mob mentality and am convinced that texting is destroying our language. I might not like some of the changes I see, but I’m also very aware of both the concept and the mechanics of language change. But I also can’t ignore what I see in front of my own eyes every time I read an essay written by students who want to enter my community college or have already enrolled in one of my classes. If no one is using texting abbreviations and spellings in academic work, why did I feel the need to add a policy to my standard course syllabus that texting abbreviations result in automatic deductions of an assignment grade? There is a blurring of context that is going on; the only question is what that ultimately means.

    I have colleagues who are adjuncting after retiring from public school teaching and who have been teaching for 30-40 years. They all say they are seeing not just a change but a decline in the ability to spell, use punctuation, use correct verb forms…I don’t know if technology is to blame. Perhaps in part it is simply speeding up a natural process, or perhaps it is introducing changes that wouldn’t have come about without texting and Twitter. Perhaps it is only revealing gaps in skills rather than causing them. Maybe the fact that these errors are now reaching a much larger audience results in overexposure of these errors to people who then take on the same errors because they’re no longer sure what the right version is. (That happens to ESL teachers a lot – we hear the same sorts of errors from our students on a daily basis and in some cases, we even start to doubt our own native-speaker instincts about certain constructions.)

    Whatever it is, I think there just might be something other than language change going on, and it’s possible that this has more to do with education than with technology.

    Sorry for the long rambling comment!

  2. I do understand your concern with student performance. I feel confidant the problem is rhetorical for my students. But they are, in general, fairly high performers. It may be different for students with less competence in Standard English. I also think that, as I age, I find more and more differences between me and my students tempting me to discount them 🙁

    I’m not sure about David Crystal’s source of data. But Clare Wood’s work seems methodologically sound: see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00398.x/abstract. I should have read your earlier posts as I see you included this one!

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