Cheerleaders wait differently from you and me. They don’t stand or sit patiently after scattering outside the middle school gymnasium. Instead, they pull out their phones — they always have them — and text or chat to one another.
One of them, Morgan, pecks out a quick message to Hannah just moments before her mom’s minivan pulls into view. “Waiting for trin she said shed brb. mom is l8,” she types. “But i c her now so ill just ttyl.”
Translation: “Waiting for Trinity, who said she’d be right back,” Morgan said. “My mom is late, but I see her now, so I’ll just talk to you later.”
This isn’t an isolated example — Morgan and her friends text like this all the time, complete with run-on sentences, fragments and strange slang. If you knew Morgan only from her texts, you might question her mental abilities, much less her command of standard English spelling and grammar.
Others question whether her fondness for typing like a breathless teenbot is affecting her writing ability. Morgan is like many typical teens, she’s an avid communicator by text — but her grades in English are slipping, the cause for a fight that begins when she clambers into the van and her mom asks her about her homework that day.
And her parents and teachers worry: does her fondness for texting chip away at her ability to write clear, effective sentences in standard English — you know, the language people have to use at college and work?
As it turns out, the answer is more complex than you’d think. And her habit of using “ttyl” and “omg” might actually be helpful.
Like any typical teen, Morgan uses “textisms,” shortened words, like “ur” for “your” or “you’re,” and abbreviations, such as “tmrw,” for “tomorrow,” in the absence of any punctuations, apostrophes or capital letters. For years, teens have crammed as many words into as few characters as possible, and textisms have evolved into its own form of cryptic language that can be hard for any outsider to decipher, much less keep up with.
When I caught onto “l8r,” for “later,” for example, I was quickly barraged with “lmao,” for “laughing my ass off,” “gr8,” for “great” and “unblefble,” for “unbelievable.”
Even public figures stumble with the shorthand. According to the Guardian, British Prime Minister David Cameron used to conclude his texts with “LOL,” thinking it meant “lots of love.” But then a recipient told him it stood for “laugh out loud,” making him a temporary laughing stock. I’m a step behind, but at least I’m ahead of a head of state.
For over a decade, we’ve increasingly leaned on a growing body of textisms and emoticons, in the absence of non-verbal cues, to speed up and add texture to the way we communicate. They’ve even trickled into our national vocabulary, creeping into our headlines and sitcoms.
And as the practice becomes mainstream, it is raising red flags.
Critics say the influence of technology — particularly mobile devices and social media — is fueling a decline in our writing skill, and by blurring the boundaries of colloquialisms and standard English, the practice of shorthand texting may threaten the next generation’s literacy. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, in 2007, only one third of the country’s eighth graders were proficient writers.
So while Morgan and her cheerleaders score social points for artful textisms, they might also get lazy about learning the basics of grammar and spelling and fail at composing an essay in the classroom. Morgan would likely get home, settle in to start her dreaded assignment for English class, put down her phone… and suddenly be at a loss on how to string together cohesive paragraphs of clear, concise sentences into a clear essay on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The decline of the written word reaches back to younger students, too. Among seven-year-olds, writing standards has fallen for two straight years, according to the Independent, and the slight dip of one percent, in this case, was enough to raise concerns that a generation of children have forgone a mastery of basic grammar and punctuation skills in favor of texting shorthand.
And according to a recent Pew Internet survey, over 2,000 teachers agreed that the rise of technology has encouraged bad writing habits to creep into formal writing assignments. In fact, two-in-three of those teachers polled said students were more likely to become lax and take shortcuts in writing, due to the convenience of digital tools that encourage tendencies of “carelessness and writing too fast.”
While instructors agree that overall quality deteriorated, there is no clear consensus on the specific causes in mistakes of literacy, like spelling and grammar. While 40 percent blamed technology for it, another 38 percent said it was “less likely” the case.
But the gray areas are widening between the relationship of textisms and literacy. According to recent research, textisms are far more complicated than originally thought. While tools like autocorrect may lessen a student’s conscientiousness about writing quality, textisms are shown to hone a sense of language in unexpected, and sophisticated, ways.
So when Morgan, bored and daunted by her Shakespearean essay assignment, decides to taps out a text to Hannah, she does more than procrastinate to avoid doing her homework. Though it isn’t pen to paper — and it won’t make her mom happy — she’s practicing a form of written communication. And, her choice of using “ttyl” for “talk to you later” may actually exercise her creative mind to test out variations that build a more sophisticated understanding of language.
In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, scientists found a positive correlation between texting and literacy, and believe it may actually help to improve spelling, of all things. Contrary to what teachers believe, when Morgan receives a “creative” message that pairs “l8r” and “2nite,” for “tonight,” she is strengthening her writing skill in ways that those who don’t use textisms aren’t.
By texting with shorthand, students actually reinforce “phonological awareness,” or an ability to detect, isolate and manipulate patterns of sound in speech. For example, those who can identify rhyming, or missing words or letters, generally have a higher level of this awareness. In this way, when Morgan thinks to abbreviate a phrase, she’s demonstrating an understanding of how those sounds and letters work and join together.
“[Texting] is actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children,” Clare Wood, a researcher in developmental psychology at Coventry University, reported. The study found a link between fluent use of textism with literacy, demonstrated in higher performance on standardized tests in reading and spelling.
The research also noted that children increase their use of textisms as they grow older. While only one-in-four fourth graders use them, by sixth grade, nearly half of them do, suggesting, at least, a causal contribution of texting to overall spelling performance. In fact, levels of textism use can even predict each student’s reading ability by year’s end, according to the study.
“We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all,” Wood told the British Academy. “We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children.”
The extraordinary amount of time children, like Morgan, spend on composing textisms is, in part, fueling stronger language skills. While they no longer talk on the phone, texting, at its core, is still writing, and that means they’re practicing it more than ever.
According to the Telegraph, England’s Department for Education found that nearly 70 percent of schoolchildren text at least once a month. While they don’t draft formal “five paragraph essays,” they are, informally, writing on a more regular basis, throwing in a smattering of textisms for flair. The study concluded that little evidence supported any notion that “writing language development is being disrupted by the use of text abbreviations.”
While obnoxious to some adults, for children, texting can actually form a valuable bond with the written word. It allows them to practice reading and spelling, though mangled with colloquialisms, on a daily basis, something they would have had less to do with in an age before the advent of mobile devices. According to Wood, textisms are far from damaging. “If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards among young children, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it,” she added.
But if there is one area where textisms drag down writing performance, it may be in more formal writing with older students, according to California State University. When researchers asked participants to compose a formal letter of complaint, and an informal description of their unhappiness, they found a link between frequent use of textisms to weaker formal, yet stronger informal, writing.
Morgan might be expressive in texting her friends her disappointment while cheering at the losing playoff games, but she isn’t as sharp when asked to compose an essay for English class. Her textisms give her a creative flair with phrases, but there’s a gap she needs to bridge when it comes to expressing more complex ideas and meanings in written language. She faces the blank screen of the laptop and suddenly finds herself not knowing what to say, and how to say it. No wonder she reaches for her phone instead, texting “Argh i h8 this hmwork 4 english class who cares abt romeo+juliet” to Hannah.
How do we get Morgan to be as confident in writing formally as she does on her phone?
You can build on her fondness for texting. Texting on a daily basis may not build formal writing skills, but, at the same time, it does serve as good “practice” for an informal style, which teachers and parents can parlay into supporting more proper writing and thinking skills.
For example, ask kids to explain what shorthand they use, and talk about how a message is meant to be funny, ironic or simply informative. Or, even better, make a game out of it and challenge them to come up with textisms, and stimulate a creativity for words and phrases.
For teachers, Scholastic gives a number of techniques to add texting to class work. For example, teachers can ask students to match vocabulary with abbreviations, like “LOL” with “uproarious” to develop vocabulary, or to compose texts from the point of view of a character in a novel, or a real-world historical figure, to develop rhetorical and critical thinking skills.
Morgan would have a field day composing texts between Romeo and Juliet, while gaining a deeper appreciation for the Shakespearean classic and understanding how point-of-view shapes expression.
“We hope to instill a change in attitude in teachers and parents, recognizing the potential to use text-based exercises to engage children in phonological awareness activities,” Wood added.
While technology is often the culprit to pitfalls in literacy, it also gives us an opportunity to enhance it. After all, half of Americans still text closely to the rules of standard English, according to a YouGov survey, while the rest use textisms, and a combination of slang and formal writing.
So if your child, niece or neighbor is a talented texter, especially one who throws in a lot of clever textisms, don’t despair. At the very least, for those who excel at reading and writing, texting is simply another way to practice language skills. And for younger kids, especially, the link between textisms and literacy are positive one, particularly in informal communication.
The challenge comes at higher education levels, when formal writing takes center stage. It’s a challenge for teens like Morgan to tackle, but there are ways to use their enthusiasm for digital communication to foster an understanding of more complex language usage. We just have to be as creative in teaching writing, as kids are in coming up with new textisms.
But 4 now, no need 2 worry if ur kid is an illiterate fool bc they like txting. It might seem unblefbl that its good wrtng prctce, but its actlly a strong foundation 2 build upon. ♦