student texting

The Internet: A Boon to Writing, or the Beginning of the End?

September 11, 2010 07:00 AM
by Rachel Balik
Several studies have tried to determine whether online media actually fosters creativity and improves writing skills.

Studies Analyze Students’ Writing Habits

The Internet has certainly provided students with more opportunities to write outside the classroom. But while many are adept at blogging, texting and communicating on social media sites, some of those prolific writers prove to be incapable of writing academic papers. Professors are split down the middle about how to react.

A five-year study at Stanford University called the “Stanford Study of Writing,” published in 2009, examined the “writing lives” of Stanford students. Writing is now a part of daily life of students, but not in the academic sense. As Jeffrey T. Grabill from the Michigan State University Writing in Digital Environments Research Center explained to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “In order to interact on the Web, you have to write." And young people are spending hours on the Web every day. That means that the majority of writing students do is no longer for class; Grabill, who conducted a study where students kept a journal reporting their daily writing habits, was surprised to find that writing for academic purposes was only a “small percentage” of the writing students did.

Ultimately, students were more interested and impassioned about the writing they did outside of class. Thus, they did more of it and learned more from it. Kathleen Blake Yancey, an English professor at Florida State University, suggested that class time might be used to draw distinctions between different types of writing, so that both forms could be included in the learning process. As teachers assess how to move forward with curriculum development, it is essential to capitalize on student engagement.

For the most part, students are most invested in their writing when it is linked to communication and socialization. Paul M. Rogers, who co-authored a similar writing study at Harvard, observed that the main draw of such writing was that it was generally directed toward accomplishing an “immediate, concrete goal.”

And while there is some concern that briefer forms of e-communication such as texting encourage linguistic decay, they may still be valuable as a learning tool. The BBC reported in February 2009 that a study conducted at Britain's Coventry University found that texting might actually help develop children’s reading ability and word recognition. Notably, the study found that “text speak” did not adversely affect students’ spelling ability.

Background: The effect of e-communication on writing

A study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in April 2008 found that 60 percent of teens did not consider text messaging and other forms of electronic communication to be real writing; they were able to distinguish the need to improve writing skills in the classroom from their daily frequent short messages. More than 80 percent of the teens studied said they texted, e-mailed or IMed on a daily basis, but 73 percent insisted that this writing did not affect their schoolwork.

Yet the results coincided with other data indicating that two-thirds of high school students allowed informal language such as emoticons and Internet abbreviations like “LOL” to slip into the writing they did for school.

Opinion & Analysis: Does informal writing hurt or help?

In an article titled “I h8 txt msgs,” which appeared in the Daily Mail in 2007, John Humphrey argued that text messaging was causing the deterioration of the English language. He writes, “They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary.” He insisted that “text-speak” makes communication more, not less, difficult, and concludes his essay by arguing that adept texters are likely to do poorly in school.

But a response appeared the following year in The Guardian, penned by linguistics professor David Crystal. Crystal argued that the effect of texting was “negligible” and that abbreviations had entered into language since we learned to speak. He also pointed out that while “many texters enjoy breaking linguistic rules, they also know they need to be understood.” In order to break the rules, boundaries must be learned as well.

Related Topic: The benefits of blogging

Similarly, despite acknowledging that online writing has a “colloquial, unfinished tone,” Atlantic magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan argued that there is great benefit to the immediacy that is possible when blogging or writing in the digital sphere. He admits that blogs are “superficial” in that entries must be relatively short, but that they give way to a “greater depth": Hyperlinks provide readers with more information. There is less emphasis on the writer, but there is greater opportunity to learn.

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