Texting and Literacy

Researchers can’t seem to agree if text messaging, using texting abbreviations and colloquialisms or communicating so casually in written form is correlated with high or low literacy levels. The argument goes like this (promoted most famously by David Crystal), if students are getting so much more practice with writing, then there must be a positive correlation with reading, writing, and spelling. Or students will be developing better critical thinking skills because they are getting meaning from a written form so often. Not surprisingly, researchers in this vein find a positive correlation.

Other researchers say that there’s a negative correlation. They argue that the more students text, the more they’ve practiced the [academically/prescriptively] wrong forms. There is one famous study (Drouin 2011) that exposed college students to either correct spellings or misspellings and then gave them a literacy test. The group exposed to the misspellings had more misspellings. Well, OK. First, spelling is one aspect of literacy. Second, these are college students spelling slightly less frequent words. But maybe there’s a problem here. Anyhow, researchers with this perspective tend to find a negative correlation between texting frequency and literacy.

Some studies look more at frequency of abbreviations and literacy level (Plester, Wood & Joshi, 2009). I think this is more on track. The logic is that students who have higher literacy score tend to have better command of language in general – not just in an academic setting. So, if they are more fluent with the language, they should be better equipt to play with it through things like abbreviations and logograms. What Plester et al. found was that even after accounting for phonological awareness (the biggest determiner of academic fluency), students who use a lot of abbreviations had higher literacy scores. This is what is so interesting – regardless of sound awareness, those who played with language had higher literacy scores.

This obviously has huge implications for the classroom, but also for dual language programs. For my dissertation, I’m looking at how long-term ESL students text and chat. They are linguistically gifted and deprived at the same time. They have more native languages than your average American public school student, but are defined as being all but language-less. I can’t wait to see how they use language, if they play when they’re communicating socially, if they own and identify with being bilingual or if they try to get away from it to be monolingual, and under what circumstances.