Text Messaging Does Not Negatively Impact Literacy Skills

Chris Drew is the creator of Pocket Literacy Coach, from WriteSteps, a Common Core writing resource for elementary teachers.

Guest blogger Chris Drew is the founder of Pocket Literacy Coach, an innovative resource that provides parents with literacy activities to do with their children.

Thanks to my friend Chris Drew, for permission to re-blog the following post, originally published in the Pocket Literacy Coach blog on August 14, 2012.  ~Suzanne

A friend of mine, Suzanne, at WriteSteps recently shared a story about how “Texting May Undermine Language, Spelling Skills.” It’s an interesting summary of a new study about correlations between “techspeak” and grammar test performance. We had a friendly back and forth about our disparate perspectives on this issue. In a nutshell, she generally supports the claims of the article, and I do not. The issue of texting impacting language and grammar skills is much more complex than this one story would lead us to believe. As pop news reporting on academic research usually goes, though, the author, Rick Nauert, doesn’t quite flesh out the whole story from a much larger context.

So Suzanne and I had a bit of a back and forth and we decided to trade our thoughts more publicly to see what our readers think and where they stand.  

Claims Rebuked
For those who don’t know, my Ph.D. is literacy and language studies, and some of my focus was in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, so I’ve studied the issue of discourse conventions and even have personally delved into some research on texting and language use. One thing is pretty clear from my perspective: The claim that teachers, educators and technology neigh-sayers throw around that “Texting is the degradation of literacy” or that using “textspeak” means that kids are lacking in cognitive sophistication are unfounded. In fact, the theories of sociolinguistics – especially the school of thought from New Literacy Studies scholars such as James Gee, Brian Street, David Barton and the like – anticipated such claims and rebuked them long ago. Long before there was even text messaging in fact!

Now there is a new peer-reviewed book scheduled for release from Routlege called Text Messaging and Literacy – The Evidence that includes several academic studies, a few of which are longitudinal, that demonstrate that text messaging not only is NOT harmful to literacy and spelling skills, but that the ability to use text speak is actually evidence for sophisticated phonological skills and thinking skills. To be clear, I have not yet read the book (because it’s not available till April 2013), but I have read one of the co-authors, Clare Wood, work on texting and literacy. Based on the review found here, and my knowledge of Wood’s previous research on the topic, I feel this is a pretty fair, though superficial, summary of the primary thesis. 

The Penn State study summarized by Nauert appears to be the results of a single survey wherein a group of 9th graders took a single grammar test. Then the researchers attempted to correlate the grammar errors to “textspeak” based on the previous 3 inbound and outbound messages in the students’ phones.

First, correlation is not causation.

Second, there is a whopper of a piece of disconfirming data in their own study: though students didn’t always capitalize or punctuate properly in txt spk, they nailed both on the grammar quizzes. The summary of the research doesn’t reveal much about the methodology, though. The impression, though, is that the study consisted of surveying a group of 9th graders and then correlating the survey results with a single, isolated grammar test. 

This topic of whether or to what degree texting impacts langauge is controversial and always gets a lot of attention from teachers and parents. 

A Political Issue
An interesting paradox of all this attention and the claims of a language and literacy crisis is that since the cries of “Johnny Can’t Read” from the mid-1980s literacy rates in the US have continually and steadily risen. Yet the cries continue. Why? Mostly because the Johnny Can’t Read movement was based in part in the plain English movement of the time, which is akin to the English Only movement that existed before and has persisted since. Issues of language and literacy are never completely straight forward. Which is to say, most of the debate around language and literacy is a political one (much like the Oakland Ebonics debate of the mid-90’s was actually about access to state-allocated dollars for second-language learners, but got turned into a racial issue. Perhaps as it rightfully should have been, because there’s plenty of research on discrimination based on speech (nearly all of William Labov’s oeuvre is dedicated to this; and another famous sociolinguist, Geneva Smitherman, has likewise written and testified in court cases about racialized perceptions of dialects and how it manifests as discrimination in education systems, housing, and job hunting).

So how can I say this a political debate? Because at the crux of the (dubious?) arguments about a language and literacy crisis is a more material motivation: resources in the form of cash. Crises drive resources. Crises inspire voters and votes. Votes move government dollars. Special interest groups publicize crises to drum up popular support. “You want illiterate kids? No? Then give us more money so Johnny can read!” Again, the paradox: teachers have actually gotten better and more effective over the past 3 decades, and as a result Johnny and Janie are reading more; they’re reading better. And there are more Johnny and Janie’s reading in toto. 

We don’t cry foul when bankers talk of APRs or when finance folks talk about ROI or when military folks and media speak of IEDs or MREs. There are plenty of acronyms used all around us, yet somehow LOL, WTF, RALMAO, BRB freaks people out. 

Two things are happening when critics call foul of txt spk. One, there is an underlying call for more resources. So there is political or cash motivation somewhere to be found. Two, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the conventions of a discourse community that is different from one’s own. An English-Only, language purist is likely not someone who is an avid communicator with a teenage smartphone user who is txtng upwards of 3,000 times per month. 

A critic with a position in this debate opposite of my own may argue, “These acronyms, misspellings and poor punctuation is just the tip of a larger iceberg. It’s indicative of sloppiness with langauge or the degredation/loss of literacy skills.” First, there is no empirical evidence for supporting this claim. None. Not even the Penn State study qualifies as evidence of txt spk as the degredation of literacy, because, mostly, grammar tests are not literacy tests.

Mostly this debate is an ideological one.

Thanks to guest blogger Chris Drew, the founder of Pocket Literacy Coach, for sharing his post with our readers. This post appeared in the Pocket Literacy Coach blog on August 14, 2012.