Texting, Tweeting and Terrible Grammar in K-12 Schools

Internet and cell phone cultures have brought a whole new meaning to American slang. Not only are kids these days speaking informally, but now those relaxed rules of grammar are sneaking into written words too.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project asked middle and high school educators about their thoughts on digital tools and the impact on student writing. Over two-thirds of the respondents said that writing platforms provided through Internet and cell phone use have improved student creativity. Students also have more outlets for collaboration which encourages improvement and “putting it out there” in terms of writing that may have been closeted to notebooks or diaries in pre-Internet generations.

The biggest problem with these digital avenues of composition, according to surveyed teachers, is the blurring of lines between formal and informal writing. Abbreviations are common, particularly on platforms like Twitter that have a 140-character limit. Most smartphones now have no limits on texting characters, but students that owned phones with the 160-character limits of just a few years ago have already formed short, abbreviated habits. In the digital realm, short and sweet is the key – even if a grammar, punctuation and writing formalities fall by the wayside. The same is not true of educational writing pursuits though, as K-12 writing instructors must prepare students for the demands of strong, professional writing in college and the workplace.

A report released by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills found that over 26 percent of college graduates have deficient writing skills. These findings were not based on graduation assessment exams, but compiled by interviewing actual employers. These employers said that many college-educated employees could not even accomplish the basic writing tasks of the job proficiently. How are these students earning college degrees if their writing is not up to par though? With the average U.S. student accruing $35,200 in college debt, it would seem learning the basics of writing, at least above a “deficient” level, would be a given takeaway.

The deficiency is not the fault of the colleges and universities though, at least not totally. Students are showing up for college without the skills needed to write well and with schools assuming they already know the basics. The 2011 book Academically Adrift found that less than half college students felt their writing had improved at all in college. Less than half also said they were never required to write a paper longer than 20 pages. In a nutshell, the writing proficiency that half of these students exhibited as seniors in high school was the same four years later, despite the so-called rigors and high cost associated with a college education.

While colleges could certainly take a hint from these numbers, the work of remedial writing education is not the responsibility of colleges. It falls on the teachers that come long before the adult years. These teachers face an uphill battle though, especially in an age where formal writing is often confused with everyday communication. The tools for creativity in the writing process may be better than ever, but the constraints of digital communication are hurting students’ composition and their attention spans too.

How can students who have essentially made a lifestyle of short, segmented, slang-ridden writing conform to the formal communication still expected in the real world? It starts with teachers who set high standards and do not waver. In the long run, the fear of losing a student’s interest by insisting on high writing standards is a small one compared to the implications of college graduates viewed as writing-deficient by the people who sign their paychecks.

How can K-12 teachers win out against the negative impact of digital communication on formal writing?


0 Replies to “Texting, Tweeting and Terrible Grammar in K-12 Schools”

  1. I like the statement, “it starts with teachers that have high standards and do not waver.” I believe that’s the issue. So many teachers give in to students and parents who do not want to work to write a great essay or research paper. They want an “A” with no effort. Of course, the pressure also comes from the school administration that gets “complaints” from parents that the teacher is being “too hard”!

    Why can’t writing teachers be allowed to have the same kind of high standards as those future employers? It would produce excellent employees in this information driven society.

  2. I also wonder if the issue doesn’t really start with higher education, however? When I was in college twenty years ago, I helped a social work major edit her senior research project. Her project was full of sentence fragments and awkward words. Yet, she was due to graduate with a BS degree! I wonder how many teaching majors have graduated from college with similar deficient writing skills? Why are colleges and universities allowing students to graduate when they can’t even write a sentence?

    1. Go to any Fortune 100 company in this country and you will find executives who haven’t a clue how to spell or use proper punctuation. They got there based on other attributes. I remember talking to a CEO of a large tractor company (which eventually merged with John-Deere) and he didn’t bother going to school because he didn’t have the academic skills–his plan was to be a mechanic, but fell into a job as a young man and started climbing the corporate ladder–whether he can spell or use proper language didn’t make a difference one bit.

  3. There have always been shortened forms of communication that butcher the King’s English. The unfortunate truth is that writing takes time, and that pen and paper (or cellphone keyboard) just can’t keep up to transcribe at the speed of speech, let alone the speed of thought. Text and twitter merely drive colloquialism, abbreviation, and jargon of language down to earlier age groups. I remember similar concerns about the evils e-mail was doing to the English language when e-mail was new… The ‘fix’, of course, is for k-12 education to continue to teach the King’s English – which means English classes that have high standards, drill grammar, and require formal papers, along with cooperation from teachers of history, health, and all the other subjects to demand high standards for language grammar, spelling, etc. when students hand in work in their disciplines. People are great at adapting and compartmentalizing. If kids are taught the King’s English k-12, then they’ll be able to communicate correctly when they need to, and use colloquialisms and workplace jargon the rest of the time, as we all have a tendency to do. It is when the foundation wasn’t laid k-12 that folks have trouble later in life.

    1. I agree. It seems to me that K-12 schools need to continue to teach grammar and writing and teach it well in order for students to get past the colloquialisms of their generation.

      However, language is continually changing. What was colloquial years ago is “the king’s English” today. What was easy to read a generation ago is thought to be “old english” to high school students today. Language is continually changing and technology is most likely going to make it change quicker than it normally would.

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