Can texting help teens with writing and spelling?

One of my parents dropped me a line today, asking for a bit of advice about her daughter—who, because of a bit of reading reluctance has always struggled with spelling proficiency.

Specifically, she was wondering whether or not texting might be a good forum for spelling practice for her daughter—and if so, whether cell phones with autocorrect become a crutch for kids who struggle with spelling.

Interesting questions, aren’t they?  And they’re right up my alley, considering I can’t spell to save my life!

(Didn’t know that about me, did you?)

It’s true.  Even though I’m a professional writer who just finished his third book and his 500th blog entry here on the Radical, spelling has never been a strong suit of mine.

That bing siad—sorry, had to do it—here’s a few thoughts on texting, spelling and teens.

Texting certainly provides dozens of new opportunities for kids to write.

Let’s face it:  Us adult types have been pretty skeptical about texting, haven’t we?  Find me one parent or teacher that believes texting has value as a teaching/learning tool and I’ll find you fifty who think texting is the root cause of the decline of Western Civilization as we know it.

Heck, a few years back, the Librarian of Congress went as far as to argue that texting is leading to the death of the sentence.

That’s hardcore.

But it is impossible to deny that texting has provided dozens of new writing opportunities for our kids.  After all, the average teen sends 50 texts a day—a number that rises to 80 when you look at just the teen girls who are texting.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  It’s difficult to see much writing value in messages that are full of text-speak.  Can we really count the six “LOLs” and “ROTFLs” sent per day as writing opportunities?

The answer is yes—because no matter how short-hand-ed-ly written a message is, it is still an opportunity for writing that our kids didn’t have back in the good ol’ text-free days of yesteryear.

Did YOU write 50+ messages a day to anyone back when you were a teen or a tween?

Me neither.

But teens don’t see texting as a tool for writing.

Here’s the hitch:  Our kids DON’T see texting as a tool for formal writing.  Instead, texting is a tool for the kinds of informal conversations that the rest of us grown-up-types used to have on those things called landlines.

“Hey,” we’d say.  “Whaddya’ doin’?”

“Nothin’.”

“Me neither”

“Bummer, dood.”

Transcribe a few of those conversations word for word, Mr. Library of Congress Man, and you’ll quickly discover that hormones and teen-aged-hood have been trying to kill articulate thought for a long, long while now!

Teens have never been particularly formal when interacting with their peers—whether that was on the rotary phones of the late 1970s or in the text messages of today.

That doesn’t mean that rotary phones and texting are automatically bad for the intellectual development of our kids, but it does mean that texting isn’t a natural way to encourage quality writing practices in today’s kids because that’s not how today’s kids see texting.

If we really want to use texting as a tool for meaningful writing instruction, we’re going to have to shift our students’ perception about the purposes of texting as a form of communication—and that shift might just allow us to take advantage of the most motivating forum for teenage writing ever seen.

But when was the last time that changing the way that teens communicate—that laying a layer of academics over the top of a tool that kids use almost exclusively for social purposes—was easy?

My guess:  Never.

Creating meaningful writing opportunities out of texting requires specific tasks and, possibly, new audiences.

If I wanted to try to use texting as a tool for giving students opportunities to develop writing and spelling proficiency, I think I’d wind ‘em up on 25 word stories.

A fun Twitter project that I first learned about from Kevin Hodgson, 25 word stories are exactly what you think they are:  Attempts to write complete stories in 25 words or less.

The 25 word limit is beautiful for lots of reasons.  Perhaps most importantly to me as a professional writing teacher, 25 word stories require authors to be creative in their word choice and to craft pieces that force readers to rely on inferences to figure out what’s really going on.

Here’s a 25 word story I wrote yesterday.  See how readers are left to wonder—what is the man dreaming about?  What about his past was broken?  How does he feel about bedtime?  Will he ever reclaim his life?

For kids, 25 word stories are beautiful because they’re 25 words long!  That’s infinitely more doable than the five-paragraph essays we’re asking them to write all the time, isn’t it?

25 word stories work a lot like brain teasers.  When you’re limited to 25 words—or to the 160 characters allowed in one text message—you’ve got to puzzle a bit to get your piece just right.  For a lot of kids, that mental puzzling is fun.

When my kids were done with their 25 word stories, I’d have ‘em text them to their friends—who could pretty easily respond with feedback.  Suddenly, the audience for a text message becomes the audience for an interesting bit of writing.

And once the audience for a text message becomes the audience for an interesting bit of writing, spelling matters again.

By giving kids a specific, interesting task for the text messages that they’re writing, we can start to shift their perception of messaging as a forum for informal communication to messaging as a forum for sharing bits of interesting, well-developed thought.

Does that make sense?

One final thought:  If I were a parent pushing my child in the direction of 25 word stories as content for text messages and she didn’t have any friends who were willing to play along, I’d create a Twitter account for her and start posting her stories there.

The writers posting their 25 word stories on Twitter take the practice seriously and give one another feedback all the time.  Shifting audience might make short messaging more successful as a writing practice for kids whose friends just aren’t interested in trying something new.

Knowing how to spell isn’t essential—knowing how to identify errors and correct them is.

The short answer to my parent’s last question—do cell phones with autocorrect spelling features become crutches for kids—is a resounding yes.

If your goal is for your child to be a master speller on their own—like one of those kids on the National Spelling Bees at 3 AM on ESPN 2 in the middle of February—you should avoid autocorrect tools at all costs.

But here’s the thing:  Most researchers will tell you that spellers move through developmental stages and that many adults will never get to the top levels of spelling ability no matter how many spelling lists they memorize in elementary school.

I’m living proof, y’all!  Heck, when I write on the board in my classroom, the kids laugh hysterically at how mangled my words are.

What I tell them once they catch their breath and wipe the tears out of their eyes is that knowing how to spell isn’t essential.  Instead, knowing how to identify—and then to correct—errors is what’s really essential.

Back in the day, knowing how to identify and then to correct errors was a chore, though.  It involved all kinds of proofreading (I read my papers backwards to avoid being blinded by context) and phonemic awareness (I sounded out every word that was more than 3 letters for a long, long time).

Today, knowing how to identify and correct errors is way easier.  Start by looking for the red lines.  Then, right click on your mouse and find the correct spelling in the list that is automatically generated for you by the device you’re using.

Kids never had it so easy!

Sure, there are going to be times when spell check doesn’t work.  There may even be times where you’re not able to access a device that spell checks and autocorrects—although that’s getting less and less likely for everyone working beyond the unplugged public school classroom where most devices are banned and/or broken.

But for the most part, I’m a big fan of taking advantage of tools that make me more efficient because I can use the time that I save on chores to do more interesting stuff.

When I can invest my mental energy into the content of a writing piece instead of into the drudgery of figuring out how to spell a million incorrect words, my work is more engaging and my mind is more engaged.

So whaddya’ think? 

How important do you think spelling proficiency really is in today’s world?  Are you an “autocorrect-makes-‘em-lazy” kind of guy or a “I-love-me-some-red-lines” kind of guy?

Have you ever thought about using texting as a tool for improving the writing and spellling proficiencies of your students?  Why or why not?

Do you think we’re missing an opportunity when we don’t take advantage of texting as a forum for expression and meaningful communication?  After all, our kids have certainly embraced it.

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