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Literacy and Text Messaging

How will the next generation read and write?
December 21, 2006

In the age of text messaging, where words are reduced to nonstandard abbreviations and symbols, many people question the future of literacy.

But experts point out that, in fact, technology has put new emphasis on reading and writing.

“A generation ago, a teen who couldn’t read well could still participate pretty fully in the social conversation among peers,” says Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association. “But with so much written chatter, being able to read and write have become definite social advantages. There is simply much more pressure to know how to read than in the past when it comes to conversation, shopping, or work.”

Shanahan points to the more than 30 billion e-mail messages and 5 billion text messages that are exchanged every day as evidence of how technology “is raising the value of reading in our society, both as an economic and as a social activity.”

Experts also say that technology has added new layers to our understanding of what it means to be literate.

“In coming years literacy will mean knowing how to choose between print, image, video, sound, and all the potential combinations they could create to make a particular point with a specific audience,” says Bronwyn Williams, associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. “What will not change is the necessity of an individual to be able to find a purpose, correctly analyze an audience, and communicate to that audience with information and in a tone that audience will find persuasive, engaging, and intelligent.”

Having multiple literacies, however, does not only mean being comfortable composing with a variety of media; it also means understanding how to use different facets of language in each situation.

“I think we often don’t give kids enough credit with their control over language,” says Eric Paulson, associate professor of literary education at the University of Cincinnati. “They can text ‘IMHO’ on their cell phones, write ‘my own opinion is’ in a school essay, and read ‘it is my belief that your scar hurts when Lord Voldemort is near you’ without getting discombobulated.”

Switching from a language appropriate for a text message to a linguistic mode more appropriate for addressing a teacher or writing an essay is a practice young people can easily be comfortable with.

“Ongoing research is indicating that text messaging and instant messaging often vary with changes in the rhetorical situation,” says Williams. “In other words, when someone texts or IMs someone who is not a close friend, or when the message is about something more serious, the grammar and spelling become less abbreviated and more conventional.”

While texting technologies dominate communication between young people, it isn’t the only trend informing us about how young people read and write.

We also live in the era with lots of great literature for young people. The Harry Potter series went from 320 pages in book one to 652 pages in book six. Millions of children are awaiting an equally heavy book seven for Christmas delivery. Meanwhile, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events has captivated young readers through a series of 13 books. Unlike earlier book fads, such as Sweet Valley High in the 1980s and Goosebumps in the 1990s, these best-selling books are actually, well, literary.

That does not mean all is well for literacy and communication in the future. It isn’t clear whether all children are comfortable shifting from one form of written communication to another.

A lack of opportunity to develop in multiple language modes could cause language to develop in one way among one group and make those kids unable to communicate with those who have developed multiple literacies.

“Which kids are texting, when, and how?” asks Bertram Bruce, author of Literacy in the Information Age. “Are the same ones reading Lemony Snicket books? Do they read in the same or in new ways?”

“Linguistic class divisions are growing in the U.S.,” says Bruce. “My sense is that young people show enormous potential for creativity–just look at YouTube, graffiti, new music, and so on. At the same time, society tramples that creativity for the many oppressed by poverty and racism, and for the young people who have their lives defined by consumerism and mass production.”

Ironically, the problem may be prevented not by closing the digital divide by ensuring access to text technologies but by providing access to more traditional forms of literacy, like books.

“Text messaging and instant messaging have grown exponentially among kids, and that is likely a positive development,” says Shanahan. “While I see the value of all of this new communication technology, I would argue that we need to protect time for more cognitive or intellectual technologies–those technologies that do more to help us think more deeply rather than those aimed at more-immediate social sharing of information–as well.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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