Across the education landscape, student text messaging is a bone of contention among teachers. It’s not an issue in the lower grades because most K-5 schools successfully ban cell phones during school hours. Where it’s a problem is within grades 6-12, when teachers realize it’s a losing battle to separate students from their phones for eight hours.
The overarching discussion among educators is texting’s utility in providing authentic experiences to students, the type that transfer learning from the classroom to real life. Today, I’ll focus on a piece of that: Does text messaging contribute to shortening student attention span or destroying their nascent writing ability.
Let’s start with attention span. TV, music, busy daily schedules, and frenetic family life are likely causes of a student’s short attention span. To fault text messaging is like blaming the weather for sinking the Titanic.
Texting has less to do with their inability to spit out a full sentence than their 1) need for quickness of communication, 2) love for secrecy, and 3) joy of knowing a language adults don’t.
What about writing? In the thirty years I’ve been teaching everyone from kindergarteners to college. I can tell you that children are flexible, masters at adjusting actions to circumstances (like the clothes they wear for varying events and the conversations they have with varying groups of people). There is no evidence to support that these elastic, malleable creatures are suddenly rigid in their writing style, unable to toggle between a casual texting shorthand with friends and a professional writing structure in class.
In general, I’m a fan of anything that gets students writing, and there are real benefits to giving students the gift of textual brevity rather than the stomach-churning fear of a five-paragraph structured essay. I’ve done quite a few articles on the benefits of Twitter’s 140-character approach to writing and my teacher’s gut says the same applies to text messaging. Truth, studies on this topic are inconclusive.
Some suggest that because young students do not yet have a full grasp of basic writing skills, they have difficulty shifting between texting’s abbreviated spelling-doesn’t-matter language and Standard English. But a British study suggested students classify ‘texting’ as ‘word play’, separate from the serious writing done for class and results in no deterioration in writing skills.
Yet another study found that perception of danger from texting is greater than the reality: 70% of the professionals at one college believed texting had harmful effects on student writing skills. However, when analyzed, the opposite was true: Texting was actually beneficial.
It’s interesting to note that texting can be a boon to children who struggle with face-to-face situations. These ‘special needs’ students flourish in an environment where they can write rather than speak, think through an answer before communicating it, and provide pithy conversational gambits in lieu of extended intercourse. In the texting world, socially-challenged children are like every other child, hidden by the anonymity of a faceless piece of metal and circuits. Here’s a heart-warming story by parents of an autistic child who found their first true communication with their fourteen-year-old boy via text messaging.
To blame texting for student academic failures is a cop-out by the parents and teachers entrusted with a child’s education. Treated as an authentic scaffold to academic goals, teachers will quickly incorporate it into their best-practices pedagogy of essential tools for learning.
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