Sunday, 30 December 2012

Is texting really the death of the English language?

As an English teacher, I often hear the often repeated battle cries of people shouting that ‘texting’ is stopping students from writing ‘proper’ English. Today, I want to challenge this ‘Daily Mail’ notion of vilifying something purely for column space in a newspaper.  I think there is something far deeper that is causing this supposed ‘rot’ of language use.  That is if it is rot at all.

I have taught English for about eight years now. I use the word ‘about’ because I don’t want to remember my NQT year, so I have blotted it out of my memory and, therefore, I struggle to pinpoint when I actually started teaching. Anyway, during those eight years I have spotted a few examples of students using some text language, but those are very, very rare. I am not being casually blind to these mistakes or even blasé. No. I rarely see them. I haven’t had to circle a whole essay because the student omitted vowels so they could cram more into their essay. I haven’t corrected a story that had every ‘to’ as the number 2 to speed up the pace and create more tension. I haven’t had to scribble out emoticons in a story as the student wanted to make it clear what the narrator was feeling. Nor, have I had a student write a whole paragraph in capitals because his message was so important it needed to be SHOUTED.  I just haven’t. Once or twice, maybe. But, it isn’t as big a problem as say homophones or comma usage. Those are all over the ‘plaice’ (I know, place – just couldn’t resist it).

Recently, I gave some teachers a questionnaire about what they felt were some of the big issues affecting our students’ writing. Several came back with the issue of text language. Now, when reading those comments, I could have just buried my head in the sand and waited for the next big issue with technology to arrive. In several years, I fear English teachers may have to deal with smeared ink over essays as students forget they are writing on paper and not on an iPad. Then I will be moaning about how students cannot start a new paragraph without smudging a line’s worth of writing, because that is how you move things on an iPad. Back to texting, it seems that for some people it is a big issue, or they perceive it to be a big issue. But what is the real issue?

I tweet. I text. I email.  I use technology in many different forms to write, yet I don’t blur the different rules between them.  However, that is where I think the problem lies with texting, and language relating to technology. Adults understand the subtle rules and differences between the mediums, but students don’t. That is why it is always embarrassing when a grandparent gets hold of a mobile phone. They feel t nd 2 abbr. evry word. It is almost as if they know the rules and conform to them too much. Students play fast and free with rules, whereas adult stick to them rigidly. Ask a student if they abbreviate much in texting and they’ll respond with a negative – that was so 2011.

Over years of writing, adults learn that there are different rules according to the medium you are writing for. We apply them consciously and/ or subconsciously. We know the impression we want to make on the reader. We know the effect we want to create. We know the social etiquette of language.

What I think, and I am throwing it out there to be commented on, is that texting has affected the way students use register: one of the main rules of writing. Am I speaking (writing) in the same language as the reader?  I feel the problem that needs addressing is that of formality. Every text a student writes down outside of school tries to emulate natural speech.  They flaunt grammar rules. They play around with language. They don’t follow many rules, or they make their own rules up. On one hand that it is the beauty of our language. On the other hand it means that as English teachers, and teachers, have to work harder to assert what the written rules of English are. English teachers have always stressed the importance of reading good quality texts at home, but I am thinking that the writing they do at home is having a far bigger impact on their writing in class. 

The differences between speech and writing have blurred considerably over the years. Look at the classroom, you can see students writing like they speak. They write the first thing that comes to mind. They blurt things out rather than craft something effective and meaningful. We live in the instant information generation. Surely, that is going to have an impact on how we all use information. It doesn’t matter the form information takes, as long as it is there quick and fast like my broadband connection. Furthermore, they allow mistakes in their writing, because in speech you allow mistakes. They chat and talk to a reader. Plus, they even spell ‘a lot’ incorrectly, which isn’t surprising as when we use it in speech we often combine the two words together. You sound quite odd if you emphasise the two different words separately.  There are so many things students do in their writing that the list is endless, for me. Therefore, I think we need to teach more explicitly the differences between writing and speech.

Writing is ….

·         planned and not spontaneous

·         formal

·         redrafted

·         grammatically correct

·         using punctuation

·         checked and proofread

·         a long process and takes time

·         following a set of established rules

·         crafting and refining thoughts and ideas 

The way some students write is like speech. It is about instant communication, and not clear, coherent, well-thought expression of a single idea. I taught A-level language for several years and I know how hard and difficult it is to define, but I think that the shift at the moment is too close to spoken language rather than written language. They even have a unit now at GCSE to cover it. Texting isn't the root of the problem, but the use of formality is. Students are adopting an informal register for everything they write, as  governed by the mediums that write for.

In English, we have often taught aspects of formality, but I think it is something that needs to be addressed all the time in schools. This simple question should be at the heart of all writing in school:

How formal does the writing need to be?

That can be rephrased in so many different ways. What style of writing would be best here? What impression do I want to create here? How will I make my writing appeal to this particular reader? I could go on and on, but I feel that this question would be a good one to approach in all classrooms. It is about the choice that writers make. Teaching students about writing is all about teaching students the choices they could make and not cramming them with loads of words and chucking a few sentence starters at them. It is about how we write and how to make the right choices. A lot of the time in school, it is not that the students cannot write that causes problems. It is all down to the choices they made. Why didn’t you use paragraphs? Sir, you never told me to. 

Why does your writing need to be really formal in this Science report?

What can you do with your writing to make your ideas about the existence of a divine being sound credible?

Back to my original point, the rot is something more complex than text language. It is language itself. It is how formal or informal a students’ writing is. It is about how and why they use language. It is what language is to them. For us, it is a way of expressing things, and for them is just communication between the ad breaks. Therefore, we need to do more to assert what the rules of writing are.

Once, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of a friend, which made me laugh. They described how they had to stop reading at home when they had a major ‘writing project’ to do. This person felt that their reading influenced the writing.  They worried about writing like Barbara Cartland when writing a report, or like Terry Pratchett when typing up a proposal. I found the whole idea strange, but in writing this blog I am reminded of it. If the dominant writing a home is informal, then that is going to have major impact at school. Hence, we have to assert and model more the rules of formal writing. Wouldn’t this also develop the use of grammar within schools? Just reinforcing the ideas that this is a piece of work should be  formal, would be a start.

Oh, and to the person in the corner of the room, who is moaning that teenagers don’t write enough these days. Absolute codswallop. I think they write more today than I did in the 90s. They write in so many different ways. I never wrote a message to a friend in the middle of ‘Superted’ or tweeted in the middle of ‘Tripods’. They do. They are constantly writing, but it is how they are writing that is the problem, for they have learnt to write in informal, slang ridden register that neglects punctuation and the good, old rules of grammar.

In conclusion, texting is a problem. It is a far greater problem than I think most people think. But it isn't a problem in the way that it is affecting spelling and grammar. The problem is that texting is making our students write like they speak. It is making them use an informal register as their default writing style, when the rest of the world dictates that it should be formal. Then again, I quite like the idea of essays reduced to the length of a text. 250 characters to explain a point sound fun and there may even be a lesson there,

Word up, brothers and sisters! Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for help.


P.S. Feel free to use this for work on the Spoken Language unit.



  1. Another great post. It is an urban myth that students write essays in text speak - kids have always know that there is different language for different audiences and purposes.

    Most students start writing like they speak - itv where they start on the writing continuum. As you so rightly explore in this post is the importance of teaching them how to write in a more formal and academic way and that starts with exposure to this style of communication. Then it is practice and experimentation to develop their confidence.

  2. Superb piece as ever.

    A useful method might be to explicitly state that the different rules and conventions of each writing style and then, at the start of each task, say that they have to be writing in 'note form'/'essay form'/'report form'.

    You're entirely right in that this seems to be learned as our writing matures but there is no reason why it should not be made more explicit to our pupils.

  3. Thank you Paula and Adam. I think that is why what we do in school matters even more.



  4. When i read this post its very information about English Learning,This tips is very useful for me and I will share it to my friends keep posting English learning problems

  5. Nice Post.English is very necessary Language to improve skills English Learning Guide to be consider

  6. Hello!

    There are so many feels that I have in regards to this post. I have been a texted since I first got a cellphone as a Junior in high school. I feel that my initial love for language sprouted right out of the texting phenomenon. I held in my hands one of the most powerfully creative linguistic tools for communication, and boy did I take advantage of it. Looking back at some of the texts between my friends and I always carries with it a wave of nostalgia and hilarity. In the days before I had autocorrect (which makes it significantly harder to creatively spell things) I would frequently send messages such as “‘j'eat?" instead of sending the more boring, "did you eat yet," or the more boring still "have you eaten yet?"

    Like I said, I was fascinated by this capability of the English Language. I then went on to college and majored in English (the best choice I have ever made). While there, I took a myriad of classes, from Old English to Varieties of English, to 1800’s Literature courses to Creative writing and so on an so on. Now, a Masters student studying Secondary English Education, many topics such as the one in this post appear in daily conversation. “how is texting affecting writing? Do kids write enough? Is the English language falling apart?” I just sit and laugh and laugh and laugh. As if we as educators could really have any influence on the evolution of language… well, actually, that’s an argument for a different day. If you wanna joust about prescriptivism and descriptivism, call me on a day when I don’t have so friggin much homework to power through.

    What I do find truly surprising is that never once, in any of my English classes have we discussed the idea of teaching units on register, discourse, or dialect. I agree, we do have certain societal expectations for written English, and those must be taught. However, they must be taught in context. For example, txt speak, African American Vernacular English, double negatives and so on are not wrong, they are just non-standard. Students need to not only control the conventions of Standard English, but they also need to understand the framework that dictates that kind of writing.

    You feel me?


    Elliot Huckleberry-Hammarlund Wills Begley