Thursday, August 2, 2012

i h8 to tell u, but i can txt & code switch: Teaching Correctness vs. Teaching Rhetorical Choices

image from Big Ten Science
In a recent blog post on GOOD Education called "'Wat up wit u': Yep, Texting is Killing Students' Grammar Skills," Liz Dwyer explores the claim that texting is destroying writing and cites the findings of a recent study on 10-14 year old texters. Researchers found that the more texting a 10-14-year-old did, the more grammar errors they made in non-texting writing. Ultimately, Dwyer claims that this is not simply because kids are texting, but because they are not given adequate opportunities to practice the formal academic concepts of grammar in school due to the focus on high-stakes testing and quick-to-grade non-writing-intensive assignments from overwhelmed instructors.

While I think Dwyer is accurate in claiming that better writing instruction is needed, I don't buy it all. "Grammar" is, of course, one of those concepts that fascinates me. Grammar seems to be a blanket statement for everything sentence-level-related. The problem is, aside from the fact that people don't even always know what they mean when they use the term "grammar," that there is more than one form of grammar. What Dwyer and the researchers are looking at is not grammatical correctness, but Standard Academic English correctness.

Texting has its own grammatical rules. If grammar was completely unimportant to texting, there would be no language patterns, and we would have a hard time understanding one another. On the contrary, we easily understand text messages, sometimes more easily than "grammatically correct" academic writing.

Also, it's quite elitist to say that students who text don't understand writing or have corrupted the English language. Language evolves. New words come into existence all the time, as old ones disappear. If it didn't, we'd still be speaking Old English. Language is a living thing that adapts to the times. To stay stuck in a place where we believe that students only need to know the conventions of Standard Academic English is to disadvantage them. They will need all kinds of literacies to navigate the complicated technology-inundated 21st century.

I think we do students a big disservice by telling them they are simply "incorrect," red-penning their paper, hoping they stop using text lingo, and trying to pass that off as "quality writing instruction," which is what Dwyer seems to recommend. We need to teach our students about why we use certain conventions. What does Standard Academic English represent? Why don't we use text language in papers? What do these conventions symbolize and how do readers interpret them? We need to teach students to think about the rhetorical situation-- Who do they want to reach? What do they want to say? How? And why?-- not to apply a formula or use a set of prepackaged options. When they learn to do that, they can better communicate on all fronts, not just the academic or the technological.


Louis Kaiser said...

I have edited a lot of poorly written papers. Most were written by people with advanced degrees. There was the occasional grammar mistake but by and large the grammar was pretty good. The papers were poorly written because the ideas and information were poorly organized and the sentences were confusing for a host of reasons besides bad grammar.

I attribute the poor writing skills to the lack of good writing instruction both in high school and college. In college, most students are required to take at most one or two freshman courses in composition and that is it. They may write numerous papers during the remainder of their college career but almost entirely for finance and history classes and the like. The reviewer of these papers is not focused on the writing and I doubt that much writing instruction is given in the feedback on these papers.

I also have a hard time blaming texting for bad writing. We operate in different modes all the time. For example, we behave differently in church than at a party. Some of use know more than one language and can write well in both. How is another language any different than the language of texting?

Texting may in some way contribute to the problem but it is by no means the whole problem. I put the onus of blame on inadequate and poor writing instruction. Most of us became good writers largely through our own efforts. Is their another way?

NP said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Louis. I agree. Most students know how to code switch, but they might not see how the skills they use in everyday writing scenarios can be applied to academic work. Many of them are learning to write formulaicly without much rhetorical awareness. They know how to do something, maybe, but not why, and so anytime the context changes, it causes a struggle.

I think our goal moving forward should be to talk about grammar contextually, explain how the functions of grammar work and affect a reader's understanding of text. Also, we need to talk more about writing as communication rather than just a skill to be acquired.