A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Internet slang in schools: part 2

Apparently this problem is even more widespread than I thought:
Tia Burnett couldn't believe what she was seeing when students turned in work that looked more like an instant-message conversation than an English assignment.

Some of her students at Orange High School in New Jersey's Essex County started sneaking abbreviations — "u" for "you," "2" for "to" and "4" for "for" — into their papers and other class assignments.

Burnett quickly put a stop to it.

"I would remind students not to use abbreviations in writing. This is casual e-mail language," said Burnett, who is in her first year as language-arts supervisor for grades 7-12.

Teachers, administrators and businesspeople say abbreviations commonly used in e-mails, instant messaging and text messages are creeping into assignments and formal writing, and some believe it is hurting the way students think.

Tom Moran, English supervisor at East Brunswick High School in Middlesex County, N.J., said the pace of electronic communication has "infected" some students' writing.

"E-mails are usually composed at lightning speeds, without any concern about editing, clarity or word choice," Moran said. "This is fine, since most e-mails are not meant to stand alone as polished pieces of prose. The problem arises when students begin thinking at that speed without pausing to consider what, exactly, they are saying."

The volume of electronic communication is growing at a startling pace. During the first six months of 2006, 64.8 billion text messages were sent, nearly double the first half of 2005.

The effects vary, scholars said.

In Canada, two university professors concluded there is no adverse impact on syntax or the formation of sentences. In their study, University of Toronto linguistics professors Derek Denis and Sali Tagliamonte found that although students may be text-messaging, most messages don't contain abbreviated words.

"In our corpus of over a million words, all the IM forms accounted for only about 2 percent," Denis said, noting they studied 70 teens during 2004 and 2005. "Though these teens are using more informal language than in their speech, they are also using more formal variables as well."

"This tells us that teens are using English vibrantly, creatively and are able to use it correctly."

That may be the case for Canadian teens, but Rutgers University lecturer Alex Lewis says he teaches freshmen basic writing mechanics and grammar in his expository-writing course.

"These kids spend an enormous amount of time writing, but their formal understanding of writing is limited," Lewis said.

Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, pointed out that some IM and texting abbreviations have histories that predate the computer revolution — "w/" for "with," for instance — and are likely to remain a part of language.

"I would not be surprised to see some of these abbreviations around several decades from now," Baron said. "Similarly, an abbreviation such as 'LOL' (laugh out loud) or 'BTW' (by the way) might stick, while others, such as 'OMG' (oh my God) or 'IMHO' (in my humble opinion) might pass — through the luck of the draw."

I've told my students that their skills at text-messaging can help them in one very important way: for taking notes during class discussions. Otherwise, I should not see them use this lingo anywhere else in their written work.

One point in this article did strike me in particular. I have the hardest time getting kids to see that they need to actually edit their work. They need to understand the difference between writing quick shots of text to their friends and writing in a more formal context.

I had a conversation with a young lady last week regarding her garbled sentences. She didn't understand why her paper received such a low grade. The problem was, she had culled academic-sounding terms from her research, yet didn't really understand the nuances of the terms she used. She felt that she had an inadequate vocabulary and was trying to overcompensate. She was also surprised when I read her paper to her, one sentence at a time. Then the awkwardness was apparent. She realized she had fallen into the common problem of THINKING she had written something that she hadn't.

What distresses me is that these students have all grown up hearing about the writing process. Yet they still don't get to the editing part of it.


At 11/27/06, 8:00 AM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Using big words can't compensate for not thinking. I don't know who said it first, but I subscribe to this line of reasoning: "Why use a word of Latin derivation when a sturdy old Anglo-Saxon word will do?" Keeping it simple is the straightest path to profundity, er, wisdom (not to mention readability).

At 11/27/06, 3:40 PM, Blogger Ivory said...

Editing takes practice. I went to a Catholic school and my mother would read through my essays (starting in fifth grade) to help me change the text to be more organized and to make the spelling more (ahem) traditional. When I had a question, she would explain why she thought restructuring, rewording or other changes made sense. It took 3 years but by about 8th grade, I could anticipate and correct the majority of the problems I thought she would find in my work. That I was an avid reader certainly couldn't have hurt me but it didn't help much either (I understood more of those nuances of meaning perhaps.) I was also held to consistently high standards for writing and in junior high we had essays every other week. I was a solid B student at the Catholic school. At my public high school, I was one of the best writers in my class.

My point: it took three years of fairly intense coaching before I could edit things for myself - and I'm no intellectual slouch. You may never see to positive effects of what you're trying to do but it's important and most students will improve their ability to edit if they are held to high standards and if they are given feedback on why things "work" or "don't work" in writing. I think the positive approach is key – suggesting something that will work (as opposed to merely bleeding all over the student’s papers) is one of the most neglected parts of this process.

At 11/30/06, 2:15 PM, Blogger MommyProf said...

I think people are better at editing other people's work than they are their own. That is a unique skill that needs to be taught differently.

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