Children and teenagers today do all the things that children and teenagers have more or less always done – they talk to their friends, have dinner with the family, and watch TV.
However, as even the casual observer will notice, they now do all these things at the same time as reading, composing, and sending text messages on their mobile phones.
Text messaging is by now a ubiquitous part of the lives of many people, but it is especially popular with the young.
We might presume that because constant texting is disrupting whatever else they’re doing, then it must be disrupting their literacy skills as well.
if u r ritin lots of txt msgs like this, wont u 4get how 2 spell properly?
The popular media has helped to spur concern in many parents and educators that the widespread use of text abbreviations (or “textisms”) will seriously affect young people’s ability to read, spell, and punctuate in conventional English.
The advent of full-keyboard phones has reduced the use of some textisms, but they still occur widely in digital written communication.
However, a growing number of research studies show that such concern is largely unfounded.
Srsly, evry1 txts
In a recent study at the University of Tasmania, psychology honours student, Catherine Bushnell, associate professor, Frances Martin and I looked at the links between “textese” use and the spelling ability in 227 children in grades 5 and 6, in three different schools.
Of the 84% of these 10- to 12 year-olds who used a mobile phone, virtually all (96%) reported sending text messages regularly.
When asked to write 30 English words as though they were going to send them in a text message to a friend, children abbreviated about half the words.
Common abbreviations, or textisms, included contractions like “tmrw”, letter-number spellings like “2day”, and omitted capitals and apostrophes like “im”.
What was most interesting, however, was that the number of textisms that the children produced was significantly related to their general spelling ability.
Honours student Cathy Bushnell and I went on to ask a subset of 86 grade 5 and 6 children to read and write a set of messages on a mobile phone, half in conventional English, and half in textese.
In this more detailed study, we again found positive links between fluency with textese, and higher literacy.
Specifically, there were significant positive relationships between the speed and accuracy with which children read and composed text messages, and their scores on standardised tests of spelling and reading.
These relationships remained significant for textese messages even when the children’s speed and accuracy for conventional English messages was taken into account.
Literacy and texting linked
Of course, causal relationships cannot be inferred from these cross-sectional studies. There’s no evidence here, that a child frequently texting will make them a better speller.
But the research shows that for children who are good at reading and writing, text-messaging is just another way of using their language-related skills. In essence, those children that are good at one, are likely to be good at the other.
Creating and deciphering textisms relies on many of the skills required for spelling and reading real English words.
One is phonological awareness, or the ability to figure out the series of sounds that make up a word, which then must be combined with knowledge of the series of symbols that can represent those sounds.
This skill is useful for spelling or reading real words. For example, “mate” sounds like “late” so if you can spell one, you can use that knowledge to spell the other.
Phonological awareness could also help with making up or figuring out textisms. For example, you can write ‘l8’ for ‘late’, and you know ‘mate’ rhymes with ‘late’ so you can write “Hi, m8”.
As we become more fluent at reading and writing, we simply memorise the spelling of many English words.
Similarly, children who are good at such memorisation are probably also good at remembering and using more textisms.
Finally, children who have relatively large vocabularies are also likely to be quickest at deciphering “initialisms” such as btw (by the way) or brt (be right there), even if they haven’t seen them before.
Separate and different
These results add to the growing body of evidence that in children, the links between textese use and literacy are positive ones.
However, at least until now, children have learned the basics of reading and writing at school before receiving their first phone and entering the world of text-style spelling.
As long as children can keep conventional and textese writing styles separate, both will continue to play important but distinct roles in communication.
But as the age of first-phone-ownership gets younger and younger, researchers will need to continue to monitor the links between children’s textese use and their literacy skills.