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Idaho Voices

Mixed messages

Sun., Nov. 15, 2009

“I’ve caught myself using texting shortcuts in regular writing –  I just correct it when it happens,” said Scott Hickey as he sent a text message before classes at North Idaho College recently. (Kathy Plonka)
“I’ve caught myself using texting shortcuts in regular writing – I just correct it when it happens,” said Scott Hickey as he sent a text message before classes at North Idaho College recently. (Kathy Plonka)

Educators blame students’ errors on texting lingo

It started slowly in Gwen Reed’s English classes. A “4ever” in a book report here, a “ppl” in an essay there, and a scattering of uncapitalized words or unpunctuated sentences in between. Even the odd smiley face has made its way into a discussion on the merits of classic works of literature.

In recent years, however, it’s taken on a life – and a language – of its own.

With the introduction of cell phones and other mobile technology, the percentage of the U.S. population who are always connected has skyrocketed, and North Idaho is no exception. But it wasn’t until text messaging became a dominant form of communication that a new shorthand language took shape as a written lexicon for up-and-coming generations.

So while “?RUD” is a common if not harshly truncated textspeak query among the younger crowd, it’s enough to make any educator’s skin crawl. (Read that text message as: “What are you doing?”)

“When I started teaching about 10 years ago, you weren’t reminding high school students to capitalize the beginning of a sentence,” said Reed, an English teacher at Lake City High School. “The basic spelling and capitalization errors students are making now were nonexistent 10 years ago.”

In the U.S., 77 percent of teenagers have their own mobile phones and more than 80 percent of those teens use text messaging, while more than half of the cell phone owners regularly use picture messaging, according to the Nielsen Company, which tracks market trends. During the first quarter of 2009, American teens sent or received an average of 2,899 text messages per month – an increase of 566 percent in just over two years.

Voice phone calls, meanwhile, have remained at a steady rate in recent years at about 190 per month.

What does that mean for teen habits? And, more importantly, how has that affected their academics?

For some instructors in the area, it’s resulted in a significant segment of the student body wholly unfamiliar with basic reading and writing rules. At least, that’s how it appears at the beginning of the school year.

“At the beginning of the school year there was definitely a lot more of the ‘textspeak,’ ” said Lake City High School reading specialist Heather Harmon-Reed about the informal words that crop up in students’ work. The grammatical mistakes become less common throughout the year, and while abbreviation is encouraged in note taking, keeping the two forms separate for students “is always a work in progress,” she said.

Around the corner in Reed’s class, the English teacher said using the abbreviations “happens so naturally the students don’t know they are doing it.”

“There are times in life when it is important to know how to use the English language properly, and that’s not a value some of the students have,” she said. “It’s kind of like they are learning two different languages and they are mixing them up. They need to learn to separate them.”

At the college level, those trends are mirrored by students who refuse to disconnect during class time. While North Idaho College doesn’t have a campuswide ban on mobile devices – as do many high schools, including in the Coeur d’Alene School District – few instructors tolerate cell-phone use in the classroom.

But some students still type away. And they’ve learned tricks to keep it discrete. Many don’t have to look at the keyboard to hammer out a message, while others use props such as a backpack to hide it. Some cell phones even offer an ultrasonic “mosquito” ringtone that is inaudible for many people over the age of 30. In this case, that’s the instructors.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is getting students not to text in class,” said Sherry Simkins, a communications and public speaking instructor at NIC. “To me, it’s about a respect issue. I don’t think they see it as a respect issue as much as trying to stay connected with friends and family.”

Since Simkins began teaching at the college three years ago, she said, the basic grammatical errors have multiplied.

“The grammar and punctuation I would say is getting worse,” she said.

From a student’s perspective, owning a mobile phone is the ultimate method to stay in touch. So much so that it’s become a deep-rooted part of daily life, beginning at an early age.

For Sean Person, 24, a Lewis-Clark State College senior in Coeur d’Alene, the hand-held devices are a blessing and a curse. While he carries his phone at all times and sends roughly 15 text messages a day, he never uses it during class and would rather talk to someone than text. “It’s respect for the teacher and respect to the rest of the students in the classroom. I still find that rude in a way,” he said. “I do feel that technology is pretty much deteriorating basic communication. It isn’t a bad thing to stay in touch with friends and family, but some people can take it too far.”

Coeur d’Alene High School senior Mariah Nilges, 17, said that she sometimes sends and receives up to 500 texts in a day. Yet she still doesn’t break the message down into abbreviations and never incorporates short-form communication into her academic work. “It bothers me when people won’t spell things out. I always spell words out and use punctuation,” she said.

However, Nilges admitted, she does text in class. “I do it all the time,” she laughed.

The blame for using “textspeak” across all avenues of life doesn’t fall on teens alone, the instructors interviewed agreed. Looking at TV, magazine and other mainstream ads, it seems the condensed lingo is gaining acceptance in the mainstream media.

“It’s so accepted in the larger media that students do it now without noticing it. It doesn’t look wrong to them,” Reed said.

“It’s frustrating,” she continued about the basic grammatical mistakes, “because they don’t capitalize, and I know that they know it.”

Modern technology has many upsides, such as staying in touch with friends and family or for emergency situations or for finding information with a quick online search. But there are many drawbacks to being “plugged in” all day, every day.

Reed admits that she is a holdout from a different generation. Having never owned a cell phone and still relying on a land line and dial-up at home, she said she expects her students to understand the importance of face-to-face communication and proper English usage. “I’m the odd one out; I don’t own a cell phone and so I make a big deal out of it with my students – that it allows us to communicate more quickly but I’m not sure that it actually makes us more connected,” she said.

What does the future hold for younger generations? In the eyes of their educators, the overall picture for the English language could be bleak. Textspeak might just become a part of everyone’s vocabulary, like it or not. Reed offered as an example of its acceptance a recent New Zealand school ruling that allows students to use textspeak in end-of-year exams.

“I think that is part of where education is going is how can you adapt to keep the student’s interest and to include the technology that’s useful,” NIC’s Simkins said.

Going beyond the truncated written messages, Simkins added that in-person communication seems to be another area where etiquette has taken a noticeable hit. “That’s my concern, especially as a public speaking instructor. People are no longer going to be able to interact with each other or to be able to get up and give a speech,” she said. “Do we still know how to talk to each other face to face, or is it just through cell phones?”

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