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Is txting killin Nglsh @skool? No way sez Prof

Kristen Turner, Ph.D., says that digitalk used in text messages and e-mails has a place among types of written communication.  Photo by Patrick Verel

Kristen Turner, Ph.D., says that digitalk used in text messages and e-mails has a place among types of written communication.
Photo by Patrick Verel

If you’re worried that texting and instant messaging are destroying children’s respect for proper English, Kristen Turner, Ph.D., assistant professor of English education, wants you to relax.

“I can’t tell you how many times I introduce myself to parents, and the first thing I hear is, ‘Oh, this texting language is ruining English. All my kids do is text,’” she said. “That’s a big misperception of what’s happening.”

Turner has coined the phrase “digitalk” to encompass communication that occurs between adolescents via modern communication technology, such as text messages, instant messages and social networking comments. “People think that texting is random and that it’s born from laziness. Actually, it’s neither of those things,” she said.

Turner, who taught high school English for six years before coming to the Graduate School of Education, recently published “Flipping the Switch: Teaching Students to Code-Switch from Text Speak to Standard English” in English Journal.

The goal, she said, is for English educators to understand, and in turn help students see, that digitalk is just another form of communication. While it is ideal for one realm, it will not work in another.

“Students are expected to speak differently in school than they do at home,” she said. “What happens with teenagers in particular, but also young children, is that lots of times they grow up with a language at home that is very different than what they’re expected to use in school. Code-switching is teaching them how to navigate from how they talk at home to how they are expected to speak and write in school.”

Digitalk originated on the Internet as “Net speak” and has evolved with communications technology. Turner saw it emerge in classrooms when she was teaching high school. Aspects of it—such as ignoring capitalization and punctuation—were driven originally by the primitiveness of cell phones. Despite advances that make it easier to type in standard English while texting, digitalk still features many of the shortcuts that once were necessary.

“Students who text are actually using sophisticated speech patterns,” she said, “so if we can understand what those are, we can illustrate how they’re different than the patterns that are meant to be used in school.”

Digitalk characteristics such as irregular capitalization and punctuation are more likely to crop up in students’ academic writing, while shorthand terms—like “LOL”—and emoticons—
like ;-)—are less likely to appear, said Turner, citing a 2008 survey by the Pew Center for American Life, as well as her conversations with English teachers.

One classroom exercise she developed—having students render Shakespeare into instant message conversations—has garnered much positive feedback from educators.

“We need to think about language, but if we’re trying to get at content, let’s take the thinking out of language,” she said. “Let’s use the language we use all the time, whether it’s African-American vernacular, or Spanish or digitalk. Then we can focus on what it means.”

Acknowledging students’ digital language in the classroom, Turner said, lends credence to how teens communicate outside of school. In a research project she is conducting, she has found patterns of language that can be considered “conventions of digitalk.” However, because these conventions are loosely arranged, the language can be customized from one person to another, allowing for individual identity.

“It’s huge for adolescents, because what do teenagers want? They want to be part of a community of peers, but they also want their independence,” she said. “Digitalk allows for both. They can be part of a communications community, but they can manipulate the language in unique ways,” she said.

The study she is supervising will result in a book detailing the characteristics of digitalk and the reasons why teens choose the individual conventions they do. Her efforts are part of an overall focus on how students can master academic discourse, which, once achieved, will allow them to write with power for any purpose.

Thus, she has published “The Influence of Technological Literacy on Students’ Writing” in the Journal of Educational Computing Research about the processes that teenagers use to write.

“Lots of times, English is taught in a very linear method: ‘First, we’re going to brainstorm. Then we’re going to draft. Then we’re going to revise. Then we’re going to publish,’” she said.
“What we found was that students’ processes were extremely non-linear, and that they were actually mimicking the affordances that technology allows them,” she said. “Technology is very non-linear and interconnected. That’s why they call the Internet a web. So students move seamlessly back and forth between word processing programs and the Internet.”

This is important for educators, she said, because there is a disconnect when teachers ask students who are accustomed to working this way to prove what they know with nothing more than a pencil and paper.

“Technology for writing and composition is a whole new ballgame. Teachers have to figure it out pretty quickly, because the students that we’re teaching are coming from a different place than we are,” she said.


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