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11/25/2018 12:45:00 PM
In a new age of writing (and texting), Hoosier teachers try new methods
New meaning for 'text'book: Jennifer French, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for South Vermilion Community School Corp., has written a book to help teachers and students with writing in the age of texting. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
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New meaning for 'text'book: Jennifer French, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for South Vermilion Community School Corp., has written a book to help teachers and students with writing in the age of texting. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza

Sue Loughlin, Tribune-Star

Seventh-grader Adyson Smith prefers writing on paper because it gives her an unlimited amount of space to express herself.

Dree Wilson, on the other hand, prefers texting. "It's easier and you can shorten the words," she said.

Both South Vermillion Middle School students enjoy writing and do it well. 

But in a digital age where cell phones rule, textspeak may find its way into writing, educators say. An emoji may show up on an ISTEP-Plus essay. Words may not be properly capitalized. Students may use an informal voice in a piece that requires a formal voice.

Wilson says it's not hard for her to change her style, "I just prefer texting."

Their English teacher, Megan Milner, finds that students "love to write ... if they're interested in it." In one assignment for eighth-graders, she used an "unsolved mysteries" approach and had students blog about what they thought had transpired.

"They were the detectives solving the case ... that really got them to write," Wilson said.

But she does see slang and lack of complete sentences creeping into some student writing, especially those involving short responses. She may allow textspeak in a first draft, but appropriate punctuation, style and grammar must be used in the final assignment.

If you can't fight it ...

The impact of texting on writing is a topic that Jennifer French has studied in depth as the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at South Vermillion School Corp.

As a former middle school English teacher, "That's how I knew it was a problem. It kept showing up in my students' writing." In her research, she learned that 81 percent of middle school teachers believe texting has a negative impact on student writing and student achievement, especially the writing portion of standardized tests.

Students ages 13 to 17 send about 3,400 texts per month, she said.

"If that's their primary mode of communication, it just makes sense that shows up in their school writing," she said. "It actually becomes their primary language, so we can almost can approach it like a bilingual situation — they are speaking two languages."

She suggests allowing students to use textspeak in an initial writing draft, versus telling them "that's wrong, don't do it," but then having students "translate" to formal, academic writing. She calls it "code switching," which means going back and forth between two codes of communication.

Texting is really nothing new, she said. It's similar to shorthand, which uses the same principles, eliminates vowels and makes phonetic, shortened words.

Another issue teachers struggle with is brevity. Students "don't have the writing stamina they used to because they are used to writing in short little blurbs," French said.

She suggests building stamina little by little, writing five minutes one day, seven minutes another, 12 minutes the next day ...

One thing French learned is that the effects of texting are not all bad. Texting can have a positive effect on younger students in the 8- to 10-year-old range, she said. "If they are texting, then they have higher literacy abilities ... because you have to understand a language in order to manipulate it."

French has written a book based on her dissertation findings, titled, "Help! My Students Write Like They Text," which offers suggestions to teachers on strategies to use, including how to use texting as a "hook" to teach writing.

"How do you get kids excited about writing? Talk about text messaging — asking them questions like, 'How many texts did you send yesterday?' or 'How about over the course of a week?”

Students become interested because this is something they know and typically like. “See, you’re writers. You’re writing all the time,” becomes a launchpad for the lesson, French said.

Know your audience

Brian Stone, Indiana State University assistant professor of English and director of writing programs, has taught college-level writing for 12 years, from freshmen to graduate students. He also trains graduate assistants in writing instruction.

Once in awhile, he sees textspeak show up in a paper, and he'll use the opportunity to talk to students about audience and genre. "It's something we focus on in college writing to prepare them to write for an engineering or psychology class," teaching students how writing styles will differ for a lab report, an English research paper or an engineering project proposal.

"Audience is something they need to consider when writing academic papers," Stone said.

He believes one positive aspect of texting and social media is that students are reading and writing more, at least more than when he was a college English major. He finds young people today are often more aware of current events, whether they want to be or not, because of what they see on social media.

Linking students' experiences with reading/writing to what happens in a classroom "can be a real benefit to them," Stone said.

In class, "We talk a lot about constructing a personal, professional persona through word choice, tone and grammar, which helps establish credibility," he said. In one English 101 assignment, students are asked to go on social media, find a public figure they admire and analyze how that person presents his or herself on a social media page.

As to whether texting has caused writing to deteriorate, he said, "Not that I've seen."

The best way to become a better writer "is to write, write and write," he said. When students text every day, they are writing every day, "and I feel that benefits them," he said.

In class, they will work with students on appropriate writing, and mechanics, for college level work.

He also believes high school and middle school teachers "are doing a good job" preparing students for the transition to, and expectations of, college.

Janet Brosmer, Vigo County School Corp. language arts curriculum coordinator, agreed that student writers need to know their audience and the purpose of their writing.

"There is a time and place for everything, " she said. Texting is informal writing, not something a high school graduate would want to put on a job or college scholarship application. "You have one shot and you have to turn in your best work ... it could make the difference between a full ride" — versus no ride.

The Vigo County School Corp. has dedicated groups of writing teachers who work with all second- and fifth-grade classes — alongside the regular classroom teachers — each week to present standards-based writing lessons.

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