For most media outlets that reported on an important new survey measuring the impact of technology on teens’ writing skills, the big news from the survey was that emoticons and text-messaging abbreviations are creeping into students’ formal writing assignments. :-(
Buried beneath the alarm of writing "purists," however, was a promising finding with equally important implications for schools: Blogging is helping many teens become more prolific writers.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project with support from the College Board and its National Commission on Writing, explores the links between the formal writing that teens do for school and the informal, electronic communication they exchange through eMail and text messaging.
Teens who communicate frequently with their friends, and those who own more technology tools such as computers or cell phones, do not write more often for school or for themselves than less communicative and less gadget-rich teens, according to the study, released April 24. Teen bloggers, however, write more frequently both online and offline, the study says.
Forty-seven percent of teen bloggers write outside of school for personal reasons several times a week or more, compared with 33 percent of teens without blogs. Sixty-five percent of teen bloggers believe that writing is essential to later success in life; 53 percent of non-bloggers say the same thing.
Bradley A. Hammer, who teaches in Duke University’s writing program, says the kind of writing students do on blogs and other digital formats actually can be better than the writing style they learn in school, because it is better suited to true intellectual pursuit than is SAT-style writing.
"In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis, and argumentative writing that universities value," he wrote in an op-ed piece last August.
Teens write for a variety of reasons, the report notes: as part of a school assignment, to stay in touch with friends, to share their artistic creations with others, or simply to record their thoughts. Teens say they’re more motivated to write when they can choose topics that are relevant to their lives and interests, and they report greater enjoyment of school writing when they have the chance to write creatively. Teens also report that writing for an audience motivates them to write well and more frequently–and blogs are one way of providing this type of audience.
Despite efforts to keep school writing assignments formal, however, nearly two-thirds of teens (64 percent) admit that emoticons, abbreviations, and other informal styles have crept into their writing.
"It’s a teachable moment," said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew. "If you find that in a child’s or student’s writing, that’s an opportunity to address the differences between formal and informal writing. They learn to make the distinction…just as they learn not to use slang terms in formal writing."
Half of the teens surveyed say they sometimes fail to use proper capitalization and punctuation in assignments, while 38 percent have carried over the shortcuts typical in instant messaging or eMail messages, such as "LOL" for "laughing out loud." A quarter of teens say they’ve used :) and other emoticons in their school assignments.
Defying conventional wisdom, the study also found that the digital generation is shunning computer use for most writing assignments. About two-thirds of teens say they typically do their school writing by hand. And for personal writing outside school, longhand is even more popular–the preferred form for nearly three-quarters of teens.
That could be because the majority of student writing is short: School assignments typically average a paragraph to a page in length, Lenhart said.
Still, teens appreciate the ability to edit and revise their writing on a computer, the report says. Nearly six in 10 students (57 percent) say they edit and revise more frequently when they write using a computer.
Teens who use a computer in their non-school writing believe computers have a greater impact on the amount of writing they produce than on the overall quality of their writing. Yet, there is a great deal of ambiguity with respect to the impact of computers in each of these areas.
Among teens who use computers in their non-school writing, four in 10 say computers help them do more writing, and a similar number believe they would write the same amount whether they used computers or not. In comparison, only three in 10 teens who write on computers for non-school purposes at least occasionally believe computers help them do better writing–and twice as many (63 percent) say computers make no difference in the quality of their writing.
Parents are more likely than teens to believe that internet-based writing (such as eMail and instant messaging) affects writing skills overall, though both groups are split on whether electronic communications help or hurt. Nonetheless, 73 percent of teens and 40 percent of parents believe internet writing makes no difference either way.
Most students (82 percent) believe that additional instruction and focus on writing in school would help improve their writing even further–and more than three-quarters of those surveyed (78 percent) think it would help their writing if their teachers used computer-based writing tools such as games, multimedia, or writing software programs or web sites during class.
The telephone-based survey of 700 U.S. residents ages 12 to 17 and their parents was conducted last year from Sept. 19 to Nov. 16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.