Texting has become a commonplace activity in students’ lives, but it is throttling students' writing ability and ability to think critically.

Texting is negatively impacting students’ writing

While texting has become a commonplace activity in students’ lives, it is throttling their ability to write and think critically

Key points:

“because she wants to have fun”

This was an eighth-grade student’s response to a question I posed in a reading response assignment tied to the play, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The question asked was: “Why does Anne hide Peter’s shoes?” Technically, the student is correct–Anne hides Peter’s shoes because she is bored and tired of being cooped up in the small apartment she is forced to hide in. The student understands the underlying motives driving the character’s behavior here. But there are some problems with this response.

Notice the missing initial capitalization, the lack of closing punctuation, and the use of a sentence fragment. These errors are not random; they are very particular. They mirror the shortcomings of communication via texting. This was not an isolated response, but one example of a type I saw over and over again throughout the school year. These students suffered from “Texting Sickness.”

That was the joking term that my fellow English teachers and I came up with to describe what we were seeing. Our joking masked a real concern. Was early exposure to texting crimping our students’ ability to write correctly? To engage in the critical thinking process that underpins the ability to write?

Texting’s oversized influence

According to a recent Stanford Medicine study, the average age that children receive their first phone is 11.6 years of age – 5th or 6th grade. As anyone with preteens can tell you, texting and group chats take on outsized importance and time commitment in the lives of many children at that age. Texting quickly becomes the dominant space for written communication in their lives. Not surprisingly, for many of our eighth-grade students, how they texted was bleeding into how they approached writing in the classroom.

Texting obviously has its place. It’s a quick and convenient mode of communication that is readily available on a device that is close at hand. I rely on it throughout the day to communicate with my children, my wife, colleagues, far-off friends, my dentist, even my power utility. As a mode for communication, texting is ubiquitous in our culture. It’s not surprising that it now casts a long shadow over how our children write–even as we are teaching them the fundamentals. But it does have some problems.

Texting’s awkward physicality

What is surprising is how omnipresent texting has become given how awkward the physical act of texting is. Most texters rely on their thumbs, positioned on either side of the phone screens, to tap the digital keyboard that pops up from the bottom of the screen after they open a conversation in their texting app. The main purpose of the human thumb is to help grasp objects with the other fingers on the hand, not tapping out letters and emojis at a rapid pace.

The unsuitability and awkwardness of using thumbs to text feeds into the distraction with which we often approach this task. It’s not a natural fit, so we tap as quickly as we can, engage, and withdraw. As the primary means of written engagement for preteens and teens, the physical awkwardness of texting colors the experience, imprinting the cognitive process with negative, awkward associations. It sets students off on the wrong path from the beginning.

Texting shortcuts lead to vague communication

While thumb awkwardness is the cause for some of the distraction, the very convenience and casualness of texting also leads to a decreased engagement in the moment of texting. We use texting to navigate many relationships, often at the same time. This time-consuming reliance on texting in our relationships inevitably leads to seeking communication shortcuts–the quickest, easiest way to get across what needs to be said.

I first became aware of this years ago when I was texting with a colleague about a project we were working on together. Part of the workflow required that he approve content I was posting. His responses were often one letter, “k.” This was confusing to me, but I eventually figured out that this was a shortened form of “okay.” Convenient for him, confusing for me. These kinds of communication shortcuts common to texting lead to vague and misconstrued communication.

Texting lacks nuance

Texting also lacks a way to clearly convey emphasis and tone, often leading to misunderstanding. Going back to my former colleague’s responses, using “k” or “OK” in a text is a notoriously misconstrued response that most of us have experienced at one time or another. Without any context or emphasis, “OK” can be read numerous ways – moderate approval, passive approval, straightforward approval, skeptical approval. This lack of detail and nuance common to texting inevitably leads to confused writing.

Texting undercuts compositional thought

In understanding how exposure to texting is undercutting students’ ability to write and think critically, I can’t leave out auto-correction. Auto-correction is an AI-powered feature that offers suggestions for how to complete a sentence.

This is another aspect of texting that short-circuits the critical thinking process that is needed for writing–stringing together a collection of words to build a complete sentence; considering options and making choices on the most appropriate and the most apt sequence of words to best communicate your message. Not surprisingly, students become reliant on auto-correction in texting and then struggle with developing competent, complete sentences in the classroom.

Don’t ignore texting’s influence

As teachers, it’s incumbent on us to recognize texting’s influence and address it in how we teach. That could mean harnessing student enthusiasm for texting into discussions and activities touching on different writing formats, the differences between formal and informal language, or how texting develops our ability to summarize our writing and thoughts. While our culture treats texting as a benign teenage pastime that parents just don’t understand, we need to better acknowledge its influence in how we teach.

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