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txting @ skool

In the era of texting and social media, strategies for managing shifting language norms

August 9, 2016
Txting @ skool

It wasn’t too long ago that student use of “chatspeak” — texting shorthand, Internet slang, or even emoji — in the classroom seemed as if it might signal the end of grammar and the death of proper English. But with 78 percent of teenagers having access to cell phones, and the majority of children picking one up by age 12, chatspeak is here to stay. As the broad use of such language becomes a cultural norm across all age ranges, educators are tasked with how to manage the always-shifting landscape of language in the classroom.

Teaching Chatspeak and Formal English

“When we think of texting, or something like Snapchat or other social medias, it is really a reflection of using language in a different way and for a different purpose,” says Emily Phillips Galloway, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies language development and who taught writing development during her doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The challenge for teachers is to recognize that the language of texting isn’t a problem when it’s used in the medium it’s intended for,” she says. Instead, the challenge is “to consider how to support students in understanding the different styles of language used in writing [across all media].”

A key goal, Galloway says, is finding ways to incorporate the many types of language, like texting, into classroom lessons.

Here, strategies for educators to bridge the gap between formal English and chatspeak.

  • Introduce all types of language in the classroom, with the goal of helping students understand why you might use one style of language depending on what and with whom you are communicating.
  • Empower students to choose the proper language for different situations and different audiences. “There is not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ language, or a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ language, but a paradigm in which you can encourage students to be purposeful in their language choices,” Galloway says. This is an opportunity to focus on audience, especially as a significant part of the writing process.
  • Use case studies to illustrate how we are all multidialectic. Case studies provide students with a chance to think about themselves as multidialectic, purposeful users of language who strategically make choices regarding what language to use. For example, study how President Barack Obama uses language in speeches for different audiences, or how Australian singer Iggy Azalea takes on a different identity through her rap music. “We have found that kids like talking about language,” Galloway says. “Creating a forum for that conversation seems to be powerful.”
  • Encourage students to use language — even chatspeak — with intent and purpose. The idea is to expand on language, not replace it. Take the musical Hamilton, for instance, which is known for purposely switching between literary and colloquial modes to communicate in particular ways. The lesson here is how writing, even in texting form, can be a tool that skilled writers deploy to achieve the effect they desire.
  • Task students to practice translation. Create an exercise for students to take a text and write it in more formal language. Or use a passage from an academic essay and ask students to communicate the same idea in text. Another exercise is to have students write a tweet, which is limited to 140 characters, from an assigned reading. Then, discuss what is lost and what is gained in that process.
  • Consider digital tools an ally in teaching grammar. While chatspeak and text talk often don’t rely on proper grammar, take a cue from young students by turning to digital tools when it’s time for grammar to take center stage. A tool like No Red Ink provides playful content in a way that can help students recognize grammar basics like subject-verb agreement. A tool like Quill helps students build grammatical skills within the context of their own writing, making grammar feel meaningful and potentially more enjoyable.

Additional Resources

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About the Author

Jill Anderson
Jill Anderson is the creative content producer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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K-12 Language and Literacy Learning and Teaching