British academy

LITER8 LRNRS

19 Jan 2010


Texting may improve literacy despite unconventional spelling

IS TEXTING VALUABLE OR VANDALISM?

Children who are heavy users of mobile phone text abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), plz (please), l8ter (later) and xxx (kisses), are unlikely to be problem spellers and readers, a new study funded by the British Academy has found.

The research*, carried out on a sample of 8-12 year olds over an academic year, revealed that levels of “textism” use could even be used to predict reading ability and phonological awareness in each pupil by the end of the year.

Moreover, the proportion of textisms used was observed to increase with age, from just 21% of Year 4 pupils to 47% in Year 6, revealing that more sophisticated literacy skills are needed for textism use.

The study conclusions will come as a surprise to many who believe that textisms are vandalising the English language.**

The theory behind the research, carried out by Dr Clare Wood, Reader in Developmental Psychology at Coventry University, relates to one of the early developing skills associated with (and believed to underpin) successful reading and spelling development. ‘Phonological awareness’ refers to a child’s ability to detect, isolate and manipulate patterns of sound in speech. For example, children who can tell which words rhyme, or what word is left if you remove a letter, have particularly high levels of phonological awareness.

After her initial studies uncovered the link between textism use and literacy***, the British Academy funded Dr Wood’s latest research through its small research grants scheme. A larger scale report will follow, to be published next year.

Dr Clare Wood, British Academy grant holder, said:

“We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all, after such a negative portrayal of the activity in the media. We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but that textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children. Texting also appears to be a valuable form of contact with written English for many children, which enables them to practice reading and spelling on a daily basis.

”So what can we do with this evidence? With further research, we hope to instil a change in attitude in teachers and parents – recognising the potential to use text-based exercises to engage children in phonological awareness activities. In short, we suggest that children’s use of textisms is far from problematic. If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards among young children, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.”

EDITOR’S NOTES

*Sixty three children participated in the study (27 boys and 36 girls) all between years 4 and 7. 81% of these children owned their own mobile phones and the rest had regular access to one owned by someone else. The average age at which children were given their own phone was 8.4 yrs, with 5 yrs being the youngest age at which a phone was given to a child within the sample.
**Journalist John Humphrys, writing in the Daily Mail, went so far in 2007 to describe texters as ‘vandals who are trying to do to the language what Ghenghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago.”
***B. Plester, C.Wood & C. Bell, Txt msg n school literacy: does mobile phone use adversely affect children’s written language attainment? (2008)

• Forms of text message abbreviation (or ‘textism’) that are used when sending messages:

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    • Shortenings: cutting the end off a word, losing more than one letter, e.g. bro = brother.
    • Contractions: cutting letters, usually vowels, out of the middle of a word, e.g. txt, plz, hmwrk.
    • G Clippings: cutting off only the final g in a word, e.g. goin, comin, workin, swimmin. 
    • Other Clippings: cutting off other final letters, e.g. I’v, hav, wil, com.
    • Symbols: using symbols, including emoticons, and x used symbolically, e.g. &, @, ;-), :-p, xxx. 
    • Initialisms: a word or group of words is represented by its initial letter, e.g. tb = text back, lol = laughing out loud, gf = girlfriend. 
    • Letter/Number Homophones: a letter or number is used to take the place of a phoneme, syllable, or word of the same sound, e.g. 4, 2, l8r, u, r, c. 
    • Non-conventional Spellings: a word is spelled according to legitimate English phoneme-grapheme conversion rules, but not the conventional one used to spell the word, e.g. nite, cum, fone, skool. 
    • Accent Stylisation: a word is spelled as it is pronounced in casual speech, e.g. gonna, wiv = with, av = have, wanna, elp = help, anuva = another.
    • Missing Apostrophes: left out either in possessive or traditional contraction form, e.g. dads, Im, Ive, cant.