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Instant Messaging: Friend or Foe of Student Writing?

by Amanda O'Connor

Introduction
With the commercial advent of the Internet and cell phones in the late 1990's, technologies such as instant messaging (IM) and text messaging (TM) have achieved increasing prevalence in our society. These types of messaging technologies are widely used among adolescents today. To cite just one personal example of this widespread usage, my friend's daughter, who is now 11 and lives in Ireland, got a cell phone last year, and, according to my friend, "was the last person in her class to get one." This is quite an amazing change, given that ten years ago, instant messaging and text messaging were in their infancy, and cell phones were only readily available as tools for roadside assistance.

Given the newness of these types of technologies, it is only in the last few years that educators have started to notice them and explore their effects on student behavior and performance. While there is supporting evidence to suggest that these technologies have a large influence on the social development of adolescents, an even more pertinent issue for classroom teachers is what effects these technologies have on the academic development of young people. In this article, I examine how students' use of text messaging technology, specifically IM, affects their writing skills. How does IM use affect students' interest in traditional writing (as learned in school)? In what ways does IM usage affect students' writing ability? How does "IM-speak" change students' views of what is considered "proper" language? How can classroom teachers build on student use of this increasingly popular technology? In this paper I provide a discussion of the current issues and current teacher practices surrounding instant messaging as it relates to student writing.

What is Instant Messaging?
Instant messaging is a form of computer "chat" that allows one to have a real time, typed "conversation" with one or more "buddies" while connected to the Internet It is an extremely fast-growing communications medium, especially among adolescents. According to a Pew report from 2001, "74% of online teens use instant messaging" (Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001, p.3), and "69% of teen instant message users use IM at least several times a week" (p.3). Given this high rate of use, which has only been increasing since the Pew report was published, IM is clearly an extremely influential element in many young people's lives.

Academic Effects of Instant Messaging
While everyone recognizes that IM is widely used by adolescents and teens in the United States, there seem to be two distinct opinions of its effect on student academics. There are those who see the use of so-called "Internet English" as a breakdown of the English language – according to a recent newspaper article, "Some teachers see the creeping abbreviations as part of a continuing assault of technology on formal written English" (Lee, 2002). Conversely, there are those who regard this same "Internet English" not only as an example of how language is constantly developing and changing, but also as a type of literacy in and of itself, which can be capitalized on to engage students in more traditional learning. As professor Barbara Bell believes, "anytime (students) are reading or writing, it's going to help" (Associated Press, 2003, p.1).

One concern about IM has to do with the "bastardization" of language. Several articles indicate that students who use messaging on a frequent basis often use bad grammar, poor punctuation, and improper abbreviations in academic writing. According to Lee (2002), "teachers say that papers are being written with shortened words, improper capitalization and punctuation, and characters like &, $ and @. " However, something that is not always considered is that these mistakes are often unintentional – when students use IM frequently, they reach a saturation point where they no longer notice the IM lingo because they are so used to seeing it. Montana Hodgen, a 16-year old high school student in Montclair, New Jersey, "was so accustomed to instant-messaging abbreviations that she often read right past them" (Lee, 2002). As she puts it, "I was so used to reading what my friends wrote to me on Instant Messenger that I didn't even realize that there was something wrong," she said. She said her ability to separate formal and informal English declined the more she used instant messages" (Lee, 2002).

This was also a problem for Carl Sharp, whose 15-year old son's summer job application read "i want 2 b a counselor because i love 2 work with kids" (Friess, 2003), and English instructor Cindy Glover, who – while teaching undergraduate freshman composition in 2002 – "spent a lot of time unteaching Internet-speak. 'My students were trying to communicate fairly academic, scholarly thoughts, but some of them didn't seem to know it's "y-o-u," not "u"'" (Freiss, 2003.) These examples give credence to Montana Hodgen's point, that heavy IM use actually changes the way students read words on a page.

Other educators take IM usage as a more positive trend, and revel in how comfortable today's kids are with writing, and how much easier it is for them to get words on a page (or, more often, screen.) Barbara Bass, director of the Maryland Writing Project, points out "For a while, people were not writing anything. Now, people are actually seeing words on paper. And that's good" (Helderman, 2003.) In fact, according to another recent newspaper article, "Instant messaging and e-mail are creating a new generation of teenage writers, accustomed to translating their every thought and feeling into words. They write more than any generation has since the days when telephone calls were rare and the mailman rounded more than once a day" (Helderman, 2003).

Gloria Jacobs, in her research, has found that not only are students writing more than they have in years, but they are also revising and editing as well. As the aforementioned article cites her, "Jacobs said too many adults dismiss online writing because they assume kids jot off anything that pops into their heads. While that is sometimes true, she said, she also saw teenagers read over messages before sending them, editing to clear up mistakes or imprecision . . . Liz [Charlton, a 13-year old seventh grader] and her classmates said they will sometimes sit in front of a computer screen for up to 10 minutes, planning a sensitive message – wording and rewording" (Helderman, 2003.)

Some educators even see the pervasiveness of the frequently-changing IM terminology as an opportunity to teach students about language evolution. Erika Karres, a teacher educator, "shows students how English has evolved since Shakespeare's time" (Lee, 2002,) using IM lingo as an example of today's speech.

It is clear from the points raised in this section that both 'sides' have valid concerns in this ongoing debate. To further address these issues, I will now turn to a more in-depth discussion of IM and its relationship to academic writing, including strategies implemented by actual classroom teachers.

Instant Messaging and Writing
One of the most interesting things about IM and other popular technologies (text messaging, video games, etc.) is that they are potentially learning tools. They can be harnessed by educators to help students learn school-related content, as is illustrated by teachers who "encourage students to use messaging shorthand to spark their thinking processes" (Lee, 2002.) Trisha Fogarty, a sixth grade teacher, states "When my children are writing first drafts, I don't care how they spell anything, as long as they are writing . . . If this lingo gets their thoughts and ideas onto paper quicker, the more power to them" (Lee, 2002). However, the same teacher indicates that "during editing and revising, she expects her students to switch to standard English" (Lee, 2002).

Other teachers have also started to capitalize on student interest in writing as "recreation" rather than "work." Robyn Jackson, a high school English teacher, has "organized an online chat room where some Gaithersburg High students meet once a week to discuss literature and writing. The students are allowed to use Internet-speak in the chat room that would never be allowed in formal writing, but the online conversations are vigorous and intelligent" (Helderman, 2003.) However, the teacher's job doesn't end there-- Jackson believes that part of her job as an educator is to help students to "switch off their informal habits when they leave the chat room" and that "this gives us a wonderful opportunity to speak to students about what language to use where" (Helderman, 2003.)

Jackson's point is the crux of the concern that educators have with IM and IM lingo. Students have trouble seeing the distinction between formal and informal writing, and consequently use informal IM abbreviations and lingo in more formal writing situations (Brown-Owens, Eason, & Lader, 2003, p.6.) However, this problem is not insurmountable. Students can be taught both to understand what constitutes correct language, and also to know when different types of language are appropriate to use. Educators sometimes believe that this level of judgment is something adolescents already have, but as Jackson points out, "I think we expect kids to get it instinctively, and they don't. It's something that has to be explicitly conveyed to children" (Helderman, 2003.)

Joylyn Hannahs, a ninth grade English teacher, told her students that "if they turned in papers written like instant messages, their grades would suffer" (Helderman, 2003.) Her threat worked. Students no longer make those same mistakes, indicating that students can learn the appropriateness of language in different situations. Robert Schrag, a communications professor, points out that "We have always implicitly taught our children different language structures and how they function in different arenas . . . We use (a different) language structure watching a basketball game than in our place of worship. Most children will understand the difference" (Friess, 2003.)

Some educators believe that this type of language misuse is the fault of the students. Obviously there are cases where this is true, as well as cases where it is not. However, regardless of the situation, teachers can work to ensure that students develop a sense of audience when writing. As Leila Christenberry, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a university English professor, asserts, "It's not that there's never a place for this sort of thing, but it's the difference between how you would dress to go out on Saturday night versus how you dress when you do yard work" (Friess, 2003.)

I believe that Brown-Owens, Eason, and Lader (2003) sum up the general debate on this issue very succinctly: "The dilemma, then, is how to help educators adapt literacy education to the reality that instant messaging is the dominant mode of written communication in the lives of many American teenagers" (p. 8.)

Conclusion
At this point in time, it is not possible to determine specifically the effects of instant messaging on formal writing. However, one clear conclusion is that IM is becoming an important literacy in kids' lives, and consequently one that needs to be recognized by teachers.

So how does this 'new literacy' impact classroom teaching? Probably the most important thing that teachers can do is to emphasize to students the concept of audience. Students need to understand the importance of using the appropriate language in the appropriate setting, and that who one is writing for affects the way in which one writes. For example, IM-speak is perfectly acceptable when instant messaging with someone; on the flip side it is completely unacceptable when writing a formal letter. The same thing is true of formal writing – it is appropriate in an official document, such as a school paper, but would be inappropriate in-- for example-- an online chat room.

In addition to teaching about audience, teachers can also use IM to speak to their students. As cited in the previous section, teachers have done this with some impressive results. If students understand where and when it is appropriate to use certain types of language, then allowing them to use IM-speak can be beneficial in building student-teacher relationships, in enhancing students' comfort level in school settings, and in improving academic performance.

IM lingo is evidence of the evolution of language, and as Brown-Owens, Eason, and Lader (2003) point out, teachers need to realize that – for better or for worse – IM is widely used among many adolescents and is consequently a strong influence on student academic performance. For who knows? Given its roots in other languages, sometime soon we may even be teaching IM-speak as a legitimate form of language.

References

Associated Press. (2003, July 13). N.C educators say instant messaging helps students write. The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved March 14, 2004.

Brown-Owens, A., Eason, M., & Lader, A. (2003). What effect does Computer-Mediated Communication, specifically Instant Messaging, have on 8th grade writing competencies? Retrieved March 14, 2004.

Dillon, S. (2004, December 7). What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence. New York Times. Retrieved December 7, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/07/business/07write.html?oref=login.

Lenhart, A., Rainie, L., & Lewis, O. (2001). Teenage life online: The rise of the instant-message generation and the Internet's impact on friendships and family relationships. Retrieved December 13, 2004.

Friess, S. (2003, April 1). 'Yo, can u plz help me write English?': Parents fear online chatting ruins kids' language skills. USA Today, p.D.08.

Helderman, R.S. (2003, May 20). Click by Click, Teens Polish Writing; Instant Messaging Teaches More Than TTYL and ROFL. The Washington Post, p. B.01.

Lee, J. (2002, September 19). I Think, Therefore IM. New York Times, p.G.1.

About the author

Amanda O'Connor is a graduate student in Educational Technology at the University of Washington. Her primary academic interest is in the field of Digital Literacies, specifically focusing on how popular technologies – such as video games and instant messaging – trigger inadvertent learning and can thus be harnessed to help students with academic learning.

Contact info: amandao@u.washington.edu

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