08 February 2021

Textese: Impact on Grade 6 English Language & Literature

Learning Issue: Basic Sentence Conventions


As a teacher of Grade 6 Language and Literature, I have found that many learners enter middle school without basic foundational knowledge of sentence conventions, particularly capitalisation and ending punctuation. The IBO May 2018 MYP Subject Report for the Language and Literature examination supports these observations, stating that “candidates seemed to have lost track of basic conventions like capitalization and the use of ending punctuation despite exhibiting good control in other areas of language use” (2018). In addition, data from externally marked online examinations in Language and Literature, at the exit point of the MYP in Grade 10, also indicate that our learners are not quite yet reaching the global average grade.

Data has also been gathered from a diagnostic writing test administered to the sample group at the beginning of the academic year. Anecdotal evidence of the learning issue also comes from teaching Grade 6, leading the English Language and Literature department Grades 6-12, and being the Middle Years Programme (MYP) Curriculum coordinator for all subjects Grades 6-10.

Learning Issue Causes: Textese


If “new technologies will, as they always have, influence how we gain and use knowledge” ("Could texting and autocorrect affect kids' writing skills?", 2014) then it follows that the way we communicate on these new technologies, via text messaging for example, must have an impact on our language. In 2008, when

Prensky identified the children of that generation as ‘digital natives’, research conducted found “no evidence” that texting had “any negative association” with the “written language competence” of middle school learners (Plester et al., 2008, p. 142). Instead, research suggested that children’s experiences with texting had a positive impact and actually raised “awareness of the variety of language registers available to them” (Plester et al., 2008, p. 143). Essentially, they viewed it as simply “another genre of writing” (UWIRE, 2014, p. 1). However, those children were born in the mid-nineties when technology was not nearly as prevalent as it is today; they grew up “adapting to the new technology” that started to surround them whereas children today are learning “digital communication and messaging almost at the same time” ("Texting a social barrier for children already struggling with reading and writing skills", 2017, p. 1). Today’s children are suffering from the “confusion created by switching between textese a formal writing styles” that children seemed more than able to do only nine years ago.

Learning Issue Causes: Tech at an Early Age

The data from the sample group in this study suggests that almost half the learners face issues with writing standard English sentences, and this problem has worsened in recent years. A major reason could be not only the ubiquitous nature of technology identified above, but also due to the fact that it is prevalent in their lives from a much younger age than they did before. Data suggests that children get their first smartphone at 10.3 years old (Influence Central), with 45 percent stating that they are “almost constantly” on the internet (Schaeffer, 2019, p. 1). Speaking at a conference in 2017, Dr Nenagh Kemp suggested that the “fallout from the trend towards children receiving phones a lot earlier in life” means that do so before they have “a lot of intact reading and spelling ability” (UWIRE, 2014, p. 1), which helps explain the learning issue identified here and why it has become more of an issue in the past few years.

Even in 2004, four or five years before the learners identified for this project were born, text messaging was “one of the fastest growing modes of communication” with “the proportion of young people estimated to be active ‘texters’” as more the 72 percent (Plester, Wod, & Bell, 2008, p. 137). Numbers in 2008 placed children using text messages at 96 percent with more than half preferring texting their friends than talking to them (Plester et al., 2008, p. 137). Whilst actual SMS texts may not be the preferred mode of communication for children in 2019, with apps such as Snapshat, for example, taking their place, the language of textese has nevertheless spread from text messages into these other recent digital modes of communication.

Learning Issue Causes: Advances in Tech

The phones that make their way into today’s children’s hands at a young age now also do even more for them than ever before. Innovations such as autocorrect put “capital letters and full stops” (Kemp, 2017) into their writing and recent findings suggest that students have become dependent on these tools. This impacts on lower-ability writers in particular, who are still grappling with the fundamentals of standard English whilst simultaneously both viewing the majority of their written language in textese and having minor errors adjusted for them automatically. Similar findings were uncovered in a study conducted by the University of Cambridge when looking at GCSE examination papers to find evidence of the permeation of ‘text speak’ into formal exam writing. The study found issues with “lower achieving pupils” in terms of “poorer punctuation, with fewer full stops and capital letters, in styles similar to social media posts and message”. They found that these candidates were “twice as likely to start sentences with a lower case rather than a capital letter as teenagers who took their exams a decade earlier” (Hurst, 2016, p. 37).

This decline in the basics of sentence beginning and ending conventions therefore, seems to have a direct correlation with the ever-present use of smartphones from a young age, the technology used to ‘correct’ errors, and the simultaneous learning of textese and formal language resulting in a subsequent inability to distinguish effectively between the two.

Technology-Based Solution: Focus

Sentence conventions in writing are skills that need to be mastered early in education to support success in later years. According to language expert David Crystal (2017) textese - the language of digital communication - is “both like and unlike spoken and written language” (p. 125). The learning issue identified in this study exists because children today are growing up with textese as a major mode of communication both in tandem with learning their primary language and whilst still developing their written language skills. This is evident in the diagnostic writing sample submitted by the Grade 6 class for this study, where 85 percent demonstrated a lack of control in sentence punctuation and almost 70 percent showed an inability to use punctuation accurately at the start and/or end of their sentences.

When it comes to written language, textese does not share the strict conventions of standard English structures such as punctuation and capitalisation (Crystal, 2017, p. 49). For example, a study that tested middle-school learners general literacy ability in translating a text message into standard English showed regular patterns in “missing punctuation” were found (Plester et al., 2008, p. 139). As evidence from today’s young writers shows, they are so familiar with textese that they are unable to separate it from standard English conventions and so textese and its conventions is permeating their everyday writing. As a result, today’s middle-schoolers find it “more difficult to separate when to write formally and when to write informally” ("Texting a social barrier for children already struggling with reading and writing skills", 2017, p. 1).

Technology-Based Solution: Game-based Learning

Compounding the issue of the impact of textese on middle school learners’ language competencies, the school in the study also has a transient population, losing and gaining around 20-40% of learners in any given year. There is a rolling enrollment from the end of August to the middle of February, dates that are enforced by the country’s educational system, and learners enter the system from many different schools, countries, and curricula. By using a universal design for learning (UDL) model, the aim is to create a “flexible learning environment that is optimal for all learners” (Meyer et al., 2014, in Vue, et al., 2016, p. 86) with game-based elements that provide “an excellent medium for the acquisition of skills” (Denham, 2018, p. 1) at whatever point they join the school. As the exit point for the MYP is in Grade 10, where students sit on-screen external examinations, providing learners with opportunities to develop digital skills that help them manage and negotiate their way through online platforms from Grade 6 is also crucial. The intention is to do this through gamification, a method by which “game-like features like points and badges” (Looyestyn, et al., 2017, p. 1) are incorporated into the learning experience which is believed “to improve retention” (Faiella & Ricciardi, 2015, p. 14) of knowledge and skills.

Research suggests that by integrating technology into instructional writing practices learners demonstrate “greater improvements in quality of writing” (Vue, et al., 2016, p. 86). Therefore, to increase competency in basic writing skills, and at the same time embrace the technology that our learners have and use everyday, the intention is to develop a digital game-based system that leverages technology and allows learners to work independently through game-levels that provide scaffolding which “can support players while they master the skills necessary to progress” (Van Eck 2006; Schell 2014 in Denham, 2018, p. 2).

Technology-Based Solution: Tools

As a Google Suite for Education school, use of the range of Google tools will be used to develop a self-paced programme that can be completed independently by any learner. Vue, et al. (2015) suggest that a “web-based, writing environment that adheres to UDL can potentially improve access, comprehension, and retention of information” (p. 86), as well as provide choice and an authentic audience, which they cite as crucial motivational factors in improving writing skills. I intend to explore Deck Toys, a ‘drag and drop’ interactive online programme that allows integration of teacher-created content to be delivered in a way that allows “self-exploration” at students' “own pace” providing differentiated pathways for “ample practice for mastery of key concepts” (DeckToys). Google Forms can also be developed and integrated to deliver self-grading quizzes that automatically provide suggestions for additional support for answers that are incorrect, as well as access to pages containing the next level of progression once mastery of each level has been reached. Use of add-ons, such as Certify Me, will release badges or certificates to motivate the learners to keep working further.

As findings point towards the importance of recognising “the links between texting and academic competence in general and standard written English in particular” (Plester et al., 2008, p. 138) focus will be on the differences in textese and standard conventions of English, or “code-switching”. An understanding of standard English sentence punctuation and how it differs to the conventions of that in textese requires raising awareness of the two types of writing using methods, as discussed in “Flipping the Switch: Code-Switching from Text Speak to Standard English” (Turner, 2009). Having mastery over sentences means our learners can develop their writing skills providing them with “a significant advantage over those who do not write well” (Graham & Perrin, 2007, in Vue, et al., p. 83). The intention would be for learners to use this game-based programme to self-manage their own learning and get to a point of grade level expectations, as identified through the Common Core Language Progressive Skills, in terms of accuracy and competency in standard English conventions of sentence capitalisation and end punctuation.


References

Could texting and autocorrect affect kids' writing skills? (2014, May 19). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140519160531.htm.

Crystal, D. (2017). Language and the internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States. (2019, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/.

Denham, A. R. (2017). Using a digital game as an advance organizer. Educational Technology Research and Development, 66(1), 1–24. doi: 10.1007/s11423-017-9537-y

English Language Arts Standards " Language " Language Progressive Skills. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/L/language-progressive-skills/.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(3), 445–476. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.3.445

Hurst, G. (2016, December 2). Texting does not damage teenage writing skills. Retrieved from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/texting-does-not-damage-teenage-writing-skills-0hzdkwvjs.

Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today's Digital Natives. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://influence-central.com/kids-tech-the-evolution-of-todays-digital-natives/.

Looyestyn, J., Kernot, J., Boshoff, K., Ryan, J., Edney, S., & Maher, C. (2017). Does gamification increase engagement with online programs? A systematic review. Plos One, 12(3). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173403

Mayer, R. E. (2005). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. In The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 31–48). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Bell, V. (2008). Txt msg n school literacy: does texting and knowledge of text abbreviations adversely affect children’s literacy attainment? Literacy, 42(3), 137–144. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4369.2008.00489.x

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