Teaching with Text Messages and Tweets

Over the weekend, Andy Selsberg—author and instructor of English at John Jay College—wrote an op ed for the NYTimes online called Teaching to the Text Message.” In this short post, he explained that he has characteristically taught five-paragraph essays and research papers, and only recently introduced very brief assignments to help students hone their concise writing. Over time, he’s gone from giving “two-line” assignments to asking students to write Amazon reviews that exclude “gratuitous modern argot and emoticons” and short YouTube video comments.  He mixes these in with longer assignments, saying that he sees value in rewarding concision.

It’s interesting to consider both what Selsberg did and what he didn’t do. What he did is take the very short genres seriously and consider how writing well in them could be efficacious for (and interesting to) his students. What he didn’t do by excluding the diction, orthography, and emoticons that are characteristic of some very short genres, is treat these genres as distinct genres—only as shorter versions of academic-style writing, and through this, he lost an opportunity.

Teachers complain that students can’t distinguish formal from informal diction, that text messaging lingo slinks into their school essays, that they can’t spell. It’s arguable that treating the SMS and tweet seriously enough to discuss the language characteristics—how and why the abbreviations, slang, and orthographic ingenuity work well in the context—and addressing head-on the question of when these adaptations of the standards are appropriate and why is a more productive approach.

This is one of the topics addressed in the new first chapter I’ve written for the third edition of Painless Spelling (due out in August). Titled “Spelling in the 21st Century,” the chapter clarifies for students what the attributes of informal writing and spelling are, why it works well in the genres in which it was developed, and why it makes teachers (and parents) upset. By placing the orthography used in text messages and tweets in the context of:

• an understanding of speech registers and contextual expectations ranging from extreme formality to extreme informality;

• the reality that many words have multiple accepted spellings in American English (hoofs/hooves);

• the intermingling of British and American English without labels on the Internet, so that students may see acceptable spelling variations (color/colour) that may be considered wrong in the classroom; and

• the history of altered spelling in vanity license plates and trade names (Dunkin’ Donuts),

the discussion avoids the framing of falling educational standards and is placed in the frame of making appropriate choices from a range of possibilities.

Anyone who has had access to the news in recent days has probably seen (here arranged in alphabetical order):

Gadhafi

Gaddhafi

Khadafi

Khadafy

Qaddafi

—an opportunity to realize that spelling is not a settled issue. Helping students to understand not only the skills of spelling but also the strategic choices involved is, in my opinion, the best means for students to become good spellers in the context of being thoughtful communicators.

The new edition of Painless Spelling is available for pre-order from Barnes and Noble online.