English Teachers See "Teachable Moments" in Technology-Inspired Shorthand
In recent months, a half dozen reporters have called NCTE's Public Information Office to ask for comments about students using instant messaging-style abbreviations. The most common question is, "Are students using this type of writing in their assignments?"
So far, stories on this topic--some with the headlines "RU ready 2 learn?" and "Kewl or 2 much?"--have appeared in papers in Greenville, South Carolina; Attleboro, Massachusetts; Columbus, Ohio; and Orlando, Florida. NCTE Past President Leila Christenbury is among those quoted.
Christenbury's take is that students like to communicate by instant messaging--and since they've embraced it, it's not going away anytime soon. For the most part, she says, students know when this style of writing is acceptable, such as when chatting online with friends, and when it's not, such as when polishing a final draft of a paper.
When an abbreviation, numerals for words, or other quick-computer-chat shorthand does appear in errant places, she says English teachers are more than able to address it--this has been a part of their role for ages.
As she told the Orlando Sentinel (October 12, 2002), "We should be encouraged to see a generation of youngsters tapping away at the keyboard instead of fingering a TV remote. . . . My gosh, this is an English teacher's dream."
An Invitation to Teach
It appears that English teachers are seizing the instructional opportunity that computer acronyms and abbreviations offer. This is what some educators told us by e-mail, after The Council Chronicle invited comments on the topic via the NCTE-Talk discussion list and NCTE INBOX e-newsletter.
Valorie Carmer, who teaches at Grain Valley High School in Missouri, says students give her "a perfect introduction into writing for an audience" when they use an e-mail form of abbreviation in final copies of assignments.
After fielding questions such as "Why would you be writing to this audience?" and "What type of vocabulary would be appropriate for this audience?" she says students generally find their way to talking about how the abbreviations aren't really acceptable beyond conversations with friends.
Carmer says the effort is worth it. "I find my students begin to think more about whom they are writing to after we have had this discussion."
Texas eighth-grade English teacher Selina Jackson also turns instant message use by her students at Wall Junior High School into "a springboard for a mini-lesson on audience."
"I expect them to use proper grammar on most of my assignments. However, when students are writing stories with dialogue, they are permitted to use this 'slang' when it is appropriate for a character."
She adds that "instant messaging teens have a very elaborate vocabulary that no one had to teach them." Her students say they pick it up so easily because it's "cool" and they like it. She finds this to be an interesting concept and wishes she could reach students so easily with lessons on grammar and literature.
Understanding "Why" Helps with "How"
Rosalinda Psolka likewise takes a practical approach. She explains to students that "there is a time and place for brevity and coding," but if they are communicating with an audience who may not understand their abbreviations, it's better to write in a more standard fashion.
This is part of a larger lesson, says Psolka, who teaches rhetoric and composition at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey located in Pomona. She wants students to see that standard expression serves a purpose when they write a report or complete a job application. Once they see the "why" for their writing, she says, the "how" becomes clearer.
Kenneth Baldwin, professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shares "more of an administrative perspective." He explains that the school is a research university, where composition is a required course.
The approximately 25 writing instructors and professors who teach these courses say students do sometimes slip into using instant message-style abbreviations in their writing for class. Most instructors, Baldwin says, treat the instances like a spelling mistake or inappropriate diction, letting students know the abbreviations generally aren't appropriate.
But teacher concern about this issue is relatively small, he says, compared to a great deal of concern about Internet plagiarism, an issue for which teachers request help and resources.
Janie Robertson's seventh- and eighth-grade gifted language arts students at Reidsville Middle School in North Carolina, also use "e-mail spellings and abbreviations" in their writing--their favorite, she says, is b/c for because. She doesn't mind it in informal writing such as journal entries or reflections, but she does instruct them that it is not acceptable for formal writing.
Her students say they get into the habit of using the abbreviations without realizing it, and find themselves having to go back in and edit them out or catch them with a computer spell check.
They contend that this style of writing is fine when chatting on the computer or writing notes to friends. They also mention its value as a "code against the invasion of their personal writing" and see its potential as a form of shorthand "for taking notes in college classes."
But they acknowledge that it could be confusing, Robertson says. And they add that since the purpose of writing is to communicate, it shouldn't be used if it gets in the way of getting a message across.
Terri Jacobson finds that students don't necessarily come into middle school knowing the appropriate grammar and structure to use when writing for the classroom vs. writing to friends via e-mail.
This has led her to plan a lesson covering the issue during the first week of school with her sixth- and seventh-grade English students at The Epstein School in Atlanta, Georgia.
She explains that there may sometimes be reasons to use the truncated language "authentically and purposefully" in a piece of writing, but that this should be a deliberate decision by the writer and should make sense to the audience.
"Students do learn the message," she says, "but [they] are much sloppier in their editing and proofreading than in previous years. Speed is a student's best friend, and I constantly fight the battle to help each one slow down and reread for clarity and errors."
To enforce the point, after establishing the expectations for writing in her class, she deducts a letter grade for each misuse of "e-mail jargon" in an English assignment. "The penalty is brutal," she says, "but most often remembered for the next assignment."
Teachers Use the Lingo
In Adams County, Ohio, Kristi Kattelus turns things around. She takes examples from students' own instant message-style expression when she writes the "Daily Language Practice" lesson on the board. Her students have the task of translating the abbreviations and other language shortcuts into more "correct" English.
"I tell them they have to be bilingual," she says, meaning they need to know the differences between computer-inspired chatting and writing for a more formal audience.
Kattelus teaches ninth-eleventh grade language arts at West Union High School and is adviser to the school yearbook, which has the theme of "Just Another Face in the Crowd." This project actually provides an outlet for creative computer conversation in the form of emoticons (expressions of emotions created with options on a computer keyboard, such as the smiley face :) and other variations), which students are planning to work into the book's design.
"I look at them as the current slang," says Kattelus, "and a chance to expose the students to ideas from other parts of the world" beyond their own small town.
Dana Clark, who teaches at D. W. Daniel High School in Central, South Carolina, taught in the United Kingdom last year, where text messaging--quick messages typed and displayed via cell phone--is more common than in the U.S.
Because text messages must be limited in number of characters, she says it's natural for people to get in the habit of sending "choppy little messages that are full of abbreviations." She noticed that students would often abbreviate their words and their thoughts.
In fact, she's gotten good at pruning language herself. She can dash off an impressive text message and explains via e-mail that "more than once I've found myself writing something on the board or in handouts and I've had to go back and correct my IM/txt shorthand."
She treats these occurrences in student writing as if they were spelling errors. When the abbreviations are pointed out, she says, most students know they aren't appropriate.
Overall, she focuses on the positive: Students are writing more, and she can talk to them about language and how they are contributing to its use and meaning.
"I believe that the new language, if you will, is a real way for kids to begin to understand how the English language is alive and kicking"--or kickn, as the case may be.