Social Media Makes for Better Student Writing, Not Worse, Teachers Say

Many teachers find that social media makes students engaged, creative writers.

July 16, 2013, 9:37 AM
PHOTO: How are cell phones and texting impacting students educational performance?
How are cellphones and texting affecting students' educational performance?
Getty Images

July 16, 2013 — -- Occasionally, Jennifer Woollven, an English teacher at West Lake High School in Austin, Texas, finds some Twitter speak -- a FWIW or an "ur" -- in a paper. But most of the time she finds that her students are paying a lot more attention when it comes to their writing assignments, especially when they know it might be shared via Twitter itself.

"As an English teacher who is trying to improve student writing, one thing I see is that people are seeing greater ownership of their writing when they know it will be seen beyond the class and the teacher," Woollven, 40, said.

She has many of her 10th-grade students post their essays and creative-writing assignments on blogs.

Woollven's students aren't the only ones who have found motivation, thanks to digital tools and social media. A study released today by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and the National Writing Project has found that 78 percent of high school teachers agree that digital technologies "encourage student creativity and personal expression."

And to add to that, 96 percent agree that digital technologies "allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience."

Encouraging Collaboration, Creativity

Joel Malley, 38, has found the same thing in his ninth- and 12th-grade English classes at Cheektowaga High School in upstate New York.

"It creates a culture of creativity," he said. "They know it will be watched and viewed. It won't just sit in a closet," Malley said of his students' digital story-telling projects, which include everything from blog posts to documentary videos.

Kristen Purcell, the director of research at Pew's Internet & American Life Project, said other middle and high school teachers shared that the use of social media tools has sparked more creativity in students.

The Pen that Aims to Correct Bad Handwriting and Spelling Errors

"Some teachers view social media as another avenue for creative expression," Purcell told ABC News. "Most teachers told us they wouldn't consider texting or tweeting as formal writing, in the strict sense, but they used the term pre-writing. Students start to express their thoughts and that means students are writing more and they see that as a plus."

Malley also has his students use Google Docs to write and share their writing with him and their classmates. The collaborative word processing app, which allows users to see the editing in real-time, has allowed students to peer-edit and also speed up the writing process. And Malley isn't the only one using apps to teach writing.

Pew found that 50 percent of the teachers surveyed say the Internet and digital tools make it easier for them to teach writing; 18 percent say they make it more difficult and 31 percent see no real effect. With all that tech, though, 94 percent of the teachers encourage their students to write by hand.

Pew surveyed 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers across the country for the report.

Effect on Analysis and Spelling

But it's not all positive. Both New York's Malley and Austin's Woollven, who participated in the Pew study, shared that while it isn't a pervasive problem, students do mistakenly use shorthand or texting language in papers and assignments.

"I see a lot of writing that has text language: 'ur' for 'your' or not capitalizing words," Woollven said. "For kids who have grown up texting and instant messaging, it is pretty engrained. It is something you have to keep reminding and keep looking at."

According to the report, 40 percent say digital technology makes students more likely to use poor spelling and grammar, although 38 percent say it is "less likely" to cause those mistakes.

There is also the effect of the speed of the new technologies. Forty-six percent of teachers said that digital tools have made students write too fast, causing mistakes and carelessness. "They are bombarded by so much and they are used to things quickly posting on social networks," Woollven said. "They aren't always thinking about revising."

In focus groups, teachers shared with the Pew authors that the shorter and more concise forms of digital social expression seem to affect students' ability to read and write longer texts.

Still, many teachers -- and according to Pew's numbers, the majority of teachers -- believe that tech is only making writing stronger in certain aspects. And many teachers are up for the new challenges.

"Teachers have been complaining about the declining standards of writing for what seems like 150 years," Malley said. "I disagree with that. They [students] write differently for me than they do on their Twitter accounts, and if they don't, it's my job to let them know what the difference should be."

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