Can Txt Msgs Really Help Kidz 2 Spell?

Studies show texting boosts kids' spelling skills.

January 31, 2011, 5:58 AM

Jan. 31, 2011 -- OMG but TXTs help me spel L8R

For many teachers and parents, those text abbreviations may spell the end of literacy as we know it, but a growing body of research indicates that text messages can actually help students' ability to spell.

It may seem counterintuitive to those who wonder how hours spent slinging digital slang can't help but translate into "lol"-peppered formal correspondence. But language experts say that no matter how dumbed down the techno shorthand looks, the wordplay has a positive impact on students' spelling smarts.

"Sometimes, there's an assumption that kids are more stupid than they actually are, to be quite blunt, and it's just not the case," said Clare Wood, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Coventry University in the U.K. "Their use of the texting abbreviations everyone gets so worried about, they're not hurting your kids' literacy development. They actually seem to be helping it."

In a study to be published next month in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Wood and her colleagues recruited 114 students aged 9-10 who had never owned a cell phone.

They gave half of the students cell phones to use on the weekends and holidays and, during 10 weeks, the researchers tested students in both groups on reading, spelling and phonological skills.

The researchers found no difference between how students in the two groups performed.

"There was absolutely no sign that it was problematic," said Wood.

She said it's likely that this study was too short for the benefits of texting to be apparent, but added that another longer-term study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology showed that texting significantly boosted the growth of literacy skills.

The study included 119 students aged 8-12 who use cell phones, and looked at the relationship between their texting habits and performance on reading, spelling and phonological skills tests.

The researchers tested students at the beginning of the academic year, analyzed a sample of their text messages and then tested students again at the end of the academic year.

Texting Contributing to Spelling, Research Says

Wood said the results of that study found that the use of text abbreviations was driving spelling development. They even reversed the analysis to see if it was the good spellers who tended to use text abbreviations, but found that relationship was unidirectional, she said.

"The use of text abbreviations was contributing to spelling ability, not the other way around," she said. "That's the one that's really exciting."

And Woods' study is hardly the first to arrive at such positive results.

Three years ago, Connie Varnhagen, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada, led a study that looked at the instant messages of 40 students between 12 and 17.

They asked students to save a weeks' worth of "chatspeak"-loaded instant messages and then gave the adolescents spelling tests.

They found that students who were good spellers in the world of academics were good spellers in the world of instant messaging and vice versa. In short, the constant texting wasn't hurting language development in any way the researchers examined.

"It's exposure to language. It's playing with language," said Varnhagen. "It doesn't hurt them."

Kids have always been exposed to their own spelling mistakes, she said, and that never hindered their ability to ultimately spell correctly.

And, just as kids know to speak to their grandparents differently than they speak to their peers, they know when to use so-called textspeak and when to use conventional language, she said.

"We're able to distinguish when we need to use what type of language," Varnhagen said. "It's all part of learning when to say what -- how to use what communication style."

School administers and parents may argue that texting isn't good for students' learning but, she said, tech-savvy kids are learning to communicate in more ways than kids without the same access to technology.

More time texting means more time spent engaging in language play, which correlates with fluency, she said.

But if the studies continue to favor the impact of texting on kids' skills development, then why does texting continue to get a bad rap?

New Forms of Media Historically Face Push Back

Though research on the subject is still emerging, experts say that part of the perception problem may just have to do with the dynamics of change.

"Basically what you have is a small line of research showing that texting helps people read and helps them write, both, and then you have a lot of anecdotes and anxiety," said Kathleen Blake Yancey, the Kellogg W. Hunt professor of English at Florida State University. "That's basically it."

She said she's read reports of classroom teachers who see textspeak slipping into students' formal written work. But, while she doesn't doubt that it's there, she said the research doesn't support it and at the college level, they don't see it at all.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that students perceive a "firewall" between their texting and their formal writing, Yancey said.

What they do in school is "writing," but the texting, Facebooking and blogging they do on their own time is "communication," the study said.

"As long as students see that divide, you have a smaller likelihood of texting infiltrating school assignments," she said.

And as for those who continue to worry about the rise of texting and technospeak? New forms of communication have always received some push back, Yancey said.

Even when postcards took off in the early 1900s, critics bemoaned the perceived effects of postcards on traditional letter writing, she said.

"Every time there's some change, a kind of nostalgia kicks in. And sometimes the nostalgia laments what's going to be lost and sometimes the nostalgia takes a critical view of the new," she said. "And I think that's part of the process of making change."