The English Teacher

Well, it won’t make me cry, but it won’t make me give you a good grade, either.
February 27, 2008, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

‘Dis maks my teacha cry’

Cell phone text messaging spawns debate on ‘ryt’ and wrong

Like every other electronically hip American, Denise Karpelenia will dash off the occasional text message. But, unlike many of those cell phone-packing writers, Karpelenia has trouble accepting the literary conventions — “4” for “for,” “U” for “you” — that make up much of the medium’s lexicon.”My colleagues and friends laugh at me because they know if I’m going to do any texting, I’m going to have to text in complete sentences,” says Karpelenia, the Clark County School District‘s coordinator for secondary English and language arts.

Besides, Karpelenia adds, laughing, “if it takes me two hours to text one sentence, I might as well talk to them on the phone.”

Call it textspeak, this odd but useful assemblage of symbols used routinely by thumb-typing people — most of them youngish — for quick communication. As an adjunct language, textspeak is practical, concise and, often, really creative.

It’s only when textspeak creeps into other, more formal types of writing that it can drive a language purist absolutely batty.William Kist, an associate professor of education at Ohio’s Kent State University and author of “New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media,” knows of no study examining whether texting affects students’ writing proficiency, but he notes that alternative forms of writing are not new.

For example, says Kist, who’s also a consultant to the National Council of Teachers of English, viewers of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary may have noticed the many alternative punctuations and spellings used by letter writers of the time.

Still, textspeak is a departure from what most Americans would consider standard English, and that can be disconcerting for some. (Exhibit A: Before an interview, Kist is compelled to ask why so many reporters have been calling him to talk about the topic in recent months.)

Kist wonders whether parental discomfort about textspeak may be related to a long history of equating standard spelling with literacy.

The general public, he says, “really buys into the idea that if someone is not spelling correctly, according to standard English rules, that means they are illiterate and not prepared for the job market and maybe even substandard intellectually.”

There’s no consensus in the academic community regarding textspeak. Some teachers say text messaging is a form of writing, and anything that prompts students to write is good. Others argue that textspeak isn’t the sort of writing that will endear students to either teachers or future employers.

They do agree that although not widespread, textspeak increasingly seems to be making its way into schoolwork.

Michelle Peterson, an English teacher at Green Valley High School who is hardly old — 27, she has been teaching for four years — admits she was “astonished” the first time she saw “U” in a paper as a substitute for “you.”

“I don’t think it’s new,” Peterson says. “Even when I was in school, I think kids still tended to write in the vernacular. They’re going to write the way they speak. And slang has always made its way into papers.”

But, maybe because students spend more time online these days than they used to, “I do recognize it a little more and more,” she adds.

Peterson has noticed a few trends. Freshmen tend to use it in papers more often than upperclassmen, and Peterson finds it more often in drafts of papers — at that stage, she can point out to a student how textspeak is not suitable for schoolwork — than final versions.

Meanwhile, Karpelenia has heard from several district English teachers that students are not capitalizing letters, they’re using text symbols in their writing and it’s impacting their state proficiency exams.

In fact, if there are practical consequences to the use of textspeak, that’s a biggie: That, under the pressure of taking the timed English portion of the state exams, students may accidentally revert to the conventions of textspeak even when they know it’s not appropriate.

The standard tack for an English teacher is to explain to students that different forms of writing are suitable in different circumstances. Writing for specific audiences is, Karpelenia notes, a topic covered in the district’s English curriculum.

“A lot of our teachers will tell students, ‘You may use whatever format you like when you’re outside of the classroom, but for education purposes, we expect you to use academic language,’ ” Karpelenia says.

At the college level, “I can’t imagine there are any instructors who are accepting or tolerant of any kinds of abbreviation in formal writing,” says Patrice Hollrah, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Writing Center.

“That’s the whole nature of academic writing,” she adds. “There are no shortcuts. You don’t abbreviate things.”

Karen Laing, an English instructor at the College of Southern Nevada, makes it clear to her students that linguistic shortcuts and substitutions always are unacceptable. However, she has noticed that e-mails from students in her online courses sometimes do lapse into that kind of language.

Concern about textspeak doesn’t end in the academic world.

“What employers are telling us is that they want students to come out of high school and college ready to write and to have excellent writing and verbal skills,” Hollrah says. “We are charged for preparing them for that.”

In fact, she adds, it’s useful for teachers to approach the subject from that perspective.

There’s probably something else at work here, too. Call it the Fogey Factor.

Hollrah notes that young people always have created “their own language, their own lingo, their own way of communicating to set themselves apart.”

But, most of the time, she says, they’re smart enough to know that there’s a time and place for it.

“So I’m not concerned about the language,” Hollrah says. “It’s alive and it’s changing.”

Actually, Kist says, “I think the general public is more upset about it than English teachers are. It’s certainly the position of the National Council of Teachers of English that these alternate spellings and punctuations actually open up an incredible opportunity for a dialogue (with students) about the English language.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at or (702) 383-0280.