Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Does Texting Harm or Help Literacy?

We've been talking to David Crystal about his new book, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8. In the first and second parts of our interview, Crystal debunked the myths surrounding text messaging and considered how this new form of communication has brought with it new social expectations. Now in the third and final installment, he explains how text messaging can actually improve student literacy and also muses on the future of the electronic medium.

VT: In the book you attack the idea that texting supposedly leads to bad spelling and a general decrease in literacy. Would you argue that texting actually is a new kind of literacy and that it actually helps students become more literate?

DC: That's basically it, yes. Literacy is learning to read and write, and the basic thing is the more practice you get, the better. There's no question about that. Whenever anybody does any research into literacy, they say the more the better, whether you get it from your mum reading to you at night, or whatever. Just give them a pile of literacy and kids will improve. Get them reading books, reading anything, is the argument from the general literacy camp.

So here now we have one of the most exciting innovations in technology, which is giving kids the opportunity to read and write. And that's what they're doing. So it shouldn't be surprising at all that the basic conclusion is that the more you text, the better your literacy scores will be, however they are judged. A few years ago it would have been possible to assert this but not be able to prove it. But over the last two or three years, study after study has started to come out now, and they're all saying the same thing, all pointing in the same direction that the more kids text, the better the results. The longer they have their cell phone, the better the results, as long as they text with it.

It's absolutely convincing. I wrote the book only last year, and since then I've come across three or four more completely independent studies that have found exactly the same conclusions. And that's the evidence one needs. But, as I say, it shouldn't be surprising because all we're saying is that the more you read and write on your mobile phone, the better reader and writer you will be generally.

VT: Given that, do you think educators should be encouraging their students to text?

DC: Absolutely, as one of the options in the whole business of literacy teaching. Literacy is a wildly diverse thing: there are literacies, in fact. There is computer literacy, which people have eventually realized is such a critical aspect of the whole future of education. You could call cell-phone literacy part of computer literacy, but I guess "electronic literacy" is a better general label for this.

Electronic literacy is a very wide domain, but it isn't going to go away and it's going to get more complex as time goes by. And I think the more that teachers can build this into the curriculum and teach the kids about the strengths and the weaknesses — both formally in terms of what you can do with spelling and grammar, and functionally in terms of appropriateness — the better.

VT: If teachers shouldn't be concerned about texting as a threat to literacy, what should they be concerned about? What issues do you think teachers need to be paying attention to, in helping their students understand the uses and abuses of texting?

DC: The issues are not specifically linguistic. There are lots of psychological, social and even physiological issues. Kids losing their sleep, cheating in examinations, texting while driving — all of those are certainly issues that kids need to be made aware of. I think it's in those domains that teaching has a great responsibility to promote.

Linguistically, I think it's important for teachers to explore the expressive potential of the medium to the kids, to show its limitations. Since 160 characters isn't very much, what sorts of messages will work, and what sorts will not? It really wouldn't be very appropriate to start an argument to try and demonstrate the existence of God, shall we say, on a text phone. The medium militates against that. And a lot of the jokey behavior that works very well on mobile phones mainly consists of very short jokes, one-liners, two-liners. They're not long shaggy-dog stories, which just wouldn't work. Kids can get a lot out of exploring along with a teacher who's thought this through and understands the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. I think there's plenty to be done there.

There's another aspect that needs a lot more exploration. If you are forced through your technology to think more succinctly, in order to get your message into the technology and out the other end, is this actually training you to be a different kind of thinker? This needs to be explored, not just at research level but in class, as well. You can say, "Here is a message, kids. You've got six different ways of sending it, through e-mail, through a blog, through a mobile phone and so on, so forth. Let's explore what happens to that message if we use these different technologies and just see what happens." Very little of that is being done, it seems to me. And I think we need to go into that an awful lot more before we can make a judgment about it.

It's a long-standing teaching strategy for teachers to say to kids, "Here is an essay of 500 words. Now paraphrase it: reduce it to 50 words." In a sense, that's the task facing anybody about to use a text message. You've got big thoughts in your head and you've got to get it down to 160 characters or less. But exploring how that's done hasn't happened very much.

There's lots of really exciting opportunities for teachers to exploit, once they've got rid of the myth that's in their heads. And this is the amazing thing. I gave a lecture on this subject a few weeks ago here, and I said to the audience before I started the lecture, "How many of you think that text messaging is bad for children?" And everybody, but one or two, put their hands up. And then, at the end, I asked them again, and nobody put their hand up. It's so easy to convince people, once you point out the facts.

VT: Are people also persuaded by looking at the literary possibilities of text messaging, like the poetry competitions you discuss in your book?

DC: Oh, they love it. I only put a couple of the poems in the book, but when you look at the whole range of them out there, some of them are beautiful. This is the nature of the human linguistic condition. Faced with a linguistic convention or a constraint, our natural reaction is: "I'm going to play with this, I'm going to do new things with it that nobody's ever done before." Hence, the haiku: "I'm going to write a poem, three lines. You only have so many syllables in the first and the second and the third." Why should anybody want to do that? And then you've got some wonderful haikus. It's the same, I think, with any of these new mediums that once people see they're there, they want to exploit them to the full.

VT: What do you see as the future of texting? Do you see an increase in the differentiation of texting styles around the world, or do you see it gradually being replaced by new forms of communication as the technology changes?

DC: I wish I knew. Never predict the future with language. Who could have predicted all this ten years ago? I remember when I was doing the first edition of Language and the Internet, which came out in 2001. I don't normally expect to do a second edition of a book for ten years. By 2003, it was perfectly obvious that the book needed a second edition because it didn't mention blogging and it didn't mention instant messaging. They weren't around in 2001. So I do a new edition for the book for 2005 and build in chapters on blogging and instant messaging. It's already out of date: didn't mention Facebook, didn't mention YouTube. So it's very difficult to predict.

As I say at the end of the book, there are two completely conflicting views. One is that text messaging shouldn't have ever happened because it's so stupid that one spends all this energy, trying to send little messages across between people. And on the other hand is the view that it has happened and will remain popular for its cheapness, its directness, and other reasons. Which of these views is going to win out in the long term, or even the medium term, I wouldn't dare to say. It's like the Internet generally. At the moment it's predominantly a written-language medium, but it's going to become increasingly voice-orientated over the next generation. And in fifty years' time, how much of our Internet communication will be written, one wonders? These are big issues.

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Shattering the myths about text messaging.
Part two of our interview with David Crystal.
Generation Text
David Crystal's recommended readings on new electronic discourse.