Texting aids literacy: study confounds popular prejudice

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Traditionalists cringe, but abbreviations reveal sophisticated grasp of language

Sendin mizspelld msgs improvez pupilz skulwork and conventional litRC skilz, accordin 2 nu research.

Academics from Coventry University have found that, contrary to popular expectation, pupils who send large numbers of text messages are more likely to do well in school literacy tests than their text-averse classmates.

Tabloid scare stories regularly highlight the horror of teachers who find GCSE essays littered with text-message abbreviations, such as "l8r", "plz" or "hav". But the Coventry researchers argue that such linguistic playfulness requires a detailed knowledge of how the English language works.

They said: "Where a strict traditionalist might cringe to hear a child say, 'Wot ya doin, bro, wanna cum wiv us to da pix?', a text that spells it out exactly as it is pronounced is a clear indication of an accurate ear for speech sounds."

The academics carried out several investigations into the literacy skills of prolific texters. They compared the text-message usage of 65 11 and 12-year-olds with their scores in a series of verbal-reasoning tests. Children who sent large numbers of text messages were found to do particularly well in these tests.

Similarly, a study of 10 and 11-year-olds revealed that pupils who used abbreviations such as "nite", "wot" or "wiv" tended to do better in school spelling tests than their classmates. These pupils had a clear sense of which register was appropriate for which context, and were able to slip easily between textspeak and standard English.

"The children would often laugh and insist that of course they would not use text language in their school work," the researchers said.

Questioning a group of 88 pupils from Years 6 and 7, the academics then found that reading ability was associated with the age at which children had received their first mobile phone. And the more textspeak abbreviations they used in their messages, the better their conventional vocabulary.

Finally, they monitored a group of 63 children between the ages of eight and 11. Here, too, they found that the more textisms pupils used, the more likely they were to read well at the end of the year.

They concluded that using legitimate linguistic rules to create non-conventional abbreviations, such as "R" for "are" or "2" for "to", requires a detailed knowledge of the way that written language works.

RINGING THE CHANGES: KIDS ON MOBILES

- Half the world's population is estimated to have access to a mobile phone

- Between a quarter and half of us send text messages regularly

- 1.2 billion text messages are sent every week in Britain

- This is more than were sent in the whole of 1997, the year that texting was introduced to the UK

- Among nine-to-11 year olds: 93 per cent have access to a mobile phone; 69 per cent have their own mobile phone; 54 per cent use the phone primarily for texting

- Among pre-teens, 62.7 per cent prefer to text than to talk

- Among eight-to-11-year-olds, the average number of texts sent per week is 16.

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