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English teachers confront 'textisms'

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The ease of using spell check has taken such a toll on Valley High School sophomores that their English teacher recently held a spelling bee.

"As a teacher that grades both handwriting and word processing, there's an obvious difference when students have a chance to type on Microsoft Word compared to an in-class written assignment," said Ryann Barr. "I think it's this generation. (Spelling) is the least of their concerns at this point."

The spelling bee was meant as a fun activity for the students in the New Kensington-Arnold School District, and it served as a wake-up call.

"Of the 10 most commonly misspelled ninth-grade words, only one (student) got eight right; the majority of them were three and under," said Barr. The words included "incessant" and "camouflage."

Students fared better on the sixth-grade words like "separate" and "restaurant," but still only nine students got six out of 10 words correct, Barr said.

Teachers say spelling and grammar have always been tough for students, but the proliferation of 140 character-limited tweets and "textisms" like LOL (laugh out loud) or "gr8" (great) have created a new set of challenges for teachers.

Few teenagers consider electronic communication like texting as "writing," according to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey. It's more along the lines of a phone call, the survey found.

The teens surveyed said they generally don't think technology negatively affects the quality of their writing, but 50 percent said they sometimes use informal writing styles in school assignments.

Melissa Tungate, Upper St. Clair High School's English curriculum leader, said she's seen "a lot of abbreviation and lack of punctuation" since texting became common. One of the most common offenses is the use of a lowercase U for the word "you."

"They're writing as they're talking," she said. "The challenge has always been to get them to write in a more formal voice."

The rise in technology also has affected the way students communicate in person, Tungate said, with many preferring to email their peers, even when they're seated beside them.

The best way to combat poor grammar habits is to continue to teach students the appropriate way to communicate based on the audience and occasion, she said.

Some research studies have found that texting does not have a negative impact on spelling and grammar, said Rae Ann Hirsh, director of Carlow University's Undergraduate Early Childhood Program.

"In some ways these are more intelligent kids because you have to remember what all those things stand for and have a great phonetic ability," Hirsh said. "Some people believe it helps kids because it gets them interested in writing."

A 2010 study from Coventry University in the United Kingdom found that "textism" use improved phonological awareness and reading skills in children ages 8-12 who were observed during an academic year.

State standards are going to get tougher as Pennsylvania fully implements the Common Core Standards, which will make English literacy standards part of other subjects like social studies, science and technical subjects.

"They are clearly more rigorous than those of 30 years ago," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department. "In addition, these standards will apply to all students, not just college-bound."

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