A lot of folks are very worried about the impact of teenagers texting. In a Daily Mail article (oh! the shame), John Humphrys expressed the view that “SMS vandals… are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours” and goes on to warn of the danger of “our written language [ending up] as a series of ridiculous emoticons and ever-changing abbreviations”. Sounds pretty dreadful, doesn’t it?

For as long as there have been mobile phones, it has been the job of schools and teachers to confiscate ’em. The standard approach seems to be blanket bans in classrooms and a grudging tolerance for them being kept switched off and out of sight at the bottom of bags. Fortunately, my school is one that has sought to harness the power of mobiles in a productive way.

English teachers will be aware that the new GCSE English Language specifications include a requirement for student to write about spoken language and intriguingly, one of AQA’s controlled assessment topics is the option to examine how the language of text messages, Twitter and chat rooms relates to the way we speak. The assessment task students would have to answer is: What devices do people use to maintain brevity when messaging/texting? How does this relate to the way we speak?

As a faculty, we seized on this as being the topic most likely to engage and enthuse our students. And it did. Here was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their superior knowledge of a medium they have made their own. I have to confess to having had a fairly old fashioned approach to text messaging; going to some trouble to ensure texts were properly punctuated and correctly spelt.

I was excited at seeing how differently my students approached it all. It was fantastic to have to be forced to take a back seat as they got to display their expertise and I relished the fact that it gave everyone a legitimate excuse for using their phones in lessons. One of my favourite discoveries was what one student termed ‘The Power of the Dot’. Apparently, ending a text message with a full stop is a sign of aggression tantamount to thumb biting in Romeo and Juliet. Who knew?

I found it absolutely fascinating to explore students’ texting habits as well as some of the social attitudes to text language that are knocking around. Early on, I did get a bit bogged down by wondering whether young people saying ‘lol’ and ‘cba’ (laugh out loud & can’t be arsed) was enough of a connection between text language and speech. Clearly this would have been a bit thin. It wasn’t until I started trying to write the Controlled Assessment task myself that I realised the point of the exercise: the way we speak bears little resemblance to text language; texts are in fact imitative of speech.

So, if we view texting as a new and exciting form of speech and not as a bastardised form of writing, Humphrys’ concerns seem laughable. When seen from this angle complaining about emoticons makes no more sense than objecting to facial expressions; both exist only to clarify meaning. To criticise text language for making us bad spellers or as ruining the language is to misunderstand it completely.

Some of the techniques that have evolved with text messaging have added to and enriched our spoken language. We should not feel any more threatened by this than we do by any other uses of slang words and expressions.

Most excitingly, Professor David Crystal, a passionate advocate for text language, says, “The latest studies (from a team at Coventry University) have found strong positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. The more abbreviations in their messages, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. And the younger they received their first phone, the higher their scores.” He makes the point that in order to engage in the sorts of language play seen in many text messages one needs to possess “considerable literacy awareness”.

So clearly, far from discouraging students’ mobile phone use we need to get them doing more of it. The more texts, tweets and instant messages they send the more practice they are getting at reading and writing and the better they’re likely to do in exams. Parents and teachers alike bemoan the fact that they can’t get young people reading when if fact the truth is we can’t stop them from doing it. Instead of trying to ban them, maybe it’s time we made use of the enormous potential of mobile phones in our classrooms.

Here is the A* exemplar essay I wrote on the subject:

Text language has evolved rapidly over recent years with trillions of text messages sent each year. Until recently, text messages were relatively expensive to send and so users have developed various techniques to reduce the number of characters per text to ensure they are paying as little as possible. This report will investigate the effects of these devices with text messages as well as trying establish whether there is a link between the way people text and they way they speak. Finally, I will also explore some of the public attitudes to texting.

The first thing I established when investigating text messages was that the brevity techniques varied depending on the purpose of the message and the relationship between sender and recipient. It also became clear that different age groups and genders text differently. Text 1 is a thank you sent by a mother to an adult child. In text message terms, it is relatively formal with both a salutation “Hiya darling” and a sign off “lots of love. M & D.” The only abbreviations come in the sign off “M & D” – which stands for mum and dad. The fact the M comes first suggest the mum is the sender. The use of the & symbol is widely used in various forms of written communication and requires no specialist knowledge to unpick its meaning.

When compared to Text 3 it’s easy to see how the age of the sender can make a big difference to the brevity techniques we can expect to find. My research shows that the single x as a sign off suggests the text is more likely from a female sender and it is clear she is asking her mother permission to visit a friend which suggests she is school age. The use of letter substitution and phonetic spelling in “2nite” is typical of this type of message and implies a level of informality as well as the assumption that Mum will be easily able to decode the message.

The impact of brevity techniques becomes clear in Text 4: “watcha up 2?” “hd dbl English” and “Lol” all suggest a good working knowledge of common phonetic spellings, letter substitution, vowel omission and acronyms. However, the effect of both the informal salutation and the signoff actually add length to the message. They are obviously not used just to maintain brevity but to adhere to a code of etiquette. The opening question is a request for the message to be replied to and an invitation to text back. The use of “lol” is ambiguous here – it could mean the sender is ‘laughing out loud” at the thought of the night out or that the sender is sending ‘lots of love’ to the recipient, an interpretation which is confirmed by the “Xxx”.

Perhaps the device which communicates most is the emoticon. The sender uses the sad face symbol 🙁 to show their feelings about the lesson they’ve had – this is a very efficient way of communicating something quite complex and does the same job as facial expression would in a face to face conversation and tone of voice would in a telephone call. It also suggests a degree of collusion between sender and recipient – maybe they have similar feelings about the lesson, maybe the sender is trying to curry favour or ‘look cool’.

The use of emoticons, while clearly maintaining brevity in the context of a text message, highlights one of the major problems with texting as a form of communication: it is easy to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is interesting therefore to see how much effort is put into making sure that these problems are avoided. This might suggest that more care and attention is put into a text message than other forms of communicating. The fact that face to face and telephone conversations can be ‘read’ or interpreted by the other party’s response mean that we don’t have to think as much about how to say what we want to say.

However, texts 7 and 8 could suggest the opposite. Both suggest male senders and recipients with ‘oi, where are you?’ clearly open to misinterpretation  – in a verbalised conversation this would definitely seem rude. It relies on a shared understanding that this is a jocular request for very simple information and the sender has wasted no effort on politeness. Again this echoes the types of conversation males are likely to have with each other: factual and straightforward. Text 8 could be seen as an almost deliberate attempt to subvert the expectations of text language – the over use of letter substitution in ‘m8’ and ‘2 nite’ as well as the use of ‘bevvies’ (which is actually longer than the more easily understood ‘drinks’ ) suggest that the sender is affecting an ‘accent’ similar to the way people often will in conversation when they want to appear comic.

Whilst my investigations clearly show that a few text abbreviations like ‘lol’ and ‘cba’ (can’t be arsed) have made it into verbal communication, most of the brevity techniques used in texts or instant messaging only apply in these forms of communication and have little direct impact on the way we speak. If anything, they are much more informed by how we speak. Text messages are often an attempt to capture in writing the patterns of speech. This is clearly seen in Texts 5 and 6. The highly informal “Hey” is used as a greeting and phrases like “Dude I’m pretty invincible” as well as “haha” to signify laughter all attempt to imitate verbal communication – you can almost hear the sender’s voice. The same is true of “sooooooo lovely” and the multiple use of exclamation marks to signify excitement.

These observations seem to suggest that many public concerns about texting are unfounded. The view expressed by John Humphrys in the Daily Mail that “SMS vandals … are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours” misses the point that text ‘language’ is merely an attempt to imitate existing speech. Humphrys warns of the danger of “our written language [ending up] as a series of ridiculous emoticons and ever-changing abbreviations”.  This views shows a lack of understanding of what text messages are actually for; ridiculing emoticons is equivalent to suggesting that facial expressions should not play a part in communication.

To conclude, texting should be seen as a new and exciting form of speech and not as a bastardised form of writing. To criticise text language for making us bad spellers or as ruining the language is to misunderstand it completely. Some of the techniques that have evolved with text messaging have added to and enriched our spoken language. We should not feel any more threatened by this than we do by any other uses of slang words and expressions.

And here’s David Crystal in fine form on It’s Only A Theory

Click here to read our scheme of learning designed for AQA’s GCSE English Language course which has lots of ideas on texting that teachers can use and develop in class.

If you found that interesting, make sure you order my book: The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson

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