Informal vs formal: When is text-speak OK?


Do you know the difference between formal and informal writing?

It’s a distinction students of all ages are taught to make, and one that’s become more confusing with the advent of text-speak — the language of abbreviations and incorrect grammar many use in text messages. Text-speak includes abbreviations like ‘u’ for you, ‘cause’ for because and ‘gr8’ for great, and it’s a language that local teachers encounter in their students’ work.

At the local level, teachers say their students are good about keeping the informal language out of their formal assignments, unless the writing is a creative piece and the abbreviations are used to give a character a voice. But the words still pop up in places they shouldn’t, such as emails between students and teachers and on classroom discussion boards.

“Texting has made it harder for students to tell the difference,” said Amy Rasche, a 10th grade English teacher at Jasper High School.

By the time Rasche’s students reach her classroom, she said, they’ve learned that text-speak isn’t appropriate in their essays, but they haven’t quite learned to exclude the language from professional emails and online platforms used for class work. For that reason, Rasche said she and her fellow JHS English teachers work a careers unit into their curriculum where students learn how to communicate professionally in the online world.

“If you haven’t taught it or laid out the expectation, you can’t expect them to know,” she said.

Student use of text-speak in the classroom isn’t a new issue. Even a decade ago, education researchers were already studying the effect of texting on students’ communication skills. In 2009, a study titled “R u txting? Is the Use of Text-Speak Hurting Your Literacy?” surveyed 80 college students — 34 who used text-speak and 46 who didn’t — to check their standardized literacy levels and misspellings of common text-speak words. The study found that while the use of text-speak was not related to low literacy performances, the students indicated that they believed text-speak was hindering their ability to remember standard English.

In 2013, a Pew Research Center survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers found that while the internet and digital tools encouraged teens to write more, use of the tools did lead to informal language “creeping” into formal writing and an increased need to educate students about plagiarism. The former has been a focus for local teachers.

“We have been working on this issue for several years now,” Lincoln Trail sixth-grade teacher Trisha Vaal said via email. “In fact, we discuss it in professional development and have separate lessons in class concerning writing purpose and language usage. Every once in a while, a student will break a word down like ‘cause’ or other shortened words. Now, if they use dialogue and are characterizing a teen, they use text language appropriately.”

Dubois Middle School English teacher Beth Neukam said she does have some students who use text-speech in their formal writing, and many of her students use it in their everyday writing. She’s open with her students about the effect text-speak has on their writing, and often has her classes peer-edit their papers to remove that language and other errors before the essays reach her desk.

“They know that I feel that texting has hindered their writing conventions, so they do a pretty nice job of proofreading their work,” Neukam said via email.

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