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No LOL matter: Tween texting may lead to poor grammar skills

July 27, 2012
Courtesy of Penn State University
and World Science staff

Text mes­sag­ing may of­fer tweens a quick way to send notes to friends and fam­i­ly, but it could lead to de­clin­ing lan­guage and gram­mar skills, ac­cord­ing to re­search­ers.

Tweens who fre­quently use lan­guage adapta­t­ion­s—“tech­s­peak”—while tex­ting per­formed poorly on a gram­mar test, said Drew Cin­gel, a doc­tor­al can­di­date in me­dia, tech­nol­o­gy and so­ci­e­ty at North­west­ern Uni­vers­ity in Il­li­nois.

When tweens write in tech­s­peak, they of­ten use short­cuts, such as ho­mo­phones, omis­sions of non-essential let­ters and ini­tials, to quickly and ef­fi­ciently com­pose a text mes­sage. “They may use a hom­o­phone, such as gr8 for great, or an in­i­tial, like, LOL for laugh out loud,” said Cin­gel. “An ex­am­ple of an omis­sion that tweens use when tex­ting is spell­ing the word would, w-u-d.”

Cin­gel, who worked with S. Shyam Sun­dar of Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­vers­ity, said the use of these short­cuts may hind­er a tween’s abil­ity to switch be­tween tech­s­peak and the nor­mal rules of gram­mar.

Cin­gel gave mid­dle school stu­dents in a cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia school dis­trict a gram­mar as­sess­ment test. The re­search­ers re­viewed the test, which was based on a ninth-grade gram­mar re­view, to en­sure that all the stu­dents in the study had been taught the con­cepts.

The re­search­ers, who re­port their find­ings in the cur­rent is­sue of the journal New Me­dia & So­ci­e­ty, then passed out a sur­vey that asked stu­dents to de­tail their tex­ting habits, such as how many texts they send and re­ceive, as well as their opin­ion on the im­por­tance of tex­ting. The re­search­ers al­so asked par­ti­ci­pants to note the num­ber of adapta­t­ions in their last three sent and re­ceived text mes­sages. Of the 542 sur­veys dis­trib­ut­ed, stu­dents com­plet­ed and re­turned 228, or 42.1 per­cent.

“Over­all, there is ev­i­dence of a de­cline in gram­mar scores based on the num­ber of adapta­t­ions in sent text mes­sages, con­trol­ling for age and grade,” Cin­gel said.

Not only did fre­quent tex­ting neg­a­tively pre­dict the test re­sults, but both send­ing and re­ceiv­ing text adapta­t­ions were as­so­ci­at­ed with how poorly they per­formed on the test, ac­cord­ing to Sun­dar. “In oth­er words, if you send your kid a lot of texts with word adapta­t­ions, then he or she will probably im­i­tate it,” Sun­dar said. “These adapta­t­ions could af­fect their off-line lan­guage skills that are im­por­tant to lan­guage de­vel­op­ment and gram­mar skills, as well.”

Typ­i­cal punctua­t­ion and sen­tence struc­ture short­cuts that tweens use dur­ing tex­ting, such as avoid­ing cap­i­tal let­ters and not us­ing pe­ri­ods at the end of sen­tences, did not seem to af­fect their abil­ity to use cor­rect cap­i­tal­iz­a­tion and punctua­t­ion on the tests, ac­cord­ing to Sun­dar. The re­search­ers sug­gested that the tweens’ nat­u­ral de­sire to im­i­tate friends and fam­i­ly, as well as their in­abil­ity to switch back to prop­er gram­mar, may com­bine to in­flu­ence the poor gram­mar choices they make in more for­mal writ­ing.

Sun­dar said that the tech­nol­o­gy it­self in­flu­ences the use of lan­guage short cuts. Tweens typ­ic­ally com­pose their mes­sages on mo­bile de­vices, like phones, that have small screens and key­boards. “There is no ques­tion that tech­nol­o­gy is al­low­ing more self-ex­pres­sion, as well as dif­fer­ent forms of ex­pres­sion,” said Sun­dar. “Cul­tures built around new tech­nol­o­gy can al­so lead to com­pro­mises of ex­pres­sion and these re­stric­tions can be­come the nor­m.”

Cin­gel, who started the study as a stu­dent in the Shreyer Hon­ors Col­lege at Penn State, said the idea to in­ves­t­i­gate the ef­fect of tex­ting on gram­mar skills be­gan af­ter re­ceiv­ing texts from his young nieces. “I re­ceived text mes­sages from my two young­er nieces that, for me, were in­com­pre­hen­sible,” Cin­gel said. “I had to call them and ask them, ‘what are you try­ing to tell me.’”


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Text messaging may offer tweens a quick way to send notes to friends and family, but it could lead to declining language and grammar skills, according to researchers. Tweens who frequently use language adaptations—”techspeak”—when texting performed poorly on a grammar test, said Drew Cingel, a doctoral candidate in media, technology and society at Northwestern University in Illinois. When tweens write in techspeak, they often use shortcuts, such as homophones, omissions of non-essential letters and initials, to quickly and efficiently compose a text message. “They may use a homophone, such as gr8 for great, or an initial, like, LOL for laugh out loud,” said Cingel. “An example of an omission that tweens use when texting is spelling the word would, w-u-d.” Cingel, who worked with S. Shyam Sundar of Pennsylvania State University, said the use of these shortcuts may hinder a tween’s ability to switch between techspeak and the normal rules of grammar. Cingel gave middle school students in a central Pennsylvania school district a grammar assessment test. The researchers reviewed the test, which was based on a ninth-grade grammar review, to ensure that all the students in the study had been taught the concepts. The researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of New Media & Society, then passed out a survey that asked students to detail their texting habits, such as how many texts they send and receive, as well as their opinion on the importance of texting. The researchers also asked participants to note the number of adaptations in their last three sent and received text messages. Of the 542 surveys distributed, students completed and returned 228, or 42.1 percent. “Overall, there is evidence of a decline in grammar scores based on the number of adaptations in sent text messages, controlling for age and grade,” Cingel said. Not only did frequent texting negatively predict the test results, but both sending and receiving text adaptations were associated with how poorly they performed on the test, according to Sundar. “In other words, if you send your kid a lot of texts with word adaptations, then he or she will probably imitate it,” Sundar said. “These adaptations could affect their off-line language skills that are important to language development and grammar skills, as well.” Typical punctuation and sentence structure shortcuts that tweens use during texting, such as avoiding capital letters and not using periods at the end of sentences, did not seem to affect their ability to use correct capitalization and punctuation on the tests, according to Sundar. The researchers suggested that the tweens’ natural desire to imitate friends and family, as well as their inability to switch back to proper grammar, may combine to influence the poor grammar choices they make in more formal writing. Sundar said that the technology itself influences the use of language short cuts. Tweens typically compose their messages on mobile devices, like phones, that have small screens and keyboards. “There is no question that technology is allowing more self-expression, as well as different forms of expression,” said Sundar. “Cultures built around new technology can also lead to compromises of expression and these restrictions can become the norm.” Cingel, who started the study as a student in the Shreyer Honors College at Penn State, said the idea to investigate the effect of texting on grammar skills began after receiving texts from his young nieces. “I received text messages from my two younger nieces that, for me, were incomprehensible,” Cingel said. “I had to call them and ask them, ‘what are you trying to tell me.’ “