Texting no Threat to Standard English

Are cell phones and electronic texting lowering the bar when it comes to writing standards? It depends what you mean by “standards.” A standard is a level of quality that some authoritative group or organization sets. So standards remain somewhat lofty and static. Measuring attainment – usually by testing – shows how well the group being measured meets the standards. Typically, it’s up to the person to meet the standard, and not the other way around.

English is always evolving

Nevertheless, standards in spoken and written English can, over time, gradually decline somewhat, especially when it comes to introducing new vocabulary into the language. Thinking back just a few years ago, would anyone believe that the noun “text” could morph into a verb, as in “I will text you.” From there it was a short leap to becoming the gerund (and present progressive) “texting”? At least it followed the rules of grammar.

Texting will not undermine Standard English

But, purists, fear not, abbreviations like “BRB” (be right back) or “OMG!” (Oh, my God!) will probably never be accepted on a high school essay response or a college entrance writing sample. English standards are pretty much held in place by mass media and the educational establishment. It is unlikely that English will undergo any sudden or drastic changes that would create some “cyber culture” where texting will ever be considered Standard English.

The precedent of Ebonics

About 40 years ago the Conference of College Composition and Communication, a branch of the National Council of Teachers of English agreed to something that caused quite a stir in the academic community, when they put out this statement:

“We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language-the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.”

This was all about teaching Ebonics, a pattern of English often referred to as “Black English.” Adding fuel to the controversy was a vote by the Oakland, Cal., Board of Education to allow treatment of Ebonics as “the primary language” of many of its students and to teach them in that “language.”

When authorities from both races objected on the grounds that minority children must learn the language of society at large if they ever hope to flourish, Oakland educators cleared everything up. Their goal, they claimed, was to use Ebonics as a quicker way to help their black students learn Standard English. They had no intention to teach Ebonics, so the controversy died down. (See “Put it in Writing,” by Albert Joseph, p.172.)

The lesson

If Standard English can surmount the sensitive issue of minority rights, it certainly can withstand texting. In fact, texting on cell phones with its slang and teenage insider terms, is more a shorthand code. For example, if a student is lollygagging in a chat room instead of doing geography research and the parent suddenly comes into the room, the student can quickly type “POS” (parents over shoulder) and click back into the National Geographic site. (Be careful with this one, students. POS also means “piece of s*it.” “CD9” might work better here.)

So, like Morse Code, texting abbreviations have a certain utilitarian flair and they do expedite communications.

Using texting to teach Standard English

The education system, however, has not yet fully begun to use texting as a vehicle to help students learn to write better.  English teachers might want to try this exercise:

Poll your classroom for the most commonly used texting terms. Have list available when the students run out ideas. This will show your students you, too, can be an ACORN (A Completely Obsessive Really Nutty Person) on this subject. Write as many texting terms as the class can think of on the board and ask whoever contributed the term to write it and its Standard English equivalent. Ask one or two students to compose a series of text messages.  Write the messages on the board leaving space beneath each. Ask for volunteers to “translate” the text messages into good English with proper spelling, capitalization and punctuation. (You might also want to use that time-tested “there could be a test on this” threat.)

The lesson here is one of appropriateness. If your students are texting a lot, they are writing a lot. Today’s students write more than earlier generations and will continue electronic writing throughout college and beyond. Writing standards in the academic and professional world are in no way threatened by texting, but students need to learn when to text and when to write properly.

Texting is today’s Morse Code and is a part of the culture.  American students generally do not write well and fall short of national standards, but the average teenager sends over 3,000 text messages each month. It is not likely that cell phone texting will drag writing standards down. The challenge for teachers is to raise performance and texting can actually help out, BION (believe it or not).