Monday 20 November 2017

'Macbeth is pure mental' – is textspeak harming English skills?

Experts differ on the effects of social media on literacy. Kim Bielenberg on the GR8 debate

Same old story: Academics have been bemoaning the use of abbreviations since the time of Jonathan Swift
Same old story: Academics have been bemoaning the use of abbreviations since the time of Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Teachers and parents have been complaining about falling standards of written English since the time of Shakespeare, and the latest targets of their ire are textspeak and social media.

In Britain, head teachers have been wringing their hands over a perceived collapse in standards. There have been calls for a drive to stop the damaging impact of instant messaging. OMG, do they just need to lighten up?

A report in The Times highlighted some of the phrases that popped up in school work and exams. They included such gems as "Macbeth was pure mental" and "Hitler was majorly bad".

Closer to home, the latest Chief Examiner's report for Leaving Cert English highlighted problems with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

"Examiners ... voiced a degree of concern with the level of control of more formal aspects of language displayed by some candidates.

"Candidates at both Higher and Ordinary benefited when they exhibited an ability to structure their writing, organise paragraphs, spell accurately and employ punctuation."

The chief examiner does not blame social media for the failure of students to grasp the mechanics of the language.

In Britain, however, language purists have pointed the finger at instant messaging and social media as chief perpetrators of crimes against literacy.

In an interview with The Times, headteacher Caroline Jordan complained that abbreviations and slang used in messaging were "eroding hard-learned skills".

She also claimed pupils had a more limited vocabulary because they were spending less time reading books.

But is it fair to point the finger at textspeak?

In the 18th century, Jonathan Swift moaned that "most of the books we see nowadays are full of those manglings and abbreviations".

Among the newfangled words he complained about were "mob" (an abbreviation of "mobile vulgus") and banter. What would Swift make of the shortening of banter to "bantz" – with teenagers "having de bantz", or even "megabantz".

Studies at Coventry University into the use of textspeak by students from primary to third level have found no evidence that it has a detrimental effect on spelling and grammar.

The Coventry researchers found that children's use of text abbreviations can have a positive effect on literacy and may even enhance children's understanding of spelling.

Evelyn O'Connor, who won the Teacher of the Year award in 2013, does not believe in shutting out social media and textspeak.

The English teacher at Mount Saint Michael's Secondary School in Claremorris says: "You have to take a balanced view. You cannot resist the evolution of language."

Rather than resisting the influence of social media, O'Connor has joined many other teachers in embracing it.

"I've been experimenting with social media in education for a couple of years now. My students have created Facebook pages for Romeo and Juliet."

Juliet's status morphs from from 'single' to 'it's complicated' to 'in a relationship' to 'engaged' to 'married' and ultimately 'RIP'.

While Evelyn O'Connor believes Twitter and Facebook can be used in a constructive way, she also emphasises the importance of good grammar and punctuation.

"If you look at the marking schemes for English at the Leaving Cert there is not enough emphasis on spelling and grammar. You don't lose many marks if your spelling and punctuation are poor."

"We now live in an oral-based culture. The challenge for teachers is to help students distinguish between how they express themselves when speaking and in the written word."

English skills remain vital in the jobs market, according to Evelyn O'Connor. Before they even embark on a rigorous job selection process, many employers go through application letters, and immediately file those with poor spelling and grammar in the bin.

The importance of letter-writing skills was emphasised in this year's Chief Examiner's report on Leaving Cert English.

The examiners recommended: "Where candidates are required to write letters in answer to questions, greater attention should be paid to the inclusion of appropriate rubrics (eg. return address, date, salutation and closing signature)."

Larry Cotter, an English teacher at St Kieran's College in Kilkenny, has mixed feelings about the effects of texting on the language.

"There is a fundamentalist view that there is a standard English that should not change, but I do not subscribe to it. Thousands of words are coming into the language every year, while other words drop out.

"I would not be a luddite, but if I was to single anything that is potentially worrying about the increased use of keyboards it is the decline of handwriting," says Larry Cotter. "That affects the way we express ourselves and has an impact on creativity."

* Cyberbullying is the focus of a one-day workshop for teachers in The Anti-Bullying Centre in Dublin City University next Tuesday, April 15. It will offer practical advice to guidance counsellors, principals, year heads or anyone who would like to increase their awareness of this problem. Contact

OMG, LOL is a type of grammar

John McWhorter, associate professor of English at Columbia University in New York, does not go along with the traditionalists who believe texting is bringing about the downfall of the written word.

In a Ted Talk ( the short lecture videos available online), Prof McWhorter says: "There is no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills.

"People banging away on their smartphones are fluently using a code separate from the one they use in actual writing.

"Texting – is actually a way of talking with your fingers.

"Texting is developing its own kind of grammar. Take LOL. It doesn't actually mean 'laughing out loud' in a literal sense anymore.

"LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing."

Prof McWhorter gives an example of a text exchange.

Jocelyn texts 'Where have you been?' and Annabelle texts back 'LOL at the library studying for two hours.'

The professor says: "LOL signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality... LOL is grammar."


Whiteboard Jungle

Working as an academic in a university would be a fabulous job were it not for those clueless, immature undergraduate students.

That was the only conclusion that could be drawn from a Nobel prize winner's comments on the BBC last week.

Andre Geim, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, admitted: "I don't like students very much. They come absolutely ignorant and they are not grown up yet as interesting people."

On the plus side, the Manchester University professor believes that the pesky undergrads become vaguely human after two or three years' work on a PhD.

"They grow exponentially fast, pick up experiences and they become real persons."

What do you students think of Professor Geim? We'll keep you posted.

Irish Independent

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