An article, ‘Text-talk teens lack the right words for work’, claims that youngsters’ abbreviated forms of communication are hurting their chances of securing a job.

The government’s first adviser on childhood language development, Jean Gross, says a generation of teenagers risk making themselves unemployable because they are using a vocabulary of about 800 words a day.

‘They are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated “teenspeak” of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms. Gross is planning a national campaign to prevent children failing in the classroom and the workplace because of their ‘inability to express themselves’.

It seems strange to use this phrase. From where I’m sitting, youngsters have no problems with expressing themselves – it’s only the adults and those not in the group who find it hard to work out what’s going on.

Another article describes investigations into the advantages of using texting when writing. It finds that texting ‘helps pupils to spell’. Children who regularly use the abbreviated language of text messages are actually improving their ability to spell correctly, the new research suggests. A study of eight- to 12-year-olds found that rather than damaging reading and writing, “text speak” is associated with strong literacy skills. Researchers say text language uses word play and requires an awareness of how sounds relate to written English.

This link between texting and literacy has proved a surprise, say researchers.

These latest findings of an ongoing study at the University of Coventry contradict any expectation that prolonged exposure to texting will erode a child’s ability to spell. The research suggests that texting requires the same “phonological awareness” needed to learn correct spellings. The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”, said Dr Clare Wood, Reader in Developmental Psychology at Coventry University.

Instead it suggests that pupils who regularly use text language – with all its mutations of phonetic spelling and abbreviations – also appear to be developing skills in the more formal use of English.

So when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be. Instead of texting being a destructive influence on learners, the academics argue that it offers them a chance to “practise reading and spelling on a daily basis”. Using initials and abbreviations and understanding phonetics and rhymes are part of texting – but they are also part of successful reading and spelling development.

Children who are heavy users of mobile phone text abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), plz (please) and l8ter (later) are unlikely to be problem spellers and readers, the study has found.

The research, carried out on a sample of 8-12 year olds over an academic year, revealed that levels of “textism” use could even be used to predict reading ability and phonological awareness in each pupil by the end of the year.

Moreover, the proportion of textisms used was observed to increase with age, from just 21% of Year 4 pupils to 47% in Year 6, revealing that more sophisticated literacy skills are needed for textism use.

The study conclusions will come as a surprise to many who believe that textisms are vandalising the English language.

The theory behind the research, carried out by Dr Clare Wood, relates to one of the early developing skills associated with (and believed to underpin) successful reading and spelling development. ‘Phonological awareness’ refers to a child’s ability to detect, isolate and manipulate patterns of sound in speech.  For example, children who can tell which words rhyme, or what word is left if you remove a letter, have particularly high levels of phonological awareness.

We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all, after such a negative portrayal of the activity in the media.  We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but that textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children.  Texting also appears to be a valuable form of contact with written English for many children, which enables them to practice reading and spelling on a daily basis.

So what can we do with this evidence? With further research, we hope to instil a change in attitude in teachers and parents – recognising the potential to use text-based exercises to engage children in phonological awareness activities.  In short, we suggest that children’s use of textisms is far from problematic. If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards among young children, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.

I don’t think these 2 studies are necessarily incongruent. Few could disagree that some young people lack experience of a rich linguistic background which consequently disables them from full participation in the symbolic representations and concepts they are expected to grasp in school.

However, the majority of adolescents using texting to network seem to grasp quite easily the distinction between formal and informal language. (Check out Bill Boyd’s perspective on handwriting (and spelling) on ‘If it matters, it matters’ ).

The very real problem of children entering school with limited vocabulary and language experience is one that will not be solved by ignoring 21st century developments that enhance learning.

Until told otherwise I shall continue to encourage students to make notes in ‘txt spk’ .  See another related post here.