Why young people can’t write — texting

I still believe writing is important. And when I talk to public relations professionals most tell me that is the No. 1 skill they look for in recent grads. We’ll see if that changes at all in the next few years as we move more toward online and social media.

I thought about that this morning when I read an article on EdNews.org: “Shakespeare Didn’t Blog. Author Says Texting and Testing Are Destroying Kids riting Style.” This looks to me like it may be a news release focusing on Jacquie Ream, who has written a book about writing called “K.I.S.S. Keep It Short and Simple.” No matter. Here are a few paragraphs:

“We have a whole generation being raised without communication skills,” says Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and author of “K.I.S.S. Keep It Short and Simple” (Book Publishers Network). She contends text messaging and the internet are destroying the way our kids read, think, and write.

A recent National Center for Education Statistics study reports only one out of four high school seniors is a proficient writer. A College Board survey of the nations [sic] blue-chip companies found only two thirds of their employees are capable writers.

Wonder if those employees are texting? LOL

Seriously — here’s a story in The New York Times, U.S. Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test. It looks like it provided at least some of the information for the above news release/article. The article opens with the following:

About a third of the nation’s eight-grade students, and roughly a quarter of its high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to nationwide test results released Thursday.

IMO that isn’t much of an accomplishment — but what do I know? Again, from the article in The Times:

That a third of the nation’s eight graders can write with proficiency may not sound like much, but it is the best performance by eighth-grade students in any subject tested in the national assessment in the last three years. Only 17 percent of eight graders were proficient on the 2006 history exam, for example.


Again from the article:

The results were released at the Library of Congress in Washington. The host, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence,” as young Americans do most of their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cellphone text messages.


I’m sure that texting is part of the reason why writing skills have declined. And this isn’t going to change any time soon. According to IDC, a research company in Framingham, Mass., that tracks technology and consumer research estimates that by 2010 81 percent of Americans ages 5 to 24 will own a cellphone, up from 53 percent in 2005.

So let’s hope that writing skills continue to be a priority for public relations professionals and others. But putting the blame solely on texting isn’t going to solve the problem. Better that we get back to stressing the fundamentials of writing — and reading — at about the same age (5) as kids apparently get a cellphone.

By the way, I read on one of the PR Web sites this morning that you need to Twitter these days if you are going to gain an audience for your blog postings. With Twitter, as I understand it, you can write anything you want as long as it doesn’t go beyond 140 characters. I’m in.



8 responses to “Why young people can’t write — texting

  1. Hi Rob:

    Couldn’t agree more with your post about younger people not valuing writing. It’s very sad. As an English major and journalism minor, I believe writing is probably the most important skill.

    Take a look at our blog if you have a chance.


  2. Melissa,

    Hi. Thanks for your comment. Writing is important. And this is really an area where we have to improve, beginning at home and at school.

    And I did check out your blog. Very interesting content and well done. By the way, I am going to work with an organization in Washington, Corporate Voices for Working Families.

  3. Brittany Thoma

    I read the writing stats. Yes, they stink. But I wouldn’t stress too much. I don’t think I could write well until college. And if other schools require the writing that Kent State does, it far outweighs the pressures of text messaging lingo.

  4. Actually, I think that from a linguistic perspective, we are become a language of symbols rather than words. And I’m not just waxing sentimental for good old days with bards and paper dictionaries and newspapers on actual paper, but there is certainly a trend that is happening and it is not just in America. It is transnational, to borrow another literary idea.

    Of course this isn’t a totally new concept. Literary theorists and linguists have been discussing it for a few years now. But I think that if someone did a proper study, they would find that students don’t interpret WTF or ROFL as words at all but rather a symbol that signifies a meaning. It’s a kind of troubling trend that only nerds like me think about, but it’s interesting what happens when a culture skips right over the signified (the word) and goes right to the concept.

    So this all has a point. The main problem as I see it is not that we are becoming a nation of signs (like Japan for example) but that we are becoming a nation, because of the deemphasis of critical thinking skills in school (because they don’t test for critical thinking on state proficiency exams) a nation of people that are going right to a concept of a sign without the ability to critically assess its meaning.

    Words are crucial. Not only what they signify but how we use them, how we interpret their meanings, etc. And when I see students using text-messaging language in papers, I give them a special little text that they definitely understand: F.

  5. Oops, it seems that it did not highlight the comments about which I was most concerned. I will paste and change the marks that emphasize those comments to “””text”””

    I respond first to:
    “”””I’m sure that texting is part of the reason why writing skills have declined. “”””

    First, it is not that Americans are text messaging one another that they are then falling in their writing abilies. Television, parenting, and public education are why students do not write nor read properly. I might like to point out the average hours television takes up a child’s life–and, that same television (without) subtitles. Text messaging is merely changing language. Linguists say many, many things about this. Nonetheless, this is what language does… it changes. Fowler himself could not have refuted this. We cannot say that text messaging is responsible for children’s inability to write, nor their levels in literacy. A cell phone is so minimal and subordinate a device when to a child’s education in a public school and that same child’s home education.
    I think the problem is much, much more culturally engrained than mere text messages. These percentages are not today’s figures, but figures that have been around far before cell phones were placed into their hands.

    No, cell phone is a confusion.

    My second comment is from Jessica:

    “”””Actually, I think that from a linguistic perspective, we are become a language of symbols rather than words.””””
    I do not agree with what you are proposing here. From what linguistic perspective is English [becoming] a language that is comparable to one of [ symbols ]. First, what is symbol. Obviously a rhetorical question to point out the ambiguity of this choice of words. Secondly, English is far too large a body of words to become ‘utterly symbol ic’ . One can just as easily maintain that a single linguistic form is equivalent to a symbol. Again, what is a symbol? In place of words, no; I completely disagree. An acronym or abbreviation is very different from an ideogram or pictogram. A drawing and an abbreviation are very different. I dont actually see the confusion.

    Also, we as theoretically concerned people cannot thoroughly base our observation on the singular relation of texting to formal usage of English. Text messaging is merely its own medium of communication. It is not because people appeal to acronyms on cell phones that these words are not then considered as that which is used. English is not a language dictated by an academy, but instead one which changes with its users. If everyone started saying rofl, then dictionaries will start placing it as a headword. It is not how a word is formed that validates is usage. The simple fact of being used is evident enough to dictionaries. Why should this not be?
    Rofl is as a linguistic form just as acceptable as shit or piss or any word from this sentence, webpage, or any dictionary. There is no, I assure you, golden grace of harmony that forces us to accept and use language in one way only. Nor to create it and share it as we please. This is one of the beauties of English.

    I think a lot of the problem with children in the united states is the education SYSTEM. Children do not quit on adults. If anyone quits, its the adults!


    “”””But I think that if someone did a proper study, they would find that students don’t interpret WTF or ROFL as words at all but rather a symbol that signifies a meaning.””””

    What is a word? I think that in lexicography ( a branch of linguistics that strives to record language in lexicons ) this is a very good question. It is not because a word does not contain a vowel, or is itself new to a language, that it is not percieved morphologically or as any of its other orthographic counterparts.

    Also, people are not skipping the morphology of language while analyzing mere and pure semantics. No, to do this… would we not need to first erase ‘rofl’ or ‘wtf’? The most immediate to our eyes in ‘rofl’ and ‘wtf’ are the letters themselves. As they sit together, ( like words in english do ) we see them. THEN, we envisage the string of meanings from which they evolved. This is merely a product of language–like all things–called change. This is one of the fundemental principles in descriptivism.

    America is not becoming a nation of signs. Too, what is a sign. is STOP not a sign? And, is STOP not a word? And is STOP not a form? And is STOP not a symbol? And, is STOP not a sound and a meaning and an image and an action and a etc. What are these signs you are speaking of?

    Also, I do not know that a sign has a concept. As I understand it, people are conceptually engaged while they analyze the immediacies and profundities ( whatever these are ) of signs. If one or two percent of a system is failing, we might well say that it is on account of nature. But when 80 percent or more of that system begins to fail…

    maybe it is time to look at the system?
    After all, they are your children! They are your tomorrow! They are extensions of you! Whose hands are they in? Who cell phones are they using? Who language are they ‘supposed to be’ learning ( important expression of modality that signifies Obligation Given by Authority).

  6. Polisny,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you. My point is that we are failing young people by not teaching them the fundamentals of writing and grammar. And by not encouraging them to read. If they (or anyone) wants to use text messaging it’s OK with me — as long as it does not become a substitute for thoughtful writing in letters, business correspondence, etc.

    I’ll defer to you and Jessica to sort out the other issue. The two of you are into an area that I have no background in — most likely unfortunately.


  7. Alright, Rob. Thanks for posting this topic, it is interesting. I am glad we agree. I think education really needs a kick in the butt. It seems so strange that we are not taught to really master our attention in schools. It seems so essential.

    thanks for the constructive post again!
    The best to you!

  8. Justin,

    The point you make about education is absolutely correct. We need to put the national spotlight on this issue — and soon.

    Here’s the link to Bob Herbert’s column (April 22) in The New York Times, “Clueless in America.” This is a “kick in the butt” column without question.


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