How Facebook is Hurting & Helping Student Writing

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Student texting on the phone on campus. (Arek Malang/Shutterstock)

Not that long ago, we used to sit down and write letters. Of course, most of us these days don’t bother. Instead, we send status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or write to each other in short texts.

But how are these technologies affecting our writing? And in the case of the younger people who are learning their language skills along with these technologies, is their writing better or worse from these experiences?

Jessica Lahey is a middle school Latin and English teacher in New Hampshire, who writes the “Parent Teacher Conference” column for our partner The New York Times. She believes that writing skills are being eroded by things like Facebook, and other programs that have auto-correct and suggested grammar settings.

Andrew Simmons, a writer and high school teacher in California, however, sees his student's writing improving. He recently penned a piece for the Atlantic called “Facebook Has Transformed my Students’ Writing—For the Better.”

Guests:

Jessica Lahey and Andrew Simmons

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [20]

mark kay from Michigan

While lamenting the decline of our our language, please remember that'media' is the plural form of 'medium' and adjust your verbs accordingly.

Nov. 22 2013 09:18 AM
Lauren from PA

They may not be reading and writing substantive, well-composed paragraphs, but at least they're reading and writing SOMETHING. When I was in middle/high school, there were the kids who enjoyed reading books, and then the rest who hardly read anything outside of classwork at all, ever. (Some could barely read out loud in high school.) Nowadays, every teenager I know is on social media and/or texting regularly. It's short chunks of text, often abbreviated and mangled, but it gives them something they want to read and interact with!

Nov. 21 2013 05:49 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

My favorite social media site is all about books: goodreads.com, and from what I've seen, there are lots of young people there. Anyone who uses it will end up reading more. Writing reviews is optional, but many people do it. If I were a teacher, I would have all my students join goodreads. It feeds right into Facebook and Twitter.

Nov. 21 2013 05:21 PM
Philior from Brooklyn

What concerns me more than the grammar is the spoken language the youth is using. Just listen to any conversation between young people between 15 and 25; The word "like" is used a few times in every sentence. The expressions "you know" and "I mean" are as pervasive.
What bothers me even more is that they do not hear each other saying these words unrelated to the subject of conversation. The lack of analytical ear makes them easy prey for unscrupulous people especially politicians.

Nov. 21 2013 04:01 PM
Bob Iwersen from Calif

Learning correct methods is paramount in all fields. This is a basic learning tenet. Those who break the rules without knowing the rules will always be fools in all fields - engineering, architecture, science, art, writing, etc..

Nov. 21 2013 03:56 PM
Emmanuel from Brooklyn

I will have to be brief since I am writing from my desk –

I am a 26 year old college graduate who studied creative writing in several venues. Writing has always been something that I was consciously hoping to improve, and a skill in which I place price. At the same time, I joined Facebook and Twitter as an early adopter and have witnessed my peers usher in the era of social-media and text type. I have often found myself struggling between replying quickly and succinctly or using proper spelling without abbreviations, correct punctuation and grammar.

Recently I found myself upset at the declining level of my writing (and the reflection I found it having on my thought process) and severed all ties with social media. What I have found is that my writing has not improved as a function of distance from social media, but rather that all of the time I had spent reading twitter and linked Facebook posts has been repurposed toward reading books. This is how I built my vocabulary, prose style, sense of voice and grammatical structure in the first place. I liken it to learning a language – Imagine that formal English is the second language, and TXTSPK is the vernacular or common language. It's not that speaking your native language makes you a worse speaker (or writer if you follow my analogy) but NOT practicing the second language will in fact erode your skills.

My conclusion: Encourage reading. Social media serves many functions, but not necessarily literary ones.

:)

Nov. 21 2013 03:51 PM
Fred from brooklyn

A friend told me she is taking night classes at a community college where at 40 she is surrounded by fellow students, who are of a median age of 19-21...and when she went to share her notes with a classmate, he told her "Sorry, but I can't read cursive".....when did cursive become a foreign language....

Nov. 21 2013 03:39 PM
Jan Karon from duluth, mn

Oh, for heaven's sakes! E.E.Cummings after WWI was staunchly anti-war; that poem is so clearly attacking patriotism and the wasteful deaths on account of it.

I was shocked to hear such an analysis of this poem of his; I hope the commentator will not be invited back on the program to talk about poetry.

Nov. 21 2013 03:34 PM
Joann from MN

I have been on the internet using e-mail and online forums for 20 years, and my spelling and grammar have definitely gotten worse. I see things spelled wrong so many times that they begin to look right to me. The misuse of words usually is nonsensical, and robs some words of their correct meanings. On the bright side, I've made a lot of international friends and refined my use of international English, but generally I wish people had to pass spelling and grammar tests before they could use the internet.

Nov. 21 2013 02:50 PM
mark fussell from Seattle

Writing improved by social media? Are you kidding? Real writing is about composition, not just communication or spell-checking. The only way to write clearly is to think in complete sentences. That is why pen and paper, as well as speech recognition helps with good writing. Auto-correct functions only get us off the hook, and short messages too often are incoherent or lead us into misunderstanding.

Nov. 21 2013 01:34 PM
Alyson McCleve Broberg from Portland, OR

Yesterday I was in my eight-year-old son's class, helping students to write about cooking Thanksgiving turkeys. I pride myself on my spelling but had a momentary lapse over the word "Fahrenheit." Quickly I consulted...my phone. Two seconds and a mock text message later, I had the correct spelling at my fingertips.

Nov. 21 2013 01:02 PM
Kay Merkel Boruff from Dallas

43 yrs in ms w/ girls: consistency? boring! Let your Middle School students write in a variety of genres. Memoir. Poetry. Fiction. Narrative. Variety enhances the 5-paragraph essay.

Nov. 21 2013 12:56 PM
CAROLINE from NJ USA

When people read - it's a good thing.

Nov. 21 2013 12:24 PM
naomipaz from Forest Hills

1. Shakespeare didn't even spell his own name consistently.

The point of writing is communication, not grammar and form.

2. Sorry the teacher didn't understand e.e. cumming's poem.

read the whole of it:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/cummings.nextto.html

Nov. 21 2013 10:00 AM
naomipaz

1. Shakespeare didn't even spell his own name consistently.

The point of writing is communication, not grammar and form.

2. Sorry the teacher didn't understand e.e. cumming's poem.

read the whole of it:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/cummings.nextto.html

Nov. 21 2013 09:58 AM
Joseph Mackin from Nyack New York

Mr. Hockenberry smartly asks "Who reads more than a paragraph?" A good question, with a common lament about today's attention deficit baked in. But it's a mistake to conflate brevity with a lack of profundity--or with the shallow exploration of a subject (especially in the week we celebrate the 273 words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address!). Yes, the way we are reading is changing. (Shorter content, btw, is part of a trend begun long before the Internet--just look at Dickens to Grisham. Or the public speeches of Lincoln's contemporaries vs. today's sound bites.) What must happen in the face of this change is that shorter content must get smarter and more concisely expressive. It's helpful to remember that everything--even a 1000 page biography is subjective. Research shows that the ideal format today is about 2 paragraphs, but most readers don't need the research to instinctively agree. A last interesting point is that excess verbiage is often the legacy of the pay-by-the-word model that dominated journalism in the 20th century. These new online formats, Facebook and whatever is coming down the road next, offer opportunity and constraints. More people on the planet are literate today than in any time in history. That they (especially students) will find alternatives to traditional communication (and its rules) is inevitable--the question, as with any communication, is whether you are adept at speaking to the audience you want to reach. Ask any mathematician or librettist, you can't write for everybody. Thanks. Great show.
Joe Mackin, Publisher, 2paragraphs.com

Nov. 21 2013 09:51 AM
Neil Reisner from Miami, Fla

Social media is the least of my issues with student writing.

I teach journalism at state university in Florida.

Students' writing issues have little to do with texting or Facebook and a more to do with critical thinking and the way they're taught to write before they reach my classroom.

The formulaic structures they learn to pass standardized tests have no connection with what we generally deem great writing.

And many seem unable to compose prose that sets out a series of coherent statements one after the other.

Ooops -- that sentence starts with "And." And my paragraphs don't have topic sentences, supporting details or conclusions.

My bad.

-- nr

Nov. 21 2013 09:49 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Twitter and social networking is the new "Elements of Style." Sorry E.B. White.

Nov. 21 2013 09:44 AM

the internet did to writing what the calculator did to long form math. made it easier but made us lazier.

Nov. 21 2013 09:35 AM
Jonathan from NYC

As a college writing teacher, my observation is that today's students know very well the difference between the "writing" they do on Facebook etc. and writing that requires thought and revision. I did a recent focus group as part of an initiative by the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and what struck me was that the students regarded their online activities as just "fooling around." They valued learning the more difficult skills of writing as thinking, of writing as a way of learning, and of writing as something they are going to need to do well in the workplace. Overall, students laughed at the idea that what they did on Facebook had anything to do with serious writing. They know the difference, and teachers should not bend over backwards to try to be "relevant" to their "fooling around." Students not only need to learn to write in traditional paragraphs and longer forms: they also WANT to learn that.

Nov. 21 2013 09:15 AM

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