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Writing and vegetables

While I am delighted that the students I teach write far more than students who came before, it seems that when they are not writing for us, when they are emailing or IMing, they don’t really think they are writing.

Students separate their formal and casual writing.  Electronic communication is associated more with phone calls and between class hallway greetings.

Yesterday, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released its latest study, Writing, Technology, & Teens.  The national study was conducted with 700 teens and parents through telephone conversations and focus group discussions.  It confirms the worry expressed by Librarian of Congress, James Billington earlier this month, when he suggested that electronic communication is responsible for the "slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence.” 

Though the report addresses email/IM bleed, the good news is, it seems, that teens recognize that good writing is essential to success. Teens want to know more about how to write better. And they want us to help them.

You’ll want to share these results with teachers, especially English teachers.

Among the findings of the 83-page report:

 The state of writing among teens today is marked by an interesting paradox: While teens are heavily embedded in a tech-rich world and craft a significant amount of electronic text, they see a fundamental distinction between their electronic social communications and the more formal writing they do for school or for personal reasons.

  • 85% of youth ages 12-17 engage at least occasionally in some form of electronic personal communication, which includes text messaging, sending email or instant messages, or posting comments on social networking sites.
  • 60% of teens do not think of these electronic texts as "writing."
  • Teens are utilitarian in their approach to technology and writing, using both computers and longhand depending on circumstances. Their use of computers for school and personal writing is often tied to the convenience of being able to edit easily. And while they do not think their use of computers or their text-based communications with friends influences their formal writing, many do admit that the informal styles that characterize their e-communications do occasionally bleed into their schoolwork.
  • 57% of teens say they revise and edit more when they write using a computer.
  • 63% of teens say using computers to write makes no difference in the quality of the writing they produce.
  • 73% of teens say their personal electronic communications (email, IM, text messaging) have no impact on the writing they do for school, and 77% said they have no impact on the writing they do for themselves.
  • 64% of teens admit that they incorporate, often accidentally, at least some informal writing styles used in personal electronic communication into their writing for school. (Some 25% have used emoticons in their school writing; 50% have used informal punctuation and grammar; 38% have used text shortcuts such as "LOL" meaning "laugh out loud.")
Results of the focus group discussions confirm what many of already know about what motivates students to write–audience, relevance, choice, challenge. 

Students appreciate:

the opportunity to choose topics relevant to their own lives and experiences, and the chance to write for teachers and other adults who challenge them. Teens feel encouraged by opportunities to write creatively, and spoke of the motivation of having an audience for their work.

In his response to the report, Richard Sterling, chair of the advisory board for the National Commission on Writing, executive director emeritus of the National Writing Project and senior fellow at the College Board said:

We think these findings point to a critical strategy question for all educators: How can we connect the enthusiasm of young people for informal, technology-based writing with classroom experiences that illuminate the power of well-organized, well-reasoned writing?

Sousan Arafeh, who led the focus group part of the project noted:

Teens understand that learning to write well is a growth process, even if sometimes it feels like the educational equivalent of "eating your vegetables."

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. I disagree with James Billington’s assertion that the basic unit of thought is the sentence. I don’t think in a sentence but in snips of comprehension. I did not read this blog and think the words “I will respond with a comment.” I would assert instead that texts, IM’s and email is more Faulkneresque in its stream of consciousness nature. I believe students know the difference between writing for leisure/greeting/ pleasure and for school/business. Let us let them enjoy that difference.

  2. joycevalenza says:

    I agree, Jan. I don’t think or write (all the time) in the basic unit of a sentence. The reported noted that students understood differences in audience and types of writing. I love that they love to write. We should celebrate this new wave of voluntary writing for real audience. I also love that they want to improve their formal writing, hopefully also for real audience.

  3. mrsdurff says:

    While not the basic unit of thought sentences are the basic unit of formal encoding. I refer to formal communication, i.e. writing, without which there would be no reading. I do contend that without reading this world would be not only dull but without a Joyce Valenza.
    The great books of human history were built with formal encoding. It is still my responsibility to teach formal encoding and decoding in my classrooms.

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