Although by many accounts today’s teenagers are immersed in a world of text to a greater extent than those of previous generations—through browsing websites, writing e-mails and instant messages, and typing text messages—according to a new study, the majority of them (60 percent) do not consider such communication to be writing. Nonetheless, they overwhelmingly believe that the ability to write well is important and that additional in-class writing time and instruction would help them improve.
Writing, Technology and Teens, researched and published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the College Board, and theNational Commission on Writing, also finds that though most teens consider “e-communication” to be distinct from writing, nearly two thirds—64 percent—admit to writing in the styles of their electronic messages in their school work on occasion. They sometimes use informal capitalization and punctuation, certain shorthand (e.g., “LOL” for “laughing out loud”), and emoticons (symbols like smiley faces).
In its executive summary, the report notes the disparate views on teenagers’ heavy, widespread use of electronic communication. Richard Billington of the Library of Congress suggests that it might be damaging to the “basic human unit of thought—the sentence.” However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, some “[o]thers wonder if this return to text-driven communication is instead inspiring new appreciation for writing among teens.”
Some parents perceive that their teenagers are writing as much as or more than they themselves did as teens; 48 and 20 percent, respectively, while almost one third, 31 percent, think that they write less. Half of teens report that they write something for school “nearly every day,” and 35 percent say they do so at least several times a week. A greater share of black students than white students report writing something for school nearly every day, at 61 percent versus 47 percent, though the percentages of white, African American, and Hispanic students who say they write several times a week are similar, ranging from 83 to 87 percent. Black students are also more likely to write in personal journals and write music and lyrics, outside of school, than white students.
Writing, Technology and Teens also finds that an enjoyment of personal writing does not necessarily correlate with an enjoyment of school writing. Nonetheless, 67 percent of teens surveyed admitting to enjoying their school writing at least “some,” and only 10 percent said that they did not like writing for school at all.
When reflecting upon their own writing and how they would improve it, 98 percent of the teenagers surveyed say that writing “is at least somewhat important for their future success,” and 56 percent considered it “essential.” Teens with college-educated parents, those who received mostly As and Bs in their writing-intensive classes, and those from households earning more than $50,000 a year are also more likely to consider writing essential to their success than those from less-educated, lower-earning households.
Though roughly three quarters report feeling that their writing has improved over the year, about eight in ten feel that they would benefit from more in-class writing time. A similar percentage feels that the integration into instruction of computer-based tools, such as games and websites that help with writing skills, would facilitate their learning.
“Today’s teens know that writing is important, and know that they need to learn the skills to write well to ensure a productive future for themselves,” acknowledged Sousan Arafeh of Research Images. Arafeh led a focus group project associated with the study. “Teens understand that learning to write well is a growth process, even if sometimes it feels like the educational equivalent of ‘eating your vegetables.’”
The report emphasizes, however, that teenagers’ perceptions of the quality of their own writing—whether it is good or is improving, for example—may be inaccurate. “A teen may feel s/he is a good writer with a strong grasp of conventions, but is not,” it reads. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only continuing, national test of students’ skills and progress, support this point; just 31 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient on the NAEP writing assessment.
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, felt that the report brought up new considerations for today’s teachers. “We think these findings point to a critical strategy question for all educators,” he said. “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?”
Writing, Technology and Teens does not take a definitive stance on whether or not e-communication is a help or a hindrance to students’ writing skills, a fact that Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew and a coauthor of the report, noted. “Those on both sides of the issue will see supporting data here,” she said. “There is clearly a big gap in the minds of teenagers between the ‘real’ writing they do for school and the texts they compose for their friends. Yet, it is also clear that writing holds a central place in the lives of teens and in their vision about the skills they need for the future.”
The full report is available at http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Writing_Report_FINAL3.pdf.