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A nimble switch between texting, writing

By Lucy Ward

LONDON, DEC.23. IT'S gr8 news 4 skools. Claims that the explosion in text messaging among children is eroding youngsters' literacy skills appear to be unfounded.

A research study comparing the punctuation and spelling skills of 11 and 12-year-olds who use cell phone text messaging with another group of non-"texters" conducting the same written tests found no significant differences. Both groups made some grammatical and spelling errors, and ``text-speak'' abbreviations and symbols did not find their way into the written English of youngsters used to texting.

How they switch

According to the author of the research, speech and language therapist Veenal Raval, the findings reflect children's ability to ``code switch'', or move between modes of communication — a trend familiar to parents whose offspring slip effortlessly between playground slang and visit-the-grandparents politeness.

But the study did find that the pupils familiar with text messaging wrote significantly less when asked to describe a picture or an event than those who did not use mobiles, potentially fuelling concerns that the quality and expressiveness of children's writing could be at risk even if their spelling is not.

The study, conducted at the Department of Communication and Science at the City University in London, comes amid growing concern in some quarters over the potentially damaging effects of new technologies on children's ability to communicate effectively using conventional means.

According to one estimate, 700,000 (20 per cent) primary school children own mobile phones and the under-10s are the fastest-growing section of Britain's mobile phone market. Texting puts a premium on speed and concision, leading to the creation of a host of abbreviations and acronyms incomprehensible to the untrained reader, together with symbols or ``emoticons'', such as smiley faces, to express emotions. Chief examiners' reports on trends in public examinations have begun to note instances of texting language in examination scripts. Some cases — including a 13-year-old Scottish pupil who wrote an entire description of her summer holidays in text-speak — have provoked concern.

Correlation

But despite widespread speculation, there is little research into the potential influence of texting on children's writing. According to Mr. Raval's small-scale study, which focussed on 20 youngsters, children have developed an ability to switch between two forms of language when texting or writing.Pupils were given a spelling test and conducted two writing exercises designed to replicate situations where they might normally text, such as describing something they had done the previous day, held in classroom conditions.

Mr. Raval said: ``The fear that has been put across in the media is that children don't understand the need to code switch — that is, switch between standard English grammar for an examination or essay and what is acceptable when you are communicating on a social level. In fact, they are capable of that switch, just as bi- or tri-lingual children might speak English at school and a mother or father tongue at home.''

While the text-experienced children wrote much less than those without mobiles, concision was not necessarily a bad thing, he argued. ``Whether that is a positive or negative effect is up for debate. It depends on the situation or the subject studied. A science exam might require brief answers which might not be appropriate in a literature exam.''—

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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