Has Technology Changed Writing?

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By Paul Andrichuk

Paul Andrichuk with Middle Schoolers

In reviewing Send, The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, co-authored by David Shipley ’81, Dave Barry describes his son’s frustration when he was forced to send a letter. His son asked, “What kind of stamp do I need and where do I get it? You mean after I write the letter I have to find my own envelope? Where do I take it now?”

Most adolescents now use text instead of other forms of communication, and I read Barry’s review about the same time a news story broke about doctors warning young people of the dangers of texting while walking. Laws were sure to follow, banning this type of multitasking. Physical dangers aside, texted messages are short and full of errors—with all of those thumbs some messages are unreadable. Barry says that if Paul Revere had texted “the nritish are cming,” the good residents of Lexington and Concord would have slept comfortably, oblivious to the threat at hand.

This is not to bash texting. To most adults, email is fast, convenient, and efficient, even if our children believe it’s the modern-day version of a pen-to-paper letter. We have some difficulty imagining our personal and professional lives without it. Students have moved on to something fresher, faster, and more relevant to their lives, and we have to embrace this.

Two schools of thought have emerged from teachers (and schools) who notice and examine the effects of texting (and other technology) on student writing. Some educators are willing to concede that although students are now writing more, they see the abbreviations common in texting to be part of technology’s assault on our language.

Others laud the fact that kids are writing more, which cannot be a bad thing, and they challenge adult preconceptions about what is written. Among their arguments:

* Texting is a form of prewriting. Instead of students staring at a blank page, words are getting out. Others say texting can spark thinking.

* Evidence shows that kids are planning, writing, and revising what they write, especially for sensitive topics.

* The prevalence of instant messaging language in schools provides opportunities to talk about how language changes and might continue to evolve. In addition, teachers often ask students to make the distinction between formal and more informal language or to consider their audiences when they are writing something. The bottom line is that texting and formal writing can coexist.

Other forms of technological communication, such as blogging, are becoming more common in Catlin Gabel classrooms. Blogs are essentially public journals that encourage self-expression and reflection on a variety of topics that often serve the purpose of active reading and better writing. Better still, they can be written at a self-directed pace that may or may not occur in the school setting. In short, 8th graders can comment about the symbolism in Animal Farm from the comfort of their living room.

This serves several important functions:

* The learning environment is extended well beyond the Catlin Gabel campus.

* This time and setting allows students, especially slower processors, the time for reflection. n Given the public nature of these journals, students tend to approach the writing far more formally.

* The interactive and traceable nature of blogs allows students access to the thoughts of others.

We have to acknowledge that today’s adolescents are more plugged in and connected than any previous generation. This being the case, how do we adapt writing education and expression to the ways teenagers write?

Paul Andrichuk, head of Catlin Gabel’s middle school, has been at Catlin Gabel since 1997.