August 16, 2013

In rush to write, language gets messy

As students text, post and email, their spelling and grammar shortcuts pose a challenge for teachers.

By JOE ROBERTSON The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Hey, YOLO, right? You only live once.

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In the digital age, the lure of slang and shortcuts pulls in one direction, but the need for good English still pulls in the other.

2013 file photo/The Associated Press

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2010 Press Herald file/Tim Greenway

Despite all the comforts of Microsoft's spell-checking angels, the digital generation will still have to appease the stubborn gatekeepers standing between them and future success who still expect the right use of "your" and "you're." And no "UR."

In their classrooms, new tests for the Common Core State Standards on language arts will demand more writing. Competitive college applications will keep requiring essays. And important first impressions in career opportunities will still suffer from careless spelling.

"There's going to be a real reckoning," said spelling education specialist Louisa Moats, if schools let slip the attention that teachers and students give to the structure of language. "There is no reward for ignorance."

It is a confusing time, say members of the digital generation.

"I think I'll hire a scribe," said 20-year-old Cole Payne, a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

He was kidding, mostly. But he and others realize they are racing along a narrow balance, with the lure of slang and shortcuts pulling in one direction and the demand for good English still pulling in the other.

Call it a new strain of an old disease.


Slang has been around for centuries, and reading and writing have long been under siege by television and video games.

Four years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts bemoaned a 14 percent decline over 20 years in the percentage of 13-year-olds who are daily readers. Less than one-third regularly picked up books.

Recovering the lost reading and writing skills is complicated in the new age.

Today's rapid writers are perilously dependent on "the squiggly lines," said Rebecca Kramer, a 21-year-old University of Missouri-Kansas City student, referring to Microsoft Word's red and green lines that are supposed to warn of possible spelling or grammar errors.

They like to think they can turn on their good, formal language skills when necessary, said 20-year-old UM-KC student John Kaleekal.

But he senses some doubt.

"I wonder if we feel we can handle it," he said, "but in reality, an English professor would tell (us) things we can improve on."

Here is the undeniable upside to all of this digital communication, whether on phones or laptops, in social networks or blogs or classroom projects: Students are writing.

"In the past, it was trouble getting students to even write," said Kourtney Michael, a journalism and English teacher at Raytown South High School. "But now they are learning that communication is power. They have an audience. They are learning that every word has meaning and there is power in that."

A survey of teachers by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project published this summer found that eight of 10 teachers agreed that digital technologies were spurring creativity, collaboration and personal expression. Students are more invested and engaged in the writing process, they agreed.

But seven of 10 also agreed that the technologies made students more likely to take shortcuts and put less effort into their writing. Careless slang and fractured spelling, they feared, are creeping into formal settings.

It can be a fight, Michael said, for the teacher circulating among her writing students. She must urge them to vet their online sources, tend to grammar and check their spelling. "Sometimes they don't even use periods," she said.


When it comes to shortcuts -- particularly with spelling -- no language asks for it like English.

All those texters and bloggers who've had "enuff" of conventional spelling in some way are striking back at a history of English spelling that is almost comical.

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