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

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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

Literacy researchers Masha Bell and Edward Rondthaler, among others, have retraced the language's unique path to confusion.

From its Anglo-Saxon beginnings, English spelling initially followed the path of most languages: Scribes wrote down letters to represent the sounds coming out of people's mouths. But complications arose with the first print shops in London in the 1400s.

Typesetters came from Belgium and Holland, which had already developed printing, and inevitably inserted errors into a less-familiar language. Furthermore, the historians say, they were paid by the line, so it was to their advantage, say, to change "program" into "programme."

In the 1500s and 1600s, English scholars considered Greek and Latin superior to their own crusty Germanic roots. "Debt" was spelled with a "b" because it would at least look like it derived from the Latin "debitus."

Dictionaries followed in the 1700s, the most authoritative being Samuel Johnson's of 1755. Johnson, when affixing spellings, likewise valued the etymological roots of words over their sounds.

In America, Noah Webster's dictionary in the early 1800s sided with forces trying to drive out at least some of the unnecessary letters, so we have "honor" instead of the British "honour."

But overall, the English writing world has been mostly locked into its out-of-sync spelling system.

Most major languages have international regulatory boards that adapt official spellings to match evolving pronunciations -- but not English.

Numerous attempts over the centuries by organizations bent on simplifying English have failed, despite being backed by names as prominent as Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain.

So anyone who wants to be at least a moderately competent speller of English, writes Bell, has to memorize at least 3,700 words with unpredictable spelling.

Despite all their mashing of words when they send texts, students said, most of them know better than to abandon good English.

The fear among many teachers and professors, however, is that the necessary discipline in writing may be suffering too much.

"Kids know how to code-switch," said UM-KC Associate Professor sj Miller. "They know when (text-speak) isn't appropriate."


But he said he sees some students getting lazier. Many rely on their computer programs to prompt them about grammar errors, and they are making changes without knowing why.

"It's not the end of grammar as we know it," Miller said. "But there is a shift. We can stabilize it if teachers can be savvy."

Moats' concern is that teachers are vulnerable to the same lack of foundational knowledge.

Moats, a consultant with Sopris Learning, helped draft the reading skills section of the Common Core State Standards now adopted by most of the nation. It troubles her that the foundational skills of language get less attention in the new standards than other skills along the path toward strong reading comprehension and writing.

People mistake spelling as an exercise of rote memorization, she said. Knowing the roots of words and why they are spelled the way they are helps students learn to decode more words otherwise unfamiliar to them. It helps build comprehension.

She is not optimistic.

Too much of the writing done by youth becomes "an unfortunate diversion from the real world" that they will be competing in, Moats said.

"The ease of (digital) communication belies the mental effort it takes to write well -- the intellectual stamina and energy -- to express ideas clearly and in an organized way," she said. "I don't think it is making us any smarter. It's an illusion that we are smarter."

There is no question that this is "a very exciting and auspicious time," Miller said. A new school year means teachers will be redoubling their efforts to guide this generation of rapid writers. And they will have to be quick to run with them wherever technology leads.

"Where it is going to go next," Miller said, "is the inscrutable mystery."


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