Survey finds some texting shorthand creeping into formal school assignments

Maybe it made you :) or maybe it made you :(, idk.

In today's technology-rich world, 87 percent of kids ages 12-17 engage in some form of electronic personal communication, which includes text messaging, e-mailing, instant messaging and posting comments on social networking sites, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing at The College Board.

That's where they learn to express themselves in shorthand, using "idk" instead of typing "I don't know," "jk" when they are "just kidding," "lol" when they are "laughing out loud" and signing off with "ttyl" (talk to you later).

While that might be appropriate in those cases, when informal writing creeps into school assignments, it can be a problem.

The good news is that most kids, 60 percent, don't think of those personal electronic exchanges as "writing."

The bad news is that, even so, 64 percent have used at least one of the informal elements in schoolwork, often accidentally. Half have used informal punctuation and grammar, 38 percent have used text shortcuts and 25 percent have used emoticons (symbols made with keyboard characters) in their school writing.

"I don't see informal writing in assignments, but I'm not surprised because of the emphasis on writing in my classroom," says Rene Miles, creative writing teacher at the Charleston County School of the Arts. "Whenever I give an assignment, I always hand out a model, and they don't see that kind of writing in anything I hand out to them. It's also important to note that the kind of writing we do in here is not academic writing."

The Pew study, conducted last fall, was based on eight focus groups and a survey of 700 children ages 12-17 and their parents. Results were released April 24.

More than half the teenagers surveyed had a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace. Twenty-seven percent had an online journal or blog, and 11 percent had a personal Web site.

The study also found that teens who keep blogs or use social networking sites are more likely to slip nonstandard elements into their work.

"Once I was talking to my friend on Facebook while writing an essay," says Chelsea Smith, 17, of Summerville. "Later, I realized that my essay was definitely more informal than I usually write. I think I was more in the mode of chatting with my friend than writing a paper, but I caught it before I turned my paper in."

When such writing does creep into assignments, parents and teachers should see it as a "teachable moment," says Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew and a co-author of "Writing, Technology and Teens."

"If you find that in a child's or student's writing, that's an opportunity to address the differences between formal and informal writing," she says. "They learn to make the distinction ... just as they learn not to use slang terms in formal writing."

Miles says she thinks most students see the difference.

"I see more informal writing when they e-mail me," she says. "They know it's OK to abbreviate in an e-mail to me, but not to use those truncated words in an assignment."

All of this matters because teenagers and their parents believe that good writing is important for future success. Eight in 10 parents say that writing skills are more important now than they were 20 years ago, and 86 percent of teens believe that good writing ability is an important component of guaranteeing success in life.

"There is a raging national debate about the state of writing and how high-tech communication by teens might be affecting their ability to think and write," says Lenhart. "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 also is clear that writing holds a central place in the lives of teens and in their vision about the skills they need for the future."

In fact, the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools and Colleges was established by The College Board in 2002 in part because of the board's plans to add writing to the SAT in 2005 and because of growing concerns from the education, business and policymaking communities that the level of writing in the United States is not what it should be.

Among other findings from the survey:

-- 50 percent of teens say they write something for school every day.

-- 93 percent write for themselves outside of school at least on occasion.

-- 82 percent say their typical writing assignment for school is a paragraph to one page in length.

-- 57 percent say they revise and edit more when they write using a computer.

-- 73 percent say their personal electronic communications (e-mail, IM, text messaging) have no impact on the writing they do for school.

-- 77 percent said personal electronic communications have no impact on the writing they do for themselves.

-- 82 percent think their writing would improve if teachers had them spend more class time writing.

-- 94 percent use the Web at least occasionally to do research for their school assignments.

-- 48 percent say they use the Web to research something for school once a week or more often.

To see the full report, visit tinyurl.com/5j9kqy.