Writing, Technology and Teens
Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their emails, instant and text messages as writing. This disconnect matters because teens believe good writing is an essential skill for success and that more writing instruction at school would help them. April 24,2008
Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist Sousan Arafeh, Principal, Research Images Aaron Smith, Research Specialist Alexandra Rankin Macgill, Project Manager
PEW INTERNET & AMERICAN LIFE PROJECT 1615 L STREET, NW – SUITE 700 WASHINGTON, D.C. 20036 202-419 4500 http://www.pewinternet.org/
Summary of Findings
Teenagers’ lives are filled with writing. All teens write for school, and 93% of teens say they write for their own pleasure. Most notably, the vast majority of teens have eagerly embraced written communication with their peers as they share messages on their social network pages, in emails and instant messages online, and through fast-paced thumb choreography on their cell phones. Parents believe that their children write more as teens than they did at that age. This raises a major question: What, if anything, connects the formal writing teens do and the informal e-communication they exchange on digital screens? A considerable number of educators and children’s advocates worry that James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, was right when he recently suggested that young Americans’ electronic communication might be damaging “the basic unit of human thought – the sentence.”1 They are concerned that the quality of writing by young Americans is being degraded by their electronic communication, with its carefree spelling, lax punctuation and grammar, and its acronym shortcuts. Others wonder if this return to text-driven communication is instead inspiring new appreciation for writing among teens. While the debate about the relationship between e-communication and formal writing is on-going, few have systematically talked to teens to see what they have to say about the state of writing in their lives. Responding to this information gap, the Pew Internet & American Life Project and National Commission on Writing conducted a national telephone survey and focus groups to see what teens and their parents say about the role and impact of technological writing on both in-school and out-of-school writing. The report that follows looks at teens’ basic definition of writing, explores the various kinds of writing they do, seeks their assessment about what impact e-communication has on their writing, and probes for their guidance about how writing instruction might be improved. At the core, the digital age presents a paradox. Most teenagers spend a considerable amount of their life composing texts, but they do not think that a lot of the material they create electronically is real writing. The act of exchanging emails, instant messages, texts, and social network posts is communication that carries the same weight to teens as phone calls and between-class hallway greetings. At the same time that teens disassociate e-communication with “writing,” they also strongly believe that good writing is a critical skill to achieving success – and their 1
Dillon, Sam. “In Test, Few Students are Proficient Writers,” The New York Times, April 3, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/education/03cndwriting.html?em&ex=1207454400&en=a866a90118b1f389&ei=5087%0A
Summary of Findings
parents agree. Moreover, teens are filled with insights and critiques of the current state of writing instruction as well as ideas about how to make in-school writing instruction better and more useful.
Even though teens are heavily embedded in a tech-rich world, they do not believe that communication over the internet or text messaging is writing. The main reason teens use the internet and cell phones is to exploit their communication features.2 3 Yet despite the nearly ubiquitous use of these tools by teens, they see an important distinction between the...
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