“It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” John Humphreys, writing in the Daily Mail.
The growing use of mobile phones to send text messages, often with abbreviations and symbols (i.e. “textisms”), has been blamed by many for the alleged decline in correct English usage. But now Beverly Plester and colleagues have shown that young children who use more textisms also tend to be better readers.
Eighty-eight children aged between ten and twelve years were asked to compose text messages describing ten scenarios – for example, explaining to a friend that they’d missed the bus and would be late. Those children who used more textisms in their messages – including abbreviations like “bro”, unconventional spellings like “skool” and so-called accent stylizations like “wiv” – also tended to score more highly on a reading task.
The study also showed that girls tended to use more textisms than boys, and that the earlier a child first started using a mobile phone, the more superior their reading ability tended to be.
The researchers think greater use of textisms may be a sign of increased phonological awareness – that is, awareness of the sounds that words are made of – a skill that’s been linked with literacy for some time. However, this can’t be the whole story – greater use of textisms was associated with better reading ability even when the influence of other factors, such as age, working memory and phonological skill were taken into account. One possibility is that texting could be associated with superior reading because it exposes children to printed text, which in itself is known to be beneficial to reading.
The researchers themselves acknowledge that these findings must be interpreted with caution. This is a correlational, rather than longitudinal, study so it doesn’t prove that using textisms leads to superior reading. Also factors like socio-economic status weren’t taken into account. Children who use more textisms may do so because their parents are better off and they’ve had more chance to send instant messages on computer. Another issue is that the researchers didn’t study texts that the children had composed spontaneously in everyday life.
“As the possession of mobile phones touches younger and younger children by the year, continuing research into the ways using these phones contributes to developing linguistic competence will be very important,” the researchers said.
Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, Puja Joshi (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27 (1), 145-161 DOI: 10.1348/026151008X320507