OMG: Teachers say texting, tech tools can help kids write
A nationwide survey examining the impact of tech tools in the schools refutes some common perceptions of their effect on student writing abilities.
Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post
LOS ANGELES — Can kidz rite 2day?
Despite popular perceptions that the onslaught of texting, tweeting and other digital technologies is ruining students’ writing skills, a national survey of teachers found such advantages as greater creativity, personal expression and increased collaboration.
Teachers gave more than half their students grades of good to excellent for effectively organizing writing assignments, considering various viewpoints, synthesizing content from a variety of sources, using appropriate style and tone, and constructing strong arguments in the survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
But some teachers also worried about “creeping informality” in student writing. And they said more than two-thirds of their students had fair or poor abilities to digest long and complicated texts and understand plagiarism issues.
“The survey results challenge in some ways the idea that student writing is being undermined by increasing engagement with digital tools,” said Kristen Purcell, the Pew project’s associate director for research.
The use of shared blogs in classrooms led students to work together, teachers said. Forty percent of teachers said they made students write on classroom wikis or websites, while nearly 30 percent said they made students edit one another’s writing.
Some common complaints about technology — the use of abbreviated texting language and an inability to focus on longer pieces — were also brought up in the study. Nearly 70 percent of teachers thought digital tools made students more likely to “take shortcuts and put less effort into their writing,” according to the report.
But that didn’t mean teachers were averse to using technology. In fact, half of all teachers in the study said digital tools made it easier to teach writing, according to the report. Eighteen percent thought technology made teaching more difficult, while 31 percent said it had no impact.
Some students said technology both helped and hurt their writing. Keilee Bessho, an incoming junior at a California high school, said her texting sometimes carries over into formal writing, such as using a lowercase ‘‘i’’ for the personal pronoun. But she said her iPhone has made it easier to look up vocabulary and class assignments.
Jared Yamasaki, a 16-year-old California high-school student, said texting abbreviations, such as “cuz” for “because” and “ya” for “yes,” has hindered his writing. He also said the auto-correct feature on his iPhone has had a negative effect on his spelling abilities.
But, he added, “I guess that they all help involve writing in my life because idk (I don’t know) how much I’d write if I didn’t have texting and stuff.”
Indeed, some teachers told Pew researchers that texting and other digital writing serve as useful “building blocks” for students to start expressing ideas.
English teachers were far more positive toward digital tools for writing — nearly two-thirds said they made teaching easier — than colleagues teaching math, science and social studies.
Conducted in 2012, the study surveyed more than 2,000 middle- and high-school teachers across the country, mostly from public schools.
The report found that the Internet’s vast maze of resources had mixed implications for writing.
On one hand, students’ ease of access to many sources raised concerns about intellectual property. A majority of teachers said they devoted class time to explain the concepts of fair use, copyright and citation. The challenge facing teachers was how to help students navigate the murky world of attribution, the report said.
“There tends to be a perception that students willfully copy and paste intellectual property out of laziness and disregard,” said Kristen Purcell, director of research at the center and lead author of the study. “But teachers emphasized to us that more often than not, it’s genuine lack of understanding.”
On the other hand, the plethora of online sources helped teachers rate students highly on the ability to incorporate other viewpoints in their writing. In addition, the ease of self-publishing on the Internet — and reaching a potentially vast audience — made students concentrate on what they chose to write about, teachers said.
“When everything is shareable, students pay a lot more attention to the message they’re sharing,” said Joel Malley, a high-school English teacher near Buffalo, N.Y., who participated in the survey.
The idea of their peers or people they don’t know reading their work made students more thoughtful, said Jennifer Woollven, a high-school English teacher in Austin, Texas, who also participated.
Nearly 80 percent of teachers in the study said digital tools “encourage student creativity and personal expression.”
But teachers weren’t thrilled about students using casual writing in formal assignments.
“It does take some work to get them out of ‘tech talk,’ ” Woollven said. “They’ve grown up in this world of shortening.”
Both Malley and Woollven said their students often had trouble with capitalization. Purcell added that teachers promoted writing by hand when they wanted students to slow down and think about the process of writing.
Although Pew’s study examined the increased use of technology in the classroom, Purcell said it also highlighted a persistent digital divide. There still exists a stark difference in children’s access to technology at home — and teachers in the survey thought it was widening.
“We heard consistently from the teachers of the lowest-income schools that they have very different experiences using technology in the classroom,” she said.
Those teachers have to design their lessons to accommodate different skill levels because — unlike the commonly held perception — not all young people are “digital natives,” the report said.
Malley, who teaches in a school where 43 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and where some “live in McMansions,” agreed.
“There is not equal access to digital tools,” he said.
Lisa Alva Wood, a high-school English teacher in Los Angeles who used iPads in her classroom last year as part of a test program, said the devices were a hit with students. She said they promoted a deeper interest in writing because students could see their works published in such online forums as figment.com.
“The kids were fascinated and excited about all the ways they could publish online and see their work and the work of others,” Alva said.
She added that digital tools, such as Google Docs, have increased collaboration among both students and teachers.
Scott Mandel, who teaches middle-school English and history, said digital technology is “awesome” for finding teaching material, collaborating with such tools as Dropbox and enriching learning through online field trips to such places as the British Museum in London.
But he said the difficulty most middle-school students have typing significantly detracts from the quality of their compositions, producing shorter sentences and less critical thinking. As a result, he said, he requires students to write first drafts by hand.
“Sometimes, good old-fashioned pen and paper are the best way,” said Mandel.