Teachers don't see much harm to students' writing in the digital age

Kid on iPad
In this photograph illustration, a 10-year-old boy uses an Apple iPad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Even if they text each other in streams of abbreviations and acronyms, young people are developing good communication skills in the digital age, their teachers say.

Not only that, but they are in some ways better writers because of their experiences online.

"I do see that students these days come to my class with more of a sense of style," said Joel Malley, who teaches high school English in New York state. "When they write for Facebook, or write for Twitter ... they are writing for an audience, and they get a bigger awareness of audience.

"When I was in high school, it took me a long time to develop the idea that somebody other than my English teacher is going to read that. You do see more style."

Malley contributed to a Pew Internet study released Tuesday on the effect of digital tools on students' writing. The study found that large majorities of teachers think that the digital age has had a positive effect:

• 96% agree digital technologies "allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience"

• 79% agree that these tools "encourage greater collaboration among students"

And though the study did find a concern that students were letting an inappropriate informality creep into their writing, Malley said he saw little evidence of it.

"In my experience, that does not happen," he said.

"I've only taught for 13 years," he said. "But in the many things that I've read, and the many sources I've looked at, teachers have been complaining about declining writing standards for the past 150 years."

Malley explained that he teaches and encourages students to collaborate with each other. That practice has become easier with the advent of online sites for document storing and sharing, he said.

"In my freshman English class we use a free Web app called Google Drive to compose," he said. Because the app is online, "the documents are instantly sharable.

"I can virtually work side by side with my students," he said. And he sees students sharing their work with each other, collaborating. "It comes closer to the communicative act that we want it to be."

And he finds digital writing in its various forms — for example, in the creation of videos — to be more practical and useful in the teaching process than compositions on paper.

"I have my students do plenty of traditional writing," he said. "They're doing research and doing online discussions, writing to persuade and writing to create arguments. But then because of these digital tools ... they're able to transform that writing into some compelling digital narratives.

"So this document that traditionally would be just a piece of writing on a piece of paper that I would read, provide some feedback, and most likely would end up at the bottom of their locker — this piece of writing is taking on new life in the living form of a documentary.

"At the end of the unit we'll screen all these films. The students know that their films are being screened by their classmates. So they're more invested, there's more buy-in. They care about these messages that they're crafting. Then after we're done screening, they'll share their films on Facebook or on Twitter."

To those who think that making videos is a different skill from writing, Malley disagrees.

"It's the same thing," he said. "It's storytelling. The underlying skills, the underlying literacies, are the same. Human beings since the beginning of time have wanted to tell stories, and whether that story is told around a campfire or that campfire is a screen, it's essentially the same thing.

"My kids still sit down and they read sources, and they still sit down and they write. And they integrate information into that writing."

Teachers surveyed by Pew were almost unanimous in their view that students should do some of their writing by hand. Malley, though, wondered whether penmanship is a skill worth preserving.

"I notice that I can't write comments. I struggle because I spend so much time on a keyboard I have a hard time writing a cohesive thought by hand. My penmanship has struggled, and you don't see students writing in cursive anymore," he said. "Truthfully, I'll leave it to bigger minds to decide whether or not that's important. The thing that I find important is that kids are able to communicate."

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