Do Twitter and Facebook Degrade Student Writing?

Even among kids who are motivated enough to improve the quality of their writing by attending summer enrichment, there's a noticeable degradation of quality that can be traced to the popularity of social media, writes Walter Pacheco in the Orlando Sentinel. Kids, conditioned by the constricted sentence structure imposed by Twitter's 140-character limit, and the difficulty of using proper grammar when sending text messages, are losing the ability to write long and complex sentences.

The summer camp, held at University of Central Florida, aims to bring together middle school students who are looking to expand their writing ability via short fiction and script writing — students like Shelby Hill, who attended the camp earlier this summer. Hill admits that in addition to her prolific blogging, she also makes extensive use of Twitter and considers herself to be "a texting whiz," but doesn't believe that this has any impact on the quality of her academic writing. Her instructor at the camp, Terry Thaxton, however, disagrees.

"Just the other day, I asked my students to write four lines of dialogue they had over the weekend," said Terry Thaxton, a University of Central Florida English professor who runs the summer writing campShelby attended earlier this month. "Three of them reached for their phones to read their text messages. They said they couldn't remember any face-to-face conversations."

The writing camp at UCF Continuing Education focuses on helping students ages 9 to 18 enhance their writing skills by working screenplays as a team, developing characters and interpreting writing as an act of imagination.

A 2010 report by Clarion University seems to back her point of view. The data showed that social media contributes to the popularity of "informal written communication techniques, along with formatting problems, nonstandard orthography and grammatical errors."

But not everyone agrees that the popularity of texting necessarily leads to degradation in quality of all student-written material. Susie Robertshaw, who organizers the writing tutoring program at Rollins College, says that although the use of Twitter and Facebook is on the rise, it hasn't had as much of an impact on writing quality that people seem to think.

"For the most part, this type of writing is more like an informal spoken language in written, unedited format," Robertshaw said. "People are focusing more on content and catching the drift of what was written and not how it looks, especially if you're sending it quickly on an iPhone or iPad before reviewing it."

And students themselves take pains to make sure the worst abuses of the English language present in text messages and status updates don't make their way into traditional writing. Luke Reggentin, a 14-year-old from Winter Park's Trinity Prep, says that although he uses popular acronyms like "LOL" on Facebook, he knows that it isn't appropriate to likewise use them in a term paper.

Thaxton said despite some of the bad habits and shortcuts to writing encountered in social media, the challenge for writers will be to "keep the art form pure while also embracing new forms."

"Social media has certainly brought attention to the poor and declining writing, communication, and critical-thinking skills that teachers have seen for a long time," she said. "But it's also helping writers develop experimental ways of writing narrative while enhancing their writing skills. That's exciting."

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