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Today, 8 September, is International Literacy Day – the day the world’s attention is focused on literacy as one of the fundamental human rights, and the foundation of all learning. In the words of UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, “Education brings sustainability to all the development goals, and literacy is the foundation of all learning. It provides individuals with the skills to understand the world and shape it, to participate in democratic processes and have a voice, and also to strengthen their cultural identity.”

In the information age, literacy is a more critical basic requirement than ever. The literacy landscape is also rapidly changing – children’s reading and writing experience is changing from a paper-based to a digital context. Many kids’ primary exposure to the written word is through texting – SMS, instant messaging and Twitter – thanks to the global proliferation of mobile phones and internet connectivity.

Texting teens may have a literacy edge over their non-texting peers.
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Texting has long been blamed for being one of the main causes of decreasing linguistic savvy among children and teenagers, with parents and teachers fearing that texting shorthand (incorporating linguistic shortcuts, weak grammar and little or no punctuation) was destroying their ability to write ‘properly’.

While it’s true that these teenage ‘textisms’ drive most people over thirty up the proverbial wall, it may in fact not be quite the scourge it was thought to be at the turn of the century. New research is showing that, while it may not promote perfect grammar, text messaging may in fact have a positive impact on basic literacy. For one thing, there is no arguing that it is increasing young people’s level of interaction with the written word. Instead of speaking, kids are very likely to communicate via text messages, even when they are in the same physical location.

As reported in an article in the Telegraph, researchers are suggesting that using a mobile phone can boost children’s spelling abilities. In a research project at Coventry University in the UK, 114 children aged 9-10, who were not already mobile phone users, were split into two groups. Half were given handsets and encouraged to text often, while the control group remained without mobile phones. After 10 weeks, both groups were subjected to a series of reading, spelling and phonological awareness tests, and the researchers claimed they found that texting made a significant positive contribution to to children’s spelling development during the study. According to Professor Clare Wood of the university’s Psychology Department, they also found “no evidence that children’s language play when using mobile phones is damaging literacy development.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Professor David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University, who says it’s an urban myth that text speech are taking over childrens’ regular writing. He considers it “merely another way to use language”, and suggests that the use of textisms and shortcuts is exaggerated: “If you collected a huge pile of messages and counted all the whole words and the abbreviations, the fact of the matter is that less than 10% would be shortened.”

So, while language may be changing in the age of texting, the undeniably positive part is that it is exposing children to the written word, in both the traditional and the abbreviated sense.

And that, as they say in the classics, is gr8 4 literacy.

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