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OMG! Teachers say texting can be good for teens

CHARLOTTE — Texting, a favorite and seemingly instinctive activity for teens, has loomed over education and parenthood for several years. Many adults felt like it would mash proper English into the ground and was a distraction from serious learning.

But now some teachers nationwide are seeking to harness its power and making peace with it. Researchers back this new approach with new evidence texting teaches some positive language skills, and pragmatists argue a war on texting is unwinnable.

McCanless, a civics teacher and swim coach, believes texting has become "an established part of teens' lives" and can be used as "a real tool as opposed to a hindrance."

None of the teachers, experts or even students interviewed disputes the dangers presented by obsessively sending text messages on mobile phones: Some students text too much, text in inappropriate places (like the classroom), text in troubling ways (such as suggestive "sexting") and text at times that are unhealthy (such as all night). But some teachers see positive aspects of texting.

One long-held fear about texting has been its shortcuts such as OMG (for "Oh My God") seep into teens' language use, along with mangled, abbreviated and simplistic syntax. Yet despite much coverage of this in the press, researchers and teachers dispute it.

"Writing is good. Writing is expressing thoughts. Expressing thoughts is good. We just don't like their modality," argues Larry Rosen, an author and researcher at California State University Dominguez Hills whose upcoming book is titled "Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn." Rosen and four colleagues surveyed more than 700 teens and aggregated multiple studies in the new study "The Relationship between 'Textisms' and Formal and Informal Writing Among Young Adults."

The study found texting may actually help teens' writing in informal essays and many other writing assignments. In a conversational essay about happiness — which asked "what does it mean to be happy?" — teens who used more texting shortcuts performed better than colleagues who did not.

The popular press has reported much on "textisms" entering students' schoolwork, Rosen says, "but research shows it's very, very rare."

The education blog reported in May 2008 that some instructors, including former N.C. Teacher Of The Year Cindi Rigsbee, have asked students to translate passages from classic literature to texting-speak to demonstrate a comprehension of language and the differences in context. This is in line with one of the findings of Rosen's research: Texting-speak is not a mangled form of English that is degrading proper language, but instead a kind of "pidgin" language all its own that actually stretches teens' language skills.

There are negative impacts of too much texting, including a finding in Rosen's research that it can hurt students' performance in the most formal types of essay writing, a key component of some testing.

Joe Ehrman-Dupre, a high school senior, echoed the thoughts of other students on texting: "I think teachers are worried that cell phones are a distraction from learning, but I think they can be an important tool as well.... Texting encourages homework completion, because I get at least two or three texts each night from friends asking what the homework for 'x' class was."

Emily Moore, a senior, agreed, posting: "I think texting can be very helpful when it comes to homework. It's an easy way to know if something is due if you forgot, or to ask questions about something I don't understand. I have had many texting conversations over homework before."