When considering whether to use mobile phones and texting in your classroom, it is important to ensure that your students understand that texting may incur charges and that parents are aware of your plans. For example, you may send a note home suggesting a text reminder of important assignments that both parents and students can sign up for, but it is important to keep in mind that many families may have limited texting plans. Even if students are not actively texting as part of a lesson, it can be used as an engaging discussion point to draw attention to the evolution of language and how writing may change for different audiences and purposes.
To date, there is limited research on the educational benefits of texting for students (both with and without disabilities), but there are some applications that have promising uses for struggling students. Some teachers now allow students to text answers and comments during classroom discussions. An educator in Texas, for example, asked her ELLs to text responses to her and their classmates. Discussing the benefits of this approach, she explained: “Not only did I have more replies than I expected, but the questions were open-ended so students used more English… I had students who rarely join in discussions in class share ten or more responses” (Bernard, 2008). This usage could also benefit other struggling students and students with learning disabilities who may not feel confident about participating in class discussions. Allowing students to text their answers means students can take a moment to think about what they want to say and compose their answers carefully.
Having students translate works of literature into text speak is another practice that warrants additional study (Bernard, 2008; Shuler, 2009). Initial anecdotal findings suggest that these activities may help students develop and demonstrate understanding of the content being discussed in class (Shuler, 2009).
Outside the United States, it is not uncommon to use mobile devices and cell phones for learning, especially in nations where home computer ownership is unusual. In these instances, mobile devices can help serve as a bridge between school and home, and they can function as an “anytime, anywhere” learning platform (Shuler, 2009). As such, many countries are exploring the use of texting to deliver targeted educational content to students.
There has been significant concern that the proliferation of informal writing, instant messaging, and text speak has led to a decrease in students’ writing quality. Although studies on this topic are still ongoing, early data seem to suggest that this is not the case (Wood, Jackson, Hart, Plester, et al., 2011; Wood, Kemp, Waldron, & Hart, 2014). In one study of language exams written by 16-year-old students in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 2004, researchers found that the quality of writing had improved (Massey, Elliott, & Johnson, 2005). Thurlow (2003), meanwhile, reviewed more than 500 text messages sent by British teenagers and “concluded that the messages demonstrated adept and creative communicative ability, and did not demonstrate the corruption of language feared by many” (as cited in Plester, Wood, & Joshi, 2009, p. 146). Wood and colleagues (2011, 2014) also found that texting did not appear to adversely affect primary and secondary school students’ grammatical understanding or elementary students’ literacy skills development.
In fact, recent research suggests that “textisms” (e.g., abbreviations, contractions, symbols, nonconventional spellings) are positively related to reading ability, vocabulary, and phonological awareness (Cheng, 2009; Hsu, 2013; Plester, Wood, & Joshi, 2009). In a recent study, the researcher found that elementary-aged students with dyslexia who used “textisms” had the same level of performance in word recognition and meaning recognition as their typically developing peers (Hsu, 2013). In another study of 10- to 12-year-old children, researchers found that the “extent of children’s textism use was able to predict significant variance in their word reading ability after taking into account age, individual differences in vocabulary, working memory, phonological awareness, non-word reading ability, and the age at which participants obtained their first mobile phone” (Plester, Wood, & Joshi, 2009, p. 155), meaning that students who used text speak most frequently tended to be more adept with language. The authors also concluded that use of textisms may be “contributing to reading development in a way that goes beyond simple phonologically based explanations” (p. 155).
It is important to note, however, that these studies focus on teens and young adults who have already developed written language skills. As the younger generation grows up with cell phone ownership and texting, it will be critical to determine the impact of texting on literacy when children are learning texting in tandem with more formal academic language (Plester, Wood, & Joshi, 2009). It will also be important for teachers to provide learning opportunities to help students develop digital literacies (Ortlieb, 2012).
More research is needed to determine whether texting has educational benefits, and to frame the conversation about texting in terms of evidence and data rather than the anecdotal mass media commentary about teen cell phone use. However, the available research does seem to suggest that, at the very least, texting is not harming youths’ writing skills and, in some cases, may actually have educational benefits.