MINNEAPOLIS – Ask the students in Elisabeth Haen’s journalism class if the text messages that they send so ubiquitously creep into their schoolwork and the hands go up and the smiles grow.

“I write “cuz’ a lot, instead of “because’,” said Nick Miron, 17. “And I forget apostrophes.”

Each month, thousands of students in the Twin Cities metro area send millions of text messages to their BFFs (best friends forever), sistrs (sisters) and prnts (parents). So it’s no surprise that text-message lingo such as CU (see you), B4 (before), GR8 (great) – and its absence of punctuation and grammar – has migrated into schoolwork.

Its appearance is dividing teachers in Minnesota and across the nation. Some can’t stand seeing the lingo in any form. Others say it may be a way to keep kids writing.

One official with a national teachers group has even suggested that schools could use text messaging to help students learn.

Writing skills

Kelsey Theis, a language arts teacher at Pioneer Ridge Freshman Center in Chaska, Minn., said texting might be helping students learn an element of writing.

“We talk about the different components of writing – organization, idea, content and individual voice,” she said. “But, a lot of times, students feel the need to stay silent. This might help them develop their individual voice.”

Still, the seepage of text messaging into student writing is vexing many trying to teach the importance of clear communication.

Eva Pitzel teaches seventh-graders and ninth-graders at Lake Junior High and Woodbury Junior High in Woodbury, Minn.. She estimates that 25 percent to 40 percent of her students use some text-message abbreviations and slang in their in-class writing.

“I see it as a negative because they are not always showing me that they can write out the words correctly,” she said. “To compensate for this, we spend extra time editing in class and we talk about the different languages we use in our lives. I have to explicitly tell them that it is not OK to write like that for English class.”

In 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project said that 16 million American teenagers were using instant messaging and text messaging to communicate – up from 13 million in 2000.

Nicole Muenchow, a social studies teacher at Champlin Park High School, said texting is rampant. “They’re not even writing proper sentences, using punctuation or spelling,” she said. “I keep having to tell kids that “people’ is spelled with six letters, not three.”

Derek Anderson teaches composition and literature at Mahtomedi High School. He has mixed feeling about the creep of texting.

“I sort of feel like any writing is good writing, as long as you get your point across,” he said. “But, for certain students, I think it holds some back. If you’re writing a college application and you write “2,’ instead of “to,’ you’re not going to get the same response.”

In fact, some teachers are encouraged by the thousand or so text messages some students send each month.

A convert

Shirley Holm, who teaches at Ramsey Junior High in St. Paul, has become a texting convert, sending 600 messages of her own each month. She once texted her son the opening of the Gettysburg Address, one word at a time, to wake him up.

It’s a comfortable form of written communication, she said. And that’s not all bad.

“Maybe I’m not being as responsible as I should be, but I’m not so concerned about that,” she said. “Kids have to be coached, mind you. We have to be clear in what we tell them about when this is appropriate.”

Lindsey Hill, a 17-year-old in Haen’s class, said most students know when texting shorthand is appropriate – and when it isn’t. And her teachers are very good about “making sure that grammar is not lost.”

She added: “There’s kind of a time and place for everything – including when to use the slang.”

Kathleen Yancey, a professor at Florida State University and president-elect of the National Teachers of Writers of English, said there are potential dangers to this new form of written language. “If I get so comfortable with text-messaging language, in theory, it’s possible that would be the only linguistic code I was comfortable with,” she said.

But, she added, “Most people figure out very quickly that you don’t wear a bathing suit to church and you don’t wear flip-flops to play football.”

Since students have proven so proficient at embedding all these different communication tools into their daily lives – with no training from adults – Yancey said schools should find ways to incorporate those tools into teaching. If a student is proficient in texting, but not in reading Shakespeare, she said, perhaps a teacher could ask students to translate Shakespeare into text language.

“Why not?” she said. “They might actually learn something.”

(c) 2007, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-23-07 1649EDT

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