Should Schools Teach SMS Text Messaging?
You may think that today’s kids already know everything they need to know about SMS text messaging, but some educators are now arguing that students need to learn texting in the classroom. Are they on to something, or is it a waste of time?
As reported several days ago in the popular mobile phone blogs Engadget Mobile and Textually.org, Australian educators in Victoria are stirring up a bit of a storm by teaching SMS text messaging as part of a language arts curriculum. These students, in the Australian equivalent of middle school, practice writing in the short message format that’s common in text messaging, putting together their own glossaries of texting abbreviations. They also compare the language and syntax of text messaging with that of formal, written English.
In an interview on the Australian news program The World Today, Professor John Frow of the University of Melbourne argued in support of SMS education. “If we were simply teaching students how to do text messaging, then it would be a waste of time,” he said. “But if we’re teaching them about the range of different languages that exist in English, and about translating from one language across to another, if we’re teaching them both that kind of skill, but also to think critically about these processes of moving between languages, then that seems to me entirely appropriate.”
Professor Frow continued:
English has literary languages of different kinds, it’s got technical languages, it’s got professional jargon, it’s got sub-cultural languages, it’s got dialects, the kind of language that’s used in chatrooms. Kids today are exposed to a much bigger range of languages than we were in the pre-digital era. Thinking about SMS is actually a way of thinking about English, standard English and about the way it works, the way it’s different from these other languages that students are very familiar with.
Julie Bishop, Australia’s secretary of education, condemned the initiative, citing a recent case in which Australian PhD students were forced to take a remedial English class because of their poor writings skills. But Pam Peters, a professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, argued that students’ SMS abilities don’t necessarily translate to poor writing skills in other contexts.
I doubt that most students when faced with a piece of paper or keyboarding in the fullest screen, would work with SMS which is very much a reduced code to fit into a tiny mobile phone screen, and people who use it know that’s why you have those very cut-down words. Once you’ve got a whole sheet of paper, a whole screen in which to craft your prose, there isn’t this incentive to reduce it to the minimal. And so I don’t think it’s a real fear that students will ever mistake SMS communication on a very limited range of subjects for the real thing.
To me, it seems there’s some merits with these perspectives. Thinking back to my own schooling, I recall the horror I felt when my mother insisted that I enroll in Latin. If I were to learn another language, a dead one didn’t strike me as very practical. Little did I understand at that moment in time that my Latin studies were intended to improve my English studies. Until that point in time I was an impatient reader and sloppy writer, rarely taking the time to craft my thoughts properly. But three years of Latin transformed my ability to write, because my Latin studies taught me about language syntax in a way I simply wasn’t receiving in language arts or literature classes.
Will teaching SMS accomplish similar goals? Maybe, maybe not. SMS is essentially a simplified shorthand for communicating ideas that otherwise take a lot more words when spoken or written in formal English. When studying another language, whether it’s Latin or Farsi or Cantonese, you’re forced to understand the underlying structure of how languages work. Gaining a grasp of a new language’s syntax helps you grasp the syntax of your mother tongue as well. So SMS’s abbreviated, simplified nature may make it difficult to convey they same complex lingustic concepts you’d gain while studying a richer, full-formed language.
Having said that, I do wonder if there’s a place for studying SMS ethics, if you will. The news media has been filled with stories in recent months about students usng SMS for cheating on tests or bullying other students. Meanwhile, some universities are beginning to explore the use of SMS for delivering lecture notes. So it’s not possible to dismiss SMS as an educational waste of time, nor as a silver bullet for distance learning. SMS can be used or abused. And chances are, every one of your students knows 10 times more about SMS technique than you do. But are they doing it responsibly?
So perhaps there is a place for SMS in the classroom. Maybe we need to start by having students teaching SMS to teachers, so they too can understand its potential for both positive and negative impact. Perhaps Professor Frow’s suggestion of having students create their own SMS glossaries isn’t so far fetched after all. -andy
Filed under : Mobile Devices