Text messaging and written language skills
Text messaging is a popular activity worldwide, and the number of texts sent continues to increase annually (e.g., Ofcom, 2011). There is, however, concern about the impact that use of texting slang and abbreviations (‘textisms’, such as u for you; ppl for people) may have on literacy development (e.g., Crystal, 2008; Thurlow, 2003; Wood, Kemp, & Plester, 2014). There is now evidence that textism use does not appear to harm children's literacy (e.g., Bushnell, Kemp, & Martin, 2011; Coe & Oakhill, 2011; Plester, Wood, & Bell, 2008) and may even support spelling development. For example, 8- to 12-year-old children's use of textisms accounted for growth in spelling ability over an academic year (Wood, Meacham, et al., 2011). This may be because many textisms are phonetic in nature (e.g., c for see, 2 for to), so their use contributes to phonological awareness and phonological processing, which in turn contribute to spelling development. However, there was no evidence that the children's initial spelling ability was predictive of increased use of textisms over time, which suggests that it is not simply the case that children who are better spellers will be more able to use creative textisms and therefore benefit from the rehearsal of such skills. Similarly, Wood, Jackson, Hart, Plester, and Wilde (2011) found that 10 weeks’ textism use by children new to texting could explain variance in their spelling development beyond that explained by IQ.
Less research has examined the interrelationships between textism use and adult literacy, and these data are inconsistent. Young adults’ estimates of their own textism use were linked to better informal writing for all participants, but to poorer formal writing for those with some or no college education (Rosen, Chang, Erwin, Carrier, & Cheever, 2010). Undergraduate users and non-users of textisms were found not to differ in their reading or spelling scores (Drouin & Davis, 2009). Researchers who looked at adults’ actual textism use have observed negative links with some, but not all literacy skills (De Jonge & Kemp, 2012; Drouin & Driver, 2014; Grace, Kemp, Martin, & Parrila, 2014). The results obtained with children therefore may not extend to adults, and longitudinal data are needed to examine the direction of any associations.
Text messaging and understanding of grammar
One area that has received less attention is grammatical understanding. Here, we use ‘grammar’ in the broad sense commonly used in school lessons, in stylistic guides, and in more general settings. We include not only morphology and syntax, but also orthographic conventions about punctuation and capitalization, which require an understanding of the syntactic structure of phrases and sentences and the identity of proper nouns. We use ‘understanding’ to capture the levels of knowledge that people have about grammar and acknowledge that these levels may range from implicit to explicit awareness (see Gombert, 1992). For example, when texting, people might display an implicit level of grammatical awareness by producing only violations that do not compromise meaning. For formal grammatical tasks, more explicit awareness is often necessary.
Previous researchers have described the grammatical construction of instant messages sent by teenagers (Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008), and of text messages sent by adults (e.g., Bodomo, 2010; Herring & Zelenkauskaite, 2009; Tagg, 2009). Cingel and Sundar (2012) conducted one of the few studies of text messaging and grammatical task performance and found a negative association between US Grade 6–8 children's performance on an adapted Grade 9 grammar test and their use of textisms in the last three texts that they had sent. However, there are weaknesses in this study. The children were asked to code their own messages by noting how many times they used each of the five broad textism types. Unlike in previous studies, the textism-use data were not corrected for message length and therefore may not reflect participants’ overall use of these types of abbreviation. Furthermore, the five categories were collapsed into ‘word adaptations’ (homophone use, initialisms, and omission of non-essential letters) and ‘structural adaptations’ (punctuation and capitalization errors). Although the structural adaptations involved grammatical changes, it was word adaptations that were negatively related to grammar performance. Moreover, no baseline testing indicated how representative the sample of students was for their age. Further research on the links between grammatical understanding and texting is required.
We have argued that there are three ways by which the use of texting language could harm grammatical understanding: through word-level spelling, phrase-level spelling, and sentence-level conventions (Wood, Kemp, Waldron, & Hart, 2014). English orthography is basically alphabetic, but at word-level spelling is sometimes determined by morphological status. That is, word endings with the same morphological structure are often spelled in the same way despite differences in pronunciation (e.g., the -ed ending of past-tense verbs talked, called, and waited) and words with the same pronunciation are spelled differently if their morphology varies (e.g., tax and tacks; which and witch). This is true in some other orthographies as well; for example, French (e.g., il danse, he dances, and ils dansent, they dance) and Portuguese (e.g., comeram, ate, and comerão, will eat). It takes children some time to use grammar-based spelling consistencies in their writing (Kemp & Bryant, 2003; Nunes, Bryant, & Bindman, 1997; Totereau, Thevenin, & Fayol, 1997). Prolonged exposure to the phonetic spellings of textisms could make it difficult to learn or apply grammar-based spelling rules.
At the phrase level, speech often involves combining words to create elisions such as gonna, would've, and you're. Through texting, users see phonetic representations of such elisions (e.g., Grace et al., 2014; Plester et al., 2008; e.g., English shuda; Spanish tkro for te quiero, I love you (Alonso & Perea, 2008); French qq1 for quelqu'un, someone (Anis, 2007)). People might subsequently find it difficult to learn or remember the correct spellings of the full forms.
Finally, the appropriate use of orthographic and punctuation conventions at the sentence level is often rejected during texting. Across languages, it is common to omit punctuation (Anis, 2007; Bieswanger, 2007; Herring & Zelenkauskaite, 2009; Ling & Baron, 2007) and capitals (De Jonge & Kemp, 2012; Rosen et al., 2010; Varnhagen et al., 2009). Conventional punctuation may also be replaced with multiple exclamation or question marks (Grace, Kemp, Martin, & Parrila, 2012) or emoticons (De Jonge & Kemp, 2012; Provine, Spencer, & Mandell, 2007). Individuals who do not adhere to conventional punctuation and capitalization in text messages may also use them less frequently in formal writing.
The types of ‘errors’ discussed above are referred to as grammatical ‘violations’ here, because such written forms may be produced either in error, or deliberately, to save time or effort, or for comic or social effect. Drouin and Driver (2014) have distinguished textisms of omission (such as missing punctuation or capitalization) and more deliberate textisms (such as accent stylization, e.g., wiv for with, or emoticons). These types of textisms did show some of the predicted relationships to poorer and better literacy scores, respectively, in Drouin and Driver's sample.
Recently, we (Wood et al., 2014) analysed concurrent relationships between children's and adults’ naturalistic text messaging and their performance on standardized tests of written language processing and grammatical knowledge, plus an assessment of understanding of how grammar is represented within English orthography. We found no association between the children's scores on the grammar, spelling or orthography tasks, and their tendency to make one of the six categories of grammatical violations in their text messages. However, there was a significant negative relationship between the adults’ violation of punctuation and capitalization and their performance on the test of written grammar. This relationship remained after controlling for individual differences in IQ and spelling ability.
The concurrent data obtained by both Cingel and Sundar (2012) and Wood et al. (2014) cannot be used as evidence of cause and effect, and there is also no way of knowing how representative these violations may be over time, especially as individuals may write the same words in different ways even within the same message (De Jonge & Kemp, 2012). In this study, we followed up 210 of the original participants from Wood et al. (2014) 1 year later. This paper summarizes the longitudinal relationships observed between the grammatical violations that the participants made when text messaging and their performance on written and spoken tasks of receptive grammar over the course of the year. Spelling and orthographic processing were assessed to examine whether these factors were also related to grammatical violations when texting over time.
The following primary research question was considered: Is the tendency to make specific types of grammatical violation associated with significant change in participants’ scores on measures of grammar, orthography, or conventional spelling over the course of one calendar year? There have been no published longitudinal studies of the relationship between grammatical violations when texting and the development of individuals’ understanding of grammar, orthography, or spelling. Although spelling development has been found to be positively associated with textism use generally in previous longitudinal work (Wood, Meacham, et al., 2011), this work did not enable the examination of relationships between grammatical violations and spelling.
A supplementary question of interest was whether the participants’ tendency to make grammatical violations when texting was ‘stable’ over the course of 1 year. The assumption that the tendency to violate grammar when texting is stable over time has not been tested empirically. We therefore looked for evidence of the tendency to make specific types of violations at Time 1 and again at Time 2. If the tendency to make grammatical violations was not found to be stable over the year, this would highlight the need for research to capture more thoughtfully the full range of factors that impact texting behaviour over time.