Txt msg n literacy. GEORGIE LAWRENCE explores whether textisms are ruining literacy skills

IN RECENT times a moral panic surrounding text message language and the alleged effects it is having on literacy skills has arisen (Crystal 2008). This comes as no shock when it has been reported that approximately ninety-nine percent of young adults in the United Kingdom, aged between sixteen and nineteen, use a mobile phone (Ofcom 2008, cited by Durkin, K. 2011). Approximately one in three of these young adults send more than one hundred text messages a day (Skills Development Scotland 2010, cited by Durkin, K. 2011).

The debate, whether text messaging harms literacy skills, has surfaced due to accusations from critics such as Woronoff (2007), who assumed that “exposure to texisms will inevitably affect children’s memory of the correct form” (Wood et al 2014:23). He argued that children are more prone to commit errors due to their minds still being in the formation stage, a stage which adults have already past. However, theories conflict with one another. Wood (2014) argues that studies such as Brown (1988) and Dixon & Kaminska (1997) reveal that when adults are exposed to an incorrect spelling of a word it can result in a decline of their ability to spell the correct form, thus suggesting textisms have the ability to affect all.

Conversely, there are many opposing arguments against the claims of negative effects of textisms. Plester et al (2009) argue that there is no negative relationship between text abbreviations and spelling ability. Crystal (2008) even claims that there is a significantly positive correlation of the impact textisms have on literacy skills. This is due to a good phonetic awareness being required. He also pointed out that ‘text language’ has been noted long before mobiles were invented. Rebuses were used in the Middle Ages where pictures and letters would represent sounds (Barry, 2002). This is supported by Coe and Oakhill (2011) who claims that the better the reading ability, the greater the text abbreviations used.

So, assuming that phonological awareness is required for the construction and decoding of textisms (e.g. Adams, 1990, cited by Wood, 2011), what about people with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, who have trouble with phonemic awareness and phonics?  Veater, Plester and Wood’s (2011) findings suggest that people with dyslexia tend to avoid text abbreviations which require phonological processes and in turn use more initalisms and symbols. Durkin, Conto-Ramsden and Walker (2011) noted that adolescents with an SLI (specific language impairment) are less likely to respond via text messaging and when they do respond it tends to be shorter than those without.

Nevertheless, Wood (2014: 32) states that “young people with language impairment may benefit both linguistically and socially from support in becoming more fluent in producing and reading text messages”; consequently the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ seems very applicable within the field of literacy. Crystal (2008: 157) agrees stating that “additional experience of writing [is] a help, rather than a hindrance”.

Thus, there seems to be a sufficient amount of studies which give evidence to back up the argument that text messaging has a positive effect on linguistic skills regardless of whether they have a SLI or not. Could this evidence be a step towards teaching this ‘text messaging language’ in schools?

GEORGIE LAWRENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Barry, J. (2004), Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis. Renaissance Studies, 18: 1–18. Accessed on: 02/11/13. Available from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0269-1213.2004.00047.x/abstract

Brown A.S. (1988). Encountering misspellings and spelling performance: Why wrong isn’t right, Journal of Educational Psychology 4: 488–494.

 Coe, J.E.L. and Oakhill, J.V. (2011), ‘txtN is ez f u no h2 rd’: the relation between reading ability and text-messaging behaviour. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27: 4–17.

Crystal, D. (2008) Texting: The Gr8 Db8. Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

 Dixon, M. & Kaminska, Z. (1994). Casting a spell with witches and broomsticks: Direct and associative influences on non-word orthography,European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 6: 383–398.

Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G. & Walker, A. J. (2011). Txt lang: texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 49–57.

Ofcom (2008) Media Literacy Audit: Report on UK Adults’ Media Literacy. Accessed on 30/10/13. Available at: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/media-literacy/medlitpub/medlitpubrss/ml_adult08/ 

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, B. (2009) Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology,27, 145-161

Skills Development Scotland (2010) Skills Development Scotland Research Uncovers Young People’s Communication Habits. Accessed on: 01/11/13. Available at: http://www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk/media-centre/press-releases//skills-development-scotland-research-uncovers-young-people%E2%80%99s-communication-habits.aspx?>http://www.skillsdevelopmentscotland.co.uk/media-centre/press-releases//skills-development-scotland-research-uncovers-young-people%E2%80%99s-communication-habits.aspx

Veater, H., Plester, B., and Wood, C. (2011) ‘Exploring the relationship between text message abbreviations and literacy skills in children with dyslexia’. Dyslexia 17, 65-71. Accessed on: 02/11/13. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2012.08.026

Wood, C., Kemp, N., & Plester, B. (2014) Text Messaging and Literacy – The Evidence. USA: Routledge.


One thought on “Txt msg n literacy. GEORGIE LAWRENCE explores whether textisms are ruining literacy skills

  1. Claire Gilder says:

    I agree with Crystal. The more children & adults are exposed to reading/ writing the English language, the better. It has been argued by some linguists that ‘text speak’ is just another variety of the English language. If people who would otherwise struggle to understand written language can use this form of English to communicate or express themselves better, then surely it can only be a good thing? However, as the age demographic stated by Ofcom is past compulsory school age, it would be interesting to know what the percentage of school age children with access to mobile phones was. This would enable researchers to establish whether children who are still in the process of learning the language system, had difficulty distinguishing between the standard from and the ‘text speak’ variety. Furthermore, I think Crystal has a point when he argues that it takes a comprehensive understanding of grammar and the phonetic system to decode text speak, if people were unable to correlate the phoneme sound with the written symbol (eg: c u l8tr) text speak would be rendered useless! As for the argument that texting is creating a decline in the ability to recognise the correct form, I think this is a ridiculous assumption. I have two children who have been exposed to text language via mobile phones or the internet throughout most of their compulsory education. Not once have they ever brought home a piece of work littered with ‘textisms’. Nor have any of their teachers ever raised the concern that they do not have the ability to recognise the correct form of standard English.

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