Are Computer Mediated Communications dumbing down literacy? KIM NGUYEN INVESTIGATES

Many different forms of Computer-Mediated Communications (CMC) became available following the launch of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Due to the rapid expansion of technology, they are now available across all different social media platforms and devices. Baron (2004) defined Instant Messenging (IM) as “a one-to-one synchronous form of computer-mediated communication” (cited by Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008, p.3). However, IM has since become much more advanced and is no longer restricted to a one-to-one exchange. In the present day, it is common for most young teens to have possession of a mobile device, and they too prefer using these devices for communication because “most do not think of their electronic communications as real writing” (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith & Macgill; cited by Vosloo, 2009, p.2). More recently linguists, including Vosloo (2009, p.2) have taken the view that “texting is the written lingua franca of many youth today”. However, the important question to what extent, if any, CMC is having a negative effect on students’ literacy?

Contrary to popular belief that texting is ruining the English language, there has been very little research conducted to prove this, as Wood, Plester and Bowyer (2008) point out. Some studies –  such as the one conducted by Plester, Wood and Joshi (2009) and Wood et al., (2008) – have found that texting has positive correlations with levels of phonological awareness amongst students, as many abbreviations are actually acceptable phonetic representations of a word, such as ‘b4’ for ‘before’. Therefore abbreviation usage requires the user to have phonological understanding (Vosloo, 2009, p.3), and thus regular use actually enhances phonological comprehension.

There have been alleged cases where the use of text language, also known as ‘textese’, has been found to be creeping into various pieces of academic work. Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 66% of the 700 students in their study said that their “e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments” (Lewin, 2008). This strongly supports Mphahlele and Mashamaite’s (2005) viewpoint that students are failing to recognise that texting is context and audience specific (cited by Verheijen, 2013, p.587). Additionally Clark (2008) highlights that some students are still losing marks for the use of IM abbreviations in their papers even after specifically proofreading for them.

Interestingly, many teachers do not mind e-communications sneaking into their pupils’ schoolwork, in fact some are even encouraging it. Some teachers are allowing students to use abbreviations during the drafting stage of their work, but emphasise the need to use Standard English when revising their final draft (Lee, 2002). So why not allow abbreviations and acronyms in schoolwork if they are more time efficient than typing out whole words? Moreover, some teachers purposely incorporate the use of CMC into their classroom activities. One teacher asked her class to translate the passage from Shakespeare they had been discussing, from text speak into Standard English, and vice versa, in order to confirm the students’ understanding of the text (Bernard, 2008). This teaching strategy is similar to the one used with foreign students, to improve their comprehension of their mother tongue, and thus stands to be effective (Bernard, 2008).

In my opinion, the benefits of CMCs have shown to outweigh the minor negatives found within studies. Not only does CMC act as another output for students to practice the language they have learnt at school, the use of group chats allows for discussions to be conducted in social and collaborative ways, which Bernard (2008) states to be very beneficial. Technological communication also allows for features of spoken communication to appear in written modes which before has never been possible. Emoticons replace facial expressions which are vital in contributing to meaning in spoken conversation, and capitalisation indicates hyperbole within IM (see Brown-Owens, Eason & Lader, 2003; Varnhagen, McFall, Pugh, Routledge, Sumida-MacDonald & Kwong, 2010, pp.729-730). As Crystal (2001) says texting is a “new species of communication” with its own set of usage conditions (cited by Tagliamonte & Denis, 2008, p.4). So why knock a creative form of language play, which helps to create beneficial opportunities for students?

KIM NGUYEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baron, N. (2004). See you online: Gender issues in college student use of instant messaging. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 23: 397-423.

Bernard, S. (2008, May 28). Zero-thumb game: How to tame texting. 

Brown-Owens, A., Eason, M., & Lader, A. (2003, August 21). What Effect does Computer-Mediated Communication, Spevifically Instant Messaging Have on 8th Grade Writing Competencies? 

Clark, L. (2008, December 12). Two-thirds of teachers allow children to use slang and text message speak in school tests. The Daily Mail

Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, J. (2002, September 19). I think, therefore IM. New York Times

Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., & Macgill, A.R. (2008, April 24). Writing, Technology and Teens.

Lewin, T. (2008, April 25). Informal Style of Electronic Messages is Showing Up in Schoolwork, Study Finds. The New York Times.

Mphahlele, M., & Mashamite, K. (2005). The impact of short message service (SMS) language on language proficiency of learners and the SMS dictionaries: A challenge for educators and lexicographers. IADIS International Conference Mobile Learning: 161-168.

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, P. (2009). Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(1), 145-161.

Tagliamonte, S., & Denis, D. (2008). Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging on literacy. English Studies, 95(5), 582-602.

Varnhagen, C. K., McFall, P., Pugh, N., Routledge, L., Sumida-MacDonald, H., & Kwong, T. E. (2010). Lol: New language and spelling in instant messaging. Reading and Writing, 23(6), 719-733.

Verheijen, L. (2013). The effects of texting on literacy and instant messaging on literacy. English Studies, 95(5), 582-602.

Vosloo, S. (2009). The Effects of Texting on Literacy: Modern Scourge or Opportunity? South African Funding Organisation,  The Shuttleworth Foundation.

Wood, C., Plester, B., & Bowyer, S. (2008). A Cross-Lagged Longitudinal Study of Text Messaging and Its Impact on Literacy Skills: Preliminary Results. Poster Presented at the British Psychological Society Department Section Conference, Oxford Brookes University, September 2008.



2 thoughts on “Are Computer Mediated Communications dumbing down literacy? KIM NGUYEN INVESTIGATES

  1. Maisie says:

    I personally do not believe Computer mediated communication (Cmc) or texting is having a negative effect on our language. In my opinion texting is having a positive effect on language, it is allowing every single person not just young people a chance to develop their language knowledge as well as increase people’s phonological awareness. Although I can see why people are becoming concerned about this so called new language creeping into academic essays. If you look through any university students lecture notes your bound to find many textisms, these students do not use these short hand textisms in essays though, they only appear in their notes to aid them during a fast paced lecture. Teachers should not be encouraging students to use textisms in their assignments as it is encouraging laziness and suggesting to them they shouldn’t take pride in their work. By allowing some abbreviations and textisms in classroom work it is steering away from teaching children the correct literacy skills and how they should use them skills in assessments.
    I believe texting is having a positive effect on language because texting and cmc are easy and convenient to use but it has been made clear it should not appear anywhere in an academic assessment. Our language is safe as even though texting has tried to make a break through, it will never be powerful enough to take over standard English and seems to only be phase.

  2. Emily Silvester says:

    Hello Kim, your findings by Vosloo (2009, p.2) regarding text as a ‘lingua franca’ completely astounds me as I did not view text as anything more than a new process in which to allow individuals to communicate long distance. I can understand as the World Wide Web expands, more people are connecting and sharing terminology or even creating new terminology over shared interests. One example being ‘shipping’ to mean a shared interest in two people or characters as a romantic item, but I had not considered the weight of this on language being as significant.

    I was taken by surprise that little evidence has been found to prove that texting had ruined language. I’ve recently been connected with an individual whom used the term ‘BF’ to mean ‘boyfriend’, however when not using this abbreviation they spelt friend as ‘freind.’ This proves to me personally, that we are overlooking the spellings of words in place of getting meaning across quickly. As you touched upon with Lee’s (2002) research, teachers are encouraging these e-communication abbreviations due to efficiency, however I would argue academic pieces will become similar to phatic talk as well as spellings, punctuation and grammar being lost in the process. As Clarke (2008) suggests, students are unable to spot abbreviations even when proofreading, so would this not suggest that texting is blurring the line between what is correct and wrong?

    I had never considered the use of CMC’s assisting with students comprehension from a stand point where English is not their first language (Bernard, 2008) to create interest. Although, I feel this may cause issues when the student is producing assessed pieces as what was once deemed acceptable in practice would not be correct in academic work.

    I don’t believe we should knock a creative form, however I there is a time and a place.

    Clark, L. (2008, December 12). Two-thirds of teachers allow children to use slang and text message speak in school tests. The Daily Mail
    Lee, J. (2002, September 19). I think, therefore IM. New York Times,
    Vosloo, S. (2009). The Effects of Texting on Literacy: Modern Scourge or Opportunity? South African Funding Organisation, The Shuttleworth Foundation.

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