Has CMC and texting led to the dumbing down of literacy? ELEANOR WEBSTER investigates

THE EVOLUTION of technology over the last decade or so has been rapid, not only introducing innovative gadgets but also popularising what linguists have referred to as a ‘new language’ among young people. Texting as a form of communication is particularly prominent, with Vosloo (2009: 2) stating that it ‘is the written lingua franca of many youth today.’

Features of electronic language include the shortening of words, such as ‘probs’ meaning ‘probably’ and initialisms such as ‘LOL’ which translates to ‘laugh out loud’.  According to Varnhagen (2010:719), ‘electronic communication appears to have generated a “new language” of abbreviations, acronyms, word combinations, and punctuation.’

Although such textisms are harmless when used in informal contexts, the worry among many is that such language will infiltrate into other forms of language and will become acceptable in our everyday communication. As textisms are particularly popular among children and young adults, the concern is that texting and computer-mediated communication (CMC) will have a negative impact on literacy skills and how effectively young people learn to read and write in school.

The idea that electronic language is detrimental to the development of children’s literacy skills is encouraged by some linguists, with Woronoff (2007) stating that texting is a ‘habit forming menace [and] can influence kids to spell incorrectly or get confused about the correct usage’. However, much academic research suggests that texting and instant messaging (IM) could in fact, be a beneficial aid to learning.

The general consensus among those who believe that texting and CMC are harmful to the development of literacy skills is that the more you communicate in this way, the poorer your reading and writing skills will be. A study carried out by Varnhagen et al. looked at IM communications between adolescents and found that ‘spelling ability was not highly correlated with new language use’ (Varnhagen 2010: 729). In some cases, those with better literacy skills used textisms more frequently than those who were poorer in terms of their spelling ability. These findings relate to the idea that ‘children who are comfortable with writing – those with good literacy skills – will be experimental and use textisms more than other children’ (Vosloo 2009: 3).

So, should teachers and parents be worried about the affect texting and CMC is having on the literacy skills of children? Crystal (2008: 158) claims that ‘any form of writing exercise is good for you’ and also conveys that communicating in a variety of contexts encourages students to understand more about audience and styles in terms of the academic writing that they produce. Furthermore, Crystal (2008: 156) has stated that ‘it is crucial to recognise the various causes of inadequate literacy’ which relates to media representation of texting and CMC as detrimental to literacy learning. Perhaps reports in the press should investigate wider issues surrounding education – are other factors, such as teaching methods, socio-economic background and attitude to learning more entwined in literacy learning than previously thought? Or, is the development of electronic language a ‘new linguistic renaissance’ as Tagliamonte & Denis (2008: 27) have suggested?

Language has always developed according to changes in the society in which it is used and so it is possible that textisms and electronic language are simply a continuation of this.

ELEANOR WEBSTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2008) Txting: the gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tagliamonte, S. & Denis, D. (2008) Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American Speech (83) 1, pp. 3-34.

Varhagen, C K et al. (2010) LOL: New language and spelling in instant messaging. Read Writ 23, pp. 719-733.

Vosloo, S. (2009) The effects of texting on literacy: Modern scourge or opportunity? An issue paper from the Shuttleworth Foundation. [Accessed 2 November 2013] Available at: http://www.siu-voss.net/Voslo__effects_of_texting_on_literacy.pdf

Woronoff, P. (2007) [Accessed 23 October 2013] Available at: http://www.articlesbase.com/cell-phones-articles/cell-phone-texting-can-endanger-spelling-276413.html