“Today, students are doing an immense amount of writing—they’re blogging; they’re text messaging; they’re e-mailing; they’re updating their status messages, profile information, and live feeds on social networking and other sites; and others are “tweeting”… Perhaps most interesting in the midst of all this writing students are doing is that they don’t often call it ‘writing’. Writing, students note, is something they do in school. What they do with computers outside of school is something else.”
Because Digital Writing Matters, National Writing Project
It’s absolutely mind-boggling to consider how much kids write these days, especially pre-teens and teens. And yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all the complaints about how texting is harming literacy, but anyone who thinks that way is missing the bigger picture. Kids these days are writing more on a daily basis than we, their parents, ever did. So much more.
They just don’t think of what they’re doing as “real” writing. And I think that many parents consider it even less real–or at least less worthwhile.
In 2008, the Pew Internet & American Life project put out a report called Writing, Technology and Teens which was based on interviews with 700 teens, and is chockablock with interesting stats on this topic.
Check out the most common forms of non-school writing reported by teens, followed by the percentage that have done the activity in the previous year:
Write notes or letters to other people (64%); write in a journal (34%); do short writing, from a paragraph to one page (31%); do creative writing, such as plays, poetry, fiction or short stories (25%); write music or lyrics (25%); create audio, video, PowerPoint or multimedia presentations (16%); write essays (8%); write computer programs (6%).
(Really? Eight percent of these kids wrote essays for fun in the last year? Oh I know, eight percent is practically statistically insignificant, but the fact that any kid might write an essay for kicks is enough to heat up my little essayist heart.)
What I find particularly interesting about this “non-school writing” list is that it’s topped by notes and letters to other people, yet the report writers chose not to include texting, emailing, social networking and IMing in the category of non-school writing. Those activities are examined in a separate section. Guess the Pew Internet & American Life folks don’t think of them as real writing either.
That, to me, is missing the point. All of those activities are writing, and I have to wonder why people feel a need to separate them. Because they’re more casual? Because correctness can be less important in their composition? Because kids enjoy this kind of writing, so it can’t possibly be worthwhile?
The basic fact is that teenagers today are communicating with each other in written words on a daily basis. According to a Nielsen report, 83% of teens text message, with the average number of teen texts going up 566% over two years, from an average of 435 texts per teen per month in 2007 to 2,899 texts per month in 2009! Another 2009 report by Pew Research states that 86% of teens “comment on a friend’s page or wall” while using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.
Many people seem to assume that this sort of casual, social communication writing must be undermining kids’ school writing. Let’s try to tease that out by looking at the most recent NAEP Writing Assessment results. NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. While I’m certainly no proponent of standardized testing as a way of measuring knowledge (or shaping schools for that matter), we may as well glance over the results, since a slew of kids had to endure the test.
The last writing results available were from 2007. (The test was administered again this spring, but those results won’t be available until next year. This year marked the first time the test was given via computer, which should make the results that much more interesting.) Some analysis of the 2007 test results from the National Center for Education Statistics:
“Some of the more notable findings of the 2007 assessment included the following: The improvement at grade 12 in writing, which we have not seen in some of the other subjects recently; the improvement among male students at both grades 8 and 12…”
“According to our 2007 results, the gap between male and female 12th-grade students is getting smaller. Twelfth-grade boys are improving their scores at a faster rate than 12th-grade girls.”
So. There’s an improvement in writing, which we have not seen in some of the other subjects recently. Just writing, eh? And the gap between twelfth-grade boys and girls is suddenly getting smaller. Huh.
Let’s talk about those twelfth-grade boys. Boys tend to disengage with literacy in high school. If you need proof and explanation of that claim, start with Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm. Yet something has changed in those boys’ lives that’s made their scores come closer to the scores of teenage girls. Think it’s some new writing program that the schools are administering? Doubt it.
Consider the fact that the previous NAEP writing test had been administered in 2002. What could have possibly changed between 2002 and 2007?
Think about it. Let’s check in with those folks at Pew Research and their teen report “Tech Usage Over Time”. While Facebook didn’t even exist in 2002, by 2006, 84% of teens were posting comments to friends’ pages or walls. 41% of teens were sending daily messages to friends on Facebook or MySpace. And while teen texting was uncommon in 2002, by 2006, 27% of teens said they texted friends daily. Thirty percent sent daily instant messages to friends.
Then there’s gaming, which we’d better pay attention to if we’re talking teen boys. While video game play was already popular in 2002, daily use has increased over time, especially amongst boys. It hit a high in 2005, with teen boys spending an average of more than 40 minutes a day playing video games, compared with a female average of just seven minutes a day that same year. (There was a slight dip over the next few years, but the playing time seems to be back up again.) Parents may not realize how often video game players actually communicate with one another via writing, but write they do. (Edited to add: Not to mention all the posting to gaming forums that many players do, writing for advice as well as community.)
Written communication in the personal lives of teens was virtually transformed between 2002 and 2007. While I have no proof, I’d bet my sweet little 11-inch Macbook Air that this is why the writing scores went up in that 2007 test. Teens are writing more in their personal lives than they ever have before, and their resultant comfort with writing is creeping into their school/assessment writing. What they’re writing matters less than the fact that they are writing. Consider the 10,000 hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. You become good at anything by putting in the hours; 10,000 of them are likely to make you an expert. Kids are writing because they’ve found writing formats that matter to them–and therefore they’re getting better at it.
But why the closing of the gap between boys and girls in particular? As I mentioned above, boys traditionally have less engagement with literacy than girls by the time they reach their teens. Since girls’ outside-of-school writing has increased as well, you’d expect their scores to go up, which they did. But I’m guessing that many teen boys have, for the first time, found writing venues that interest them. So their scores have increased even more.
All that stuff that teens do with their phones and computers, described in the introductory quote, is real writing. The sad part is that only the most progressive educators recognize it. Schools (and homeschoolers for that matter) have an instant hook when it comes to literacy and teens. There are forms of writing that they like to do. We just have to figure out how to relate that writing to their more “academic” writing.
It’s all writing and it’s all real. More on that in my next post.