Student’s Writing Better Than Ever?

A few weeks ago I suggested that students poor penmanship may be affecting their writing abilities. Turns out, our students may be writing better than ever if this Wired article by Clive Thompson can be believed.

In many circles it’s vogue to say that students are getting dumber because of texting and Facebook. Turns out the digital age may have sparked more writing than previously believed.

Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.


Now students are increasingly communicating online. Most online communication is inherently text. Additionally, most digital writing happens outside of school. In fact a surprising 38% of student’s total writing is happening outside of class.

After giving it some second thought, this makes sense. The opportunities I have to write, compose original thought and discuss current events online dwarf anything my parents generation had.

However, while Facebook, online chat and texting may be increasing the amount of writing students are doing, the real question is does this kind of writing actually improve student’s writing abilities?

According to Andrea Lunsford at the Stanford Study of WritingYes!

Lunsford’s team says because students have done so much digital writing and to many different audiences, they have became quite adept at assessing who’s reading their writing in order to drive home their arguments. Thompson summarizes Lunsford quite well:

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

So perhaps it’s not students who are failing to learn to write. Perhaps it is instructors failing to give students a voice.

Of course academia will always have a place for establishing good formal writing skills, but our job as educators has always been to prepare students for the real world. So instead of shunning new technology and social media as a tool for learning perhaps we should let their minds run wild online. After all spending 30 minutes on Facebook writing about the top 20 90s TV shows has to be better than a half hour of MTV.

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