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English Studies
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The Effects of Text Messaging and


Instant Messaging on Literacy
Lieke Verheijen

To cite this article: Lieke Verheijen (2013) The Effects of Text Messaging and Instant Messaging on
Literacy, English Studies, 94:5, 582-602, DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2013.795737
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2013.795737

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English Studies, 2013


Vol. 94, No. 5, 582602, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0013838X.2013.795737

The Effects of Text Messaging and


Instant Messaging on Literacy

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Lieke Verheijen

This article reviews empirical studies published in the last decade on the effects of text
messaging and instant messaging on literacy to determine whether they positively or
negatively affect literacy. Although the majority of studies found a positive correlation
between texting and/or instant messaging and literacy, others found a negative
correlation, while still others report conflicting findings or no significant correlation at
all. The studies reveal that literacy scores may correlate differently with frequency of
texting, use of textese/textisms and knowledge of textisms; that there may be different
correlations for reading, writing and spelling; and that the correlations may differ for
formal and informal writing. The mixed results could also be caused by differences in
the designs and populations of the studies. In addition, the correlational analyses
conducted in most of the studies do not warrant conclusions about causality. All this
suggests that there is a need for further research, preferably longitudinal studies with
experimental intervention, on the relationship between text messaging or instant
messaging and literacy.

txtin iz messin,
mi headnme englis,
try2rite essays,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
b4 comin2uni.
&shes African
Hetty Hughes1

Lieke Verheijen is afliated with Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Email: liekeverheijen27@hotmail.
com
1
Hughes.

2013 Taylor & Francis

The Effects of Messaging on Literacy

583

1. Introduction

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1.1 The Language of Texting and Instant Messaging


The poem presented above by Hetty Hughes was the winning entry in the first year of
the text poetry competition of The Guardian, which required competitors to write
poems no longer than 160 characters. It strikingly embodies three aspects that are
crucial for the issue discussed in this review paper. First, the language in which text
messages are composed may be quite different from standard spelling and grammar
conventions. Second, the language of texting has become so widespread that a
respected newspaper has even organized a poetry contest dedicated to it. And third,
as the first four lines reveal (texting is messing my head and my English; try to
write essays, they all come out textese), this electronic writing has become so influential that it may even affect conventional writing skills.
The last decade has seen a massive and rapid increase of short message service (SMS)
text messaging and instant messaging (IM or IMing) among the younger generations
due to increased ownership of mobile phones and personal computers, even by schoolaged children. Let me first explain what these phenomena entail. Texting, which originated around the turn of the century, is the exchange of brief text messages between
mobile phones. IM became popular in the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is
the online exchange of text messages between two or more individuals (i) using a
mobile phone application or an Internet application, (ii) through a social networking
site or (iii) within an online game. Both are forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), the difference being that IMing is real-time, that is synchronous CMC,
whereas texting is asynchronous CMC.
These two forms of communication use a language which has many features in
common. It is referred to by a variety of terms, including SMS language, text
language, SMS speak, textspeak and textese; I will use the term textese
throughout this paper. In such language, standard spelling conventions and
grammar rules are often disregarded and the use of textisms is prevalent. These
orthographically unconventional language forms are used for a number of reasons.
They function as shortcuts to reduce writing time for a quick response. They
achieve the brevity and economy required by the confines of a 160-character text
message limit, a small screen and an alphanumeric keypad with several letters assigned
to each key.2 In short, they can save time, space and money. Plus, they are considered
cool by many young people. Textese can include the following types of textisms,
many of which are exemplified in the aforementioned poem:3

See Kemp. It has to be noted, though, that the screens of mobile phones are becoming increasingly larger to facilitate use of the mobile web and that more and more mobile phones include a QWERTY keyboard or touch screen,
a text entry method which does not require the use of multiple keystrokes. This takes away some of the reasons for
using textisms.
3
Taxonomies of textisms and terminology used to describe them differ considerably among studies: the number of
categories distinguished varies and the same phenomena are referred to with different terms.

584
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orthographic abbreviations/contractions (e.g. msg for message, tmrw for tomorrow);


phonological abbreviations (thru for through, skool for school, thanx for thanks);
acronyms/initialisms (ttyl for talk to you later, omg for oh my God, brb for be right
back);
clippings/shortenings (goin for going, feb for February, xam for exam);
single letter/number homophones (c for see, u for you, 2 for to/too, 4 for for);
combined letter/number homophones (NE1 for anyone, 2day for today, l8r for
later);
emoticons/smileys (:-) for happy, :-( for sad);
typographic symbols (x for kiss, <3 for love, & for and, @ for at);
omission of punctuation, apostrophes or capitalization (cant for cant, i for I);
excessive use of punctuation or capitalization for expressing emphasis (what!!!! for
what!, huh?? for huh?, NEVER for never);4
repeating letters to mirror lengthening (soooo for so, grrreeeeennn for green);4
accent stylizations (gonna for going to, anuva for another, dat for that);
inanities (a term coined by David Craig): neologisms or nonsensical transmogrifications of other words (lolz for lol [laughing out loud]).5

So in terms of normativity, text messages and instant messages often do not adhere
to the standardized norms of correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. What seems
to matter most is efficiency: getting ones message across as rapidly, succinctly and
effectively as possible, irrespective of standard language rules that are violated along
the way. This attitude, manifesting itself in devil-may-care spelling and punctuation
and indifferent feelings towards a need for consistency in linguistic form, has been
described by Naomi S. Baron as linguistic whateverism.6 Even so, this does not
entail that textese is only composed of rebuses, new-fangled abbreviations and iconography, and wholly deviates from the standard spelling norms: it is just that young
peoples textiquette7 does not require their language to conform to these norms.
In fact, it may even be the case that textese has its own rules rather than that it
follows no rules whatsoever.

1.2 Two Opposing Views


The increasing prevalence of texting and IMing at increasingly younger ages has
prompted parents and teachers alike to worry about the influence of textese on

These types are more common in IMing than in texting, given that they go against the principle of economy
which is essential in text messages.
5
Craig, 120.
6
See Baron, Whatever.
7
As dened by the Urban Dictionary, an Internet-based dictionary of slang words and phrases, textiquette is a
code that governs the expectations of social mobil[e] texting behavior.

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585

childrens conventional literacy skills. Kate Ross presents the view of the American
Federation of Teachers:

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Text and instant messaging are negatively affecting students writing quality on a
daily basis, as they bring their abbreviated language into the classroom. As a result
of their electronic chatting, kids are making countless syntax, subject-verb agreement and spelling mistakes in writing assignments. [M]any teachers believed
that students wide use of text speak was a key factor in their students negative
performance. [T]ext speak is a problem.9

This quote characterizes concerns that exposure to and use of unconventional spelling
in texting and IMing may mask or even cause literacy problems, compromising
reading, writing and spelling abilities. A widespread fear that these forms of casual
CMC may adversely affect literacy, fuelled by reported incidents and anecdotes of
intrusions of textese in schoolwork and examinations, has sparked off much negative
media attention and criticism on textese. Such concerns are exemplified by Jennifer
Lees article in the New York Times: teachers report alarmingly that todays generation
text is producing the English adapted for the spitfire conversational style of Internet
instant messaging in their schoolwork as well.10 Criticism on textese has not only been
passed in American newspapers, but in British newspapers too. John Sutherlands
article in The Guardian is a perfect example of this: first, the columnist ridicules
textese by presenting Hamlets existential question in textese: 2B or 2b (not)=?;
then he writes it off as snot-talk, unimaginative, bleak, bald, sad shorthand,
drab shrinktalk and linguistically all pigs ear; and finally he claims that it
masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.11 Arguably the most pessimistic characterization of texting so far appeared in the
Daily Mail, where John Humphrys describes texters as vandals who are doing to our
language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are
destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our
vocabulary.12
Crispin Thurlows critical review of a corpus of 101 articles on CMC and its
languagepublished between 2000 and 2005 and from various English-speaking
countriesconfirms that media views on young peoples language use in texting
and IMing are overwhelmingly pessimistic.13 He reports that textese has been
described as aberrant, apocalyptic, criminal, depraved, execrable, frightening, infamous,

A completely different issue is that of new forms of literacy such as computer literacy, new (media) literacy
and digital literacy (as discussed, among others, by Victoria Carrington and Julia N. Spatafora), which is the
ability to efciently use computers, including mobile phones, and other new media. This review paper focuses
on the effect of texting and IMing on traditional literacy rather than on such new forms of literacy.
9
Ross, 1.
10
Lee.
11
Sutherland.
12
Humphrys.
13
Thurlow, 6778.
8

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jarring and abrasive, pointless and reprehensible and is constantly put in negative opposition to proper language. Many articles express an overriding sense of moral panic
about declining standards of literacy.14 They suggest that textese degrades traditional
literacy skills and corrupts the Standard English language, even that it signals the slow
death of language and poses a threat to social progress.15
However, others suppose that rather than causing literacy to go to rack and ruin, the
reinvention of language in CMC, free from the constraints of conventional spelling,
leads to innovative language use: playful use of language that enables creating a variety
of graphic forms of the same word.16 The text poetry cited above, as well as text
message novels, confirm that texting can result in creative expressions of engagement with language.17 It has been suggested that texting and IMing provide children
and adolescents with increased exposure to text and extra opportunities to engage
with language.18 The fun factor of CMC would motivate young people to read
and write. Another possible advantage is that textisms may increase their phonological
or metalinguistic awareness, that is sensitivity to the underlying (sound) structure of
language. For example, phonological abbreviations (fone for phone) and letter/
number homophones (gr8 for great) reflect an understanding of the graphemephoneme patterns (letter-sound correspondences) of a language.
Baron is such a proponent of textese.19 As opposed to Sutherland, Baron uses
Shakespeare to argue that strict spelling norms should not be seen as a sacred cow:
even Shakespeare spelled his own name at least six different ways, since orthographic
conventions only came into being in recent centuries.20 She feels that textese is an
empowering phenomenon and asserts that [t]he writing style commonly used in
IMing, texting, and other forms of computer-mediated communication need not
spell the end of normative language, provided that young people are instructed on
when they can be creative in their language use and when they should adhere to conventional spelling standards.21
There are thus two contrasting views in this Gr8 Db8:22 those who believe that
texting has a negative impact on youth literacy and those who believe that it has a positive impact. By presenting an overview of the research pertaining to this issue published in the last decade (200312), including all relevant studies that I could find,
this review paper explores the effects of texting and IMing on literacy. The question
is, how is language affected by these forms of CMC: do texting and IMing lead to corruption of the language or rather to language enrichment? As Steve Vosloo puts it,

14

Ibid., 678.
Quoted in ibid.
16
Plester, Wood and Bell, 1423.
17
Plester, Wood and Joshi, 156.
18
Plester and Wood, 1110.
19
See Baron, Instant Messaging.
20
Ibid., 29.
21
Ibid.
22
See Crystal.
15

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should they be considered as a modern scourge or do they rather present an opportunity?23 Or, as formulated by Francesca Farina and Fiona Lyddy, should we regard
textese as linguistic ruin or as a resource?24

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1.3 Early Papers


One of the earliest papers on this issue is written by Mampa L. Mphahlele and Kwena
Mashamaite, who explored the influence of textese on students writing proficiency at a
tertiary institution in South Africa.25 They note that increasingly more students used
textese in schoolwork and feel that these students are victim[s] of the SMS language
in the hands of the educators as [they are] punished for wrong spelling.26 As a cause of
the influence of textese they point to exposure through electronic media (television)
and print media (advertising). On the basis of some examples of textisms they encountered in student writing, Mphahlele and Mashamaite infer that students not only mix
words and numbers and spell words incorrectly, but also fail to distinguish between
informal contexts in which textese is allowed and formal contexts in which it is inappropriate. Mphahlele and Mashamaite conclude that textese affects two aspects of students language proficiency in an extremely detrimental way:27 their skills to express
themselves eloquently through writing and to use words appropriately in context. Yet
what is lacking in their line of reasoning is evidence that the spelling errors they cite
indeed have their origins in textese, as they assume, and if so, if they were inadvertently
used due to low proficiency in Standard English or a lack of awareness of when it is
inappropriate to use the register of textese, or deliberately used to flout the spelling
rules for whatever reason.
An early paper that presents the opposite view is that by Craig.28 He addresses the
influence of IMing on literacy from a theoretical perspective, focusing on three concepts: language play, plurality of literacies and language evolution. He argues that (i)
the language play used in textisms leads to better general literacy, increased subconscious metalinguistic awareness and improved abilities to use language effectively;
(ii) because our human language processing capabilities allow us to develop multiple
literacies independently of each other and to use them in their appropriate contexts, we
should consider traditional literacy as an entity separate from and unaffected (rather
than replaced) by IM literacy; and (iii) textisms are not inherently wrong: as language
naturally evolves, these novel creations may eventually become part of the Standard
English lexicon. Craig concludes that IMing has no negative impact on the development or maintenance of traditional literacy. He feels that youth literacy problems
23

See Vosloo.
See Farina and Lyddy.
25
Mphahlele and Mashamaite.
26
Ibid., 162.
27
Ibid., 161.
28
Craig.
24

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already existed before the rise of IM and that they were caused by a lack of focus on
teaching language skills at school. Still, Craigs discussion is purely theoretical: as in
Mphahlele and Mashamaites paper, what is lacking is evidence. The rest of my
paper reviews studies that do present empirical evidence for a relationship between
textese and literacy.

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1.4 Outline
This review article is organized as follows. Section two presents an overview of studies
reporting a positive correlation between texting and/or IMing and literacy, section
three examines studies reporting conflicting findings or no significant correlation
and section four those reporting a negative correlation. I will discuss the research
methods used in each study, the important results that were found and the conclusions
that were drawn from these results. The appendix provides a chronological overview of
the empirical studies discussed here and their main differences (Table 1). Section five
discusses the limitations of (comparing) the studies reviewed, makes suggestions for
future research and tries to conclude on my research question. Based on the studies
discussed, which of the opposing views wins out: do text messaging and instant messaging hinder or help literacy?
2. Studies Reporting a Positive Correlation
Beverly Plester, Clare Wood and Puja Joshi studied the relationship between textisms
and literacy attainment with eighty-eight British children.29 Their knowledge and use
of textisms was measured by eliciting spontaneous text messages, where they had to
pretend that they were in different situations. Density of textism use was established
by calculating the ratio of textisms to total words used. Standardized tests were used
to assess reading ability, alphabetic/orthographic decoding ability (non-word
reading), spelling ability, vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness. Although
no correlations were found between textism use and spelling or non-word reading,
Plester, Wood and Joshi found positive correlations between textism density and
reading, vocabulary and phonological awareness. Even when controlling for individual
differences in age, vocabulary, phonological awareness, non-word reading ability,
short-term memory and how long they had owned a mobile phone, the extent of childrens textism use predicted their reading ability. Plester, Wood and Joshi see this as
evidence that facility with text literacy is positively associated with [S]tandard
English literacy.30
Nenagh Kemp analyzed the use and understanding of textisms and links with literacy
skills in sixty-one Australian university students.31 Besides completing questionnaires,
29

Plester, Wood and Joshi.


Ibid., 158.
31
Kemp.
30

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standardized spelling and reading tests, and experimental tasks assessing morphological
and phonological awareness, participants had to read and write text messages in Standard English and in textese on a mobile phone. Texting frequency was not correlated to
differences in any of the literacy scores, but faster and more accurate reading and
writing of text messages (in Standard English and in textese) were neutrally or positively correlated with literacy scores. Kemp concludes that those with better literacy
skills are more efficient at composing and deciphering text messages or, conversely
stated, that those who are fluent with textisms have better literacy skills. There was
hardly any intrusion of textisms into the Standard English messages, which suggests
that students are capable of limiting their textism use to appropriate contexts.
Catherine Bushnell, Nenagh Kemp and Frances H. Martin studied the relationship
between texting and spelling with 227 Australian children.32 Questionnaires measured
their texting-related behaviours and attitudes; their knowledge and use of textisms was
assessed with a translation task in which they had to rewrite a list of conventionally
spelled words as they would in a text message; and spelling ability was measured
with a standardized spelling test. On average, the children wrote about half of the
words as textisms and the rest in Standard English. Even children who reported not
to send text messages in real life produced a considerable number of textisms, but children who did send text messages in real life produced significantly more. There was a
significant positive correlation between spelling skills and the proportion of textisms
produced (not with any other texting variables): the greater a childs spelling ability,
the more textisms (s)he produced. Bushnell, Kemp and Martin conclude that this
speaks against media claims that text messaging has a detrimental effect on
spelling.33
Kevin Durkin, Gina Conti-Ramsden and Allan J. Walker explored the relationship
between textism use and literacy in adolescents with and without specific language
impairment (SLI).34 The ninety-four participantsforty-seven were typically developing (TD) and forty-seven had SLIwere assessed on their cognitive, language
and literacy (spelling; reading efficiency and accuracy) abilities, did an interview
about texting frequency and were asked to send a text message in reply to one sent
by the experimenter. Adolescents with SLI reported to send fewer text messages
than their TD peers and they were indeed less likely to send a reciprocal text
message, and when they did the messages were significantly shorter and included
fewer textisms than those of their TD peers. Of the participants with SLI, those who
did not send a message in reply had significantly lower reading skills than those
who did. Durkin, Conti-Ramsden and Walker found significant positive correlations
between literacy and textism density and the number of types of textisms used; the
highest correlations were with spelling. They conclude that literacy ability is related

32

Bushnell, Kemp and Martin.


Ibid., 34.
34
Durkin, Conti-Ramsden and Walker.
33

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to the choice to return a text message, the length of a message and the use of textese.
Adolescents with better literacy skills (regardless of whether they have SLI) are more
likely to return a message, send significantly longer messages and use more textisms
and more different types.
In investigating the association between texting and literacy, Kemp and Bushnell also
looked at the effects of texting method (predictive and multi-press)35 and experience.36
Eighty-six Australian children read and wrote text messages in Standard English and
textese on a mobile phone and completed standardized tests of spelling, reading and
non-word reading. Children using the predictive mode turned out to be faster at
writing and reading messages than those using the multi-press mode. Texting experience increased writing but not reading speed. Literacy scores did not differ significantly
with texting method. Although the proportion of textisms used and literacy scores did
not correlate significantly, there was a significant positive correlation between all literacy scores and textese reading speed and accuracy, as well as between spelling and
reading scores and textese writing speed. Kemp and Bushnell explain this positive
relationship as follows: experience with textese can reflect or even enhance childrens
traditional literacy abilities.37 Childrens writing was found not to be overrun with
textisms: they used very few textisms in the Standard English messages.
Seeing that textisms can be considered as particular kinds of misspellings, Daisy
Powell and Maureen Dixon studied the effects of exposure to textisms, misspellings
and correct spellings on spelling performance.38 The spelling ability of ninety-four
British university students was assessed in pre- and post-tests before and after an
exposure phase in which they were exposed to the same words as in the tests, presented
in three ways: as correctly spelled words (e.g. tonight), as phonetically plausible misspelled words (e.g. tonite), or as textisms using a combination of letters and
numbers (e.g. 2nite). A no-exposure baseline condition was included to determine
the effects of textisms, misspellings and correct spellings relative to a potential test repetition effect. Spelling scores decreased from pre-test to post-test after exposure to misspellings, but improved after exposure to correct spellings and textisms. Powell and
Dixon conclude that exposure to textisms positively affects young adults spelling
performance.
Wood et al. conducted a longitudinal study to determine the nature and direction of
any association between textism usage and literacy.39 They measured the textism use of
119 British children by asking them to provide exact copies of the text messages they
sent within a span of two days at the start (Time 1) and at the end (Time 2) of the

35

Alphanumeric keyboards present a choice between the predictive mode, where each key is pressed only once and
a dictionary suggests the most likely word resulting from a particular combination of key presses, and the multipress mode, where a key is pressed one to four times to type the required letter.
36
Kemp and Bushnell.
37
Ibid., 26.
38
Powell and Dixon.
39
Wood et al., A Longitudinal Study.

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school year. Participants completed standardized pre- and post-tests on reading, spelling, verbal ability, phonological awareness and phonological retrieval. Textism density
correlated positively with reading and spelling, both concurrently and longitudinally.
Moreover, textism use at Time 1 could predict unique variance in spelling ability at
Time 2 (i.e. explain changes in spelling scores over the year) even after controlling
for verbal ability, phonological awareness and spelling ability at Time 1. Reversing
the analysis revealed that reading and spelling ability at Time 1 could not predict
unique variance in textism use at Time 2 (i.e. account for changes in textism use
over the year). Wood et al. thus contest that good literacy skills make children
better at using textisms or more prone to use them and suggest that there is a causal
contribution of using textisms to Standard English spelling skills. However, this
relationship may partly be mediated by phonological retrieval skills, because when
this was also controlled for, the relationship between textism use and spelling ability
was no longer statistically significant.

3. Studies Reporting Conicting Findings or No Signicant Correlation


Donita Massengill Shaw, Carolyn Carlson and Mickey Waxman conducted an exploratory investigation into the relationship between texting and spelling in young adults
with eighty-six American university students.40 They completed questionnaires and
standardized spelling tests. Massengill Shaw, Carlson and Waxman found no significant correlation between the frequency of texting (number of messages sent per
day) and spelling, neither perceived nor actual spelling ability.
Beverly Plester, Clare Wood and Victoria Bell report on two studies investigating the
relationship between texting and literacy.41 In Study 1, sixty-five British children translated sentences from Standard English into textese and vice versa. Plester, Wood and
Bell calculated an error score of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors in the Standard English writings and the textism density of the textese writings. A standardized
test measuring verbal and non-verbal reasoning yielded participants general literacy
ability. There was a significant negative correlation between literacy skills and
texting frequency (children who sent more text messages had lower scores), but also
a significant positive correlation between verbal reasoning ability and textism
density (children who used more textisms when translating into textese performed
better in verbal reasoning). So, this first study presents a mixed picture of the relationship between texting and literacy. In Study 2, thirty-five children had to translate an
exchange from Standard English into textese and vice versa. Writing and spelling proficiency were assessed through standardized tests. There were significant correlations
between spelling and writing ability and performance on the translation tasks: positive
with textism density in the textese writings and negative with the error score in the
40
41

Massengill Shaw, Carlson and Waxman.


Plester, Wood and Bell.

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Standard English writings. This second study suggests that the knowledge and use of
textisms is associated with better writing and spelling.
Michelle A. Drouin and Claire Davis studied the effect of textese on literacy with
eighty American college students.42 Experimental methods measured their textism
use in different contexts (by writing formal vs. informal emails), textese proficiency
(by translating Standard English into textese), familiarity with textese (by translating
textese into Standard English) and misspellings of target words commonly abbreviated
in textese such as youre, to, two and too (by recording spelling errors for these words in
translating into Standard English). Standardized tests assessed their reading and spelling skills. There were no significant differences between students who indicated that
they did use textese and those who did not in their literacy scores or misspellings of
words regularly abbreviated in textese. Nevertheless, a survey revealed that about
half of the students thought that textese was hindering their ability to remember Standard English. Drouin and Davis conclude that their findings are conflicting: although
no correlation was found between literacy and using textese, many students perceptions on the effect of texting on literacy were negative.
Kirsty Winzker, Frenette Southwood and Kate Huddlestone investigated the effect of
texting on the writings of English first language (L1) and second language (L2) adolescents.43 Participants were eighty-eight South African high school students: fifty-one
had English as their L1 and thirty-seven as their L2 (their L1 was Afrikaans). Questionnaires revealed that the participants were avid texters and users of IM software on
mobile phones, as well as avid users of textese. Their English writings were examined
for various features deviating from Standard English: they turned out to include mostly
spelling and punctuation errors, but overall textisms did not occur frequently.
Winzker, Southwood and Huddlestone infer from this that textese has a modest negative effect on written schoolwork, but also that students can generally gauge when it is
inappropriate to use textese. Textisms occurred less in writings by L2 participants than
in those by L1 participants. Winzker, Southwood and Huddlestone present two possible reasons: (i) Afrikaans is less suitable for certain textisms (letter/number homophones) than English because only a few Afrikaans letter/number words have a
similar phonetic sound and (ii) perhaps L2 participants pay more careful attention
to their spelling than L1 participants because writing in English is more difficult for
them. Winzker, Southwood and Huddlestone rightly note that incorrect spelling and
punctuation may also have been caused by factors unrelated to textese, such as due
to general spelling difficulties or in the writings of L2 participants due to L1 transfer
or interlanguage factors.
Larry D. Rosen et al. report on two studies into the relationship between textism
usage in texting, IMing and emailing, and quality of writing.44 Study 1 included 335

42

Drouin and Davis.


Winzker, Southwood and Huddlestone.
44
Rosen et al.
43

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593

participants and Study 2 included 383; all were Americans. The participants of both
studies had to write a formal writing sample; those of Study 2 had to write an informal
writing sample as well. It was not stated in the prompt that these had to be written in
Standard English or that textisms had to be avoided. The quality of each writing sample
was rated with a scoring rubric. The actual use of textisms in both types of writing
turned out to be quite low. Rosen et al. found that reported textism usage correlated
positively with the quality of informal writing, but negatively with the quality of
formal writing. Frequency of simultaneous IM conversations was also found to correlate negatively with the quality of formal writing. Two theories stemming from 1989
are used to explain these results: (i) Saloman and Perkinss Low-Road/High-Road
Transfer of Situated Learning Theory, where low-road transfer entails that when
two tasks are closely related previously acquired skills are transferred semi-automatically and high-road transfer that skills are used with more conscious effort, and
(ii) Brown, Collins and Duguids suggestion that situated learning (learning by
doing) causes unintentional transfer of skills. These theories support the findings as
follows: those who use more textisms in their daily communication unintentionally
transfer these to their Standard English writings, particularly in writing similar to
informal texting, in which case more low-road transfer occurs. The relationship
between textism use and writing was found to vary not only as a function of type of
writing, but also education level: participants with less education used more textisms
in their writings.
Latisha A. Shafie, Norizul A. Darus and Nariza Osman investigated whether using
textese affects students academic writing.45 All 264 participants were taking English
courses and their L1 was Bahasa Malaysia. They were asked to provide exact transcriptions of all English text messages they had sent or received during the experiment,
lasting one semester. Based on the textese used in these messages, Shafie, Darus and
Osman located the textisms in participants class assignments and examination
scripts. They found many grammatical and spelling errors in these academic writings,
but few textisms and only in the writings of students with a weaker proficiency in
English. Shafie, Darus and Osman conclude that students generally know how to
differentiate between language used in informal contexts (textese) and language used
in formal contexts such as academic writing (Standard English). They also conclude
that the many spelling errors that were found suggest that frequent usage of textese
may cause weaker students to forget the correct English spelling. However, I should
remark that the spelling errors may also simply be caused by the students lower proficiency in English, which was their L2.
To study the relationship between spelling and the use of textisms in IMing, Connie
K. Varnhagen et al. conducted a naturalistic study with forty Canadian adolescents,
who were asked to collect all their IM conversations for one week.46 A random

45
46

Shae, Darus and Osman.


Varnhagen et al.

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L. Verheijen

one-hundred-word sample from each participant was used for the analysis. Participants completed a spelling test administered over the IM program: they typed their
spelling in response to recordings of the words and context sentences. Of course,
any spell-checkers were disabled. Spelling ability turned out not to be related to
textism usage, but only to true spelling errors. This brings Varnhagen et al. to the conclusion that IMing does not affect adolescents Standard English spelling skills.
Drouin examined the relationship between reported frequency of texting, use of
textese and literacy in a sample of 152 American college students.47 Their literacy
skills were measured with standardized reading and spelling tests. Drouin found significant positive correlations between spelling and reading fluency and texting frequency, as well as significant negative correlations between reading accuracy and
textese usage on social networking sites and in formal emails, but not between any literacy measure and textese usage in texting or in informal emails. This tells us that
texting and textese may have separate and different relationships with literacy.
Though students who send more text messages have higher reading and spelling abilities, students who use more textese in certain contexts reveal the opposite. Drouin
suggests that either the students using more textese in these particular contexts are forgetting Standard English or they have (and always have had) lower literacy skills than
those using less textese in these contexts.
Wood et al. conducted an intervention study with 114 British children to investigate
the direction of any relationship between texting and literacy.48 This study differs from
other studies in that none of the participants had ever owned a mobile phone. A critical
note is in place here: Wood et al. did not consider whether the children had ever had
access to an IM program. Participants were divided randomly into an experimental
group and a control group. After receiving a brief explanation about how to use it,
those in the experimental group were given access to a mobile phone which they
could use just for texting in the half-term break and on weekends for ten weeks.
Their text messages were transcribed exactly as written on the mobile phones. The children completed standardized pre- and post-tests on reading, spelling, non-word
reading, phonological awareness and retrieval, and lexical retrieval. No significant
differences were found between the experimental and control group as regards their
literacy attainment during the experiment. This leads Wood et al. to conclude that
having access to a mobile phone for texting during several weeks neither adversely
nor favourably affects literacy skills. Yet they suggest that this might be attributed to
the duration of the study (perhaps the intervention did not last long enough for any
effect to become apparent) or to the restricted access to the mobile phones. Nonetheless, the experimental group revealed significant positive correlations between textism
use and literacy development, and textism use could predict a significant amount of
variance in spelling development. This indicates that it is the use of textisms rather

47
48

Drouin.
Wood et al., The Effect of Text Messaging.

The Effects of Messaging on Literacy

595

than texting in general that is linked to literacy gains. A positive correlation between
texting frequency and lexical retrieval skills was found too, which may indicate that
reading and composing text messages enhances word-finding skills.

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4. Studies Reporting a Negative Correlation


Salom Geertsema, Charene Hyman and Chantelle van Deventer investigated educators perspectives on the impact of texting on adolescents writings.49 The research
design was of a non-experimental nature: questionnaires were used to determine the
perceptions of twenty-two South African secondary school teachers of English on
the possible influence of textese on their students writing. The survey revealed that
a large majority of the educators perceived that textese negatively affected their students writing skills. They observed that students do not always adhere to Standard
English with respect to spelling, punctuation and sentence length: they regularly
encountered non-conventional spellings based on textese; incorrect use of full stops,
commas and exclamation marks was found regularly as well; and shorter, simplified
sentences were found sporadically. The use of textese was perceived to have a negative
impact on students academic achievement and on their knowledge of Standard
English.
Sarah De Jonge and Nenagh Kemp conducted the most recent study into the
relationship between texting and literacy.50 Fifty-two Australian high school students
and fifty-three Australian university students translated sentences from Standard
English into textese. They also completed spelling, reading and non-word reading
tests, and experimental tasks measuring morphological and orthographic awareness.
Results were overwhelmingly negative:51 textism usage (the number of messages
sent per day, the textism density and the number of textism categories used) was significantly negatively correlated with literacy scores for spelling, reading, non-word
reading and morphological awareness. Only correlations with orthographic awareness
were non-significant. Some of these relationships can be accounted for by participants usual texting frequency rather than their textism use. De Jonge and Kemp
argue that frequent texting may interfere with literacy development or provide an
opportunity for young people who are less competent in literacy to mask poor
spelling.
5. Conclusion
We can conclude that the studies published in the last decade on the relationship
between texting and/or IMing and literacy exhibit a mixed pattern of results. They
reveal that it is not such a straightforward matter to measure after all: literacy
49

Geertsema, Hyman and van Deventer.


De Jonge and Kemp.
51
Ibid., 63.
50

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L. Verheijen

scores may correlate differently with (i) frequency of texting, (ii) use of textese/textisms and (iii) knowledge of textisms; there may be different correlations for reading
(fluency/efficiency and accuracy), writing and spelling scores; and the correlations
may be different for formal and informal writing. Yet given the fact that many
more studies report positive relationships between texting/IMing and literacy than
negative relationships, this would suggest that the popular claim that texting and
IMing have a detrimental effect on literacy skills is actually ungrounded, at least as
far as texting and IMing in English is concernedwhether a similar tentative conclusion can be drawn for other languages has not been extensively researched. Apparently, the only empirical studies so far that have looked into this for Dutch were
conducted by Wilbert Spooren, who found no relationship between the intensity
with which Dutch adolescents use texting and IM and the quality of their writings,
and Machteld Radstake, who found no significant correlation between Dutch adolescents spelling skills and their use of new media (including texting and IMing, but
also emailing and using social networking sites).52 Future studies should try to fill
this gap by studying the effects of texting and IMing on literacy in a wider variety
of languages.
The mixed results of the studies might be caused by several differences in their
designs and populations, all of which pose limitations on comparing these studies.
Population differences can be noted regarding the participants age group, nationality,
gender, educational level and mother tongue. Regarding age groups, children, adolescents and young adults may behave differently in their use of textisms, which may lead
to differences in the influence of texting and IMing on literacy. Furthermore, children
are still in the process of developing their literacy skills, while these have become more
established in older age groups. With respect to nationality, there may be cultural
differences in texting/IMing behaviour between, for instance, American, Australian,
British and South African youngsters. There may be a gender effect: boys and girls
may have different texting habits leading to a different impact on literacyresearch
has found that females use more textisms than males.53 As regards educational background, texting/IMing may have different effects on young people with less education
than on those who have received more education.54 Also, college or university students
may not be representative of young adults in general. In terms of mother tongue, the
participants of most studies had English as their L1, while it was the L2 of participants
in other studies.55 Other differences exist in the entry method used during texting by
the participants (textisms may be less frequent when using a QWERTY keyboard or the
predictive mode on an alphanumeric keyboard than when using the multi-press mode
on an alphanumeric keyboard), how long participants had owned a mobile phone or
instant messaging software (their length of experience with texting or IMing may affect
52

See Spooren; and Radstake.


See Plester, Wood and Joshi.
54
See Rosen et al.
55
See Winzker, Southwood and Huddlestone; and Shae, Darus and Osman.
53

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597

its influence on literacy) and the age that participants first acquired their mobile phone
or IM program. All these variables in subject characteristics make it difficult to draw
definitive conclusions.
Research design differences occur in the methodology, which includes measures
based on standardized tests, various experimental tasks and questionnaires/interviews. Experimental measures of textism use differ in their manner of elicitation
(translating messages, sentences or single words from textese into Standard English
and vice versa, writing text messages in response to a particular scenario or
writing samples in Standard English) and their use of materials (writing with
paper and pencil or typing into a mobile phone). Especially studies that rely on
measures based on self-reports are limited: since participants may not answer questions accurately (due to, for example, faulty recall), these studies may yield results
that do not accurately reflect real world trends. The same can be said for measures
based on educators perceptions.56 This compromises the validity of such studies.
Studies based on experimental data are to be preferred, in particular those eliciting
spontaneous text messages,57 which is somewhat more naturalistic than translating
a set message or sentence from Standard English into textese. However, even experimental studies may not reflect participants actual texting/IMing behaviour. Therefore, future studies should try to base their measures of frequency of texting/IMing
and use of textese/textisms on direct naturalistic observations of messaging behaviour58if such data can pragmatically be obtained without crossing ethical
boundaries.
Another issue that could be examined more closely in future studies is whether
texting and IMing can be pooled together in terms of their effects on literacy. Only
five of the twenty studies discussed here consider IM, so instant messaging deserves
extra attention in future research. Furthermore, it would be interesting to examine
the relationship between literacy and Twitter, a particular form of texting called microblogging in which messages (tweets) are posted of no more than 140 characters.59
We may hypothesize that its effects on literacy skills are similar to those of texting,
given their similarities: Twitter has been described as the SMS of the Internet and
it has been noted that it is very similar in characteristics to IM and SMSbrief,
immediate and easy to use.60 Twitter is quite a recent phenomenon, created only
in 2006, and there does not appear to be any empirical research yet investigating its
impact on literacy.
We should not forget that all these studies, except for two, conducted correlational
analyses. Such a design makes it unwarranted to draw conclusions about the causality
of the factors. Hence, we cannot conclusively say, when a negative or positive

56

As in Geertsema, Hyman and van Deventer.


As in Plester, Wood and Joshi.
58
As in Varnhagen et al.
59
See Tomita.
60
DMonte, 8; Tomita, 186.
57

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L. Verheijen

correlation is found, whether this is a unidirectional negative or positive effect of


texting/IMing on literacy or vice versa (an effect of literacy on texting/IMing),
whether the effects between texting/IMing and literacy are bidirectional/reciprocal
or whether there is another underlying cognitive factor or other intervening factors
at work such as participants IQ, verbal ability or phonological awareness. Durkin,
Conti-Ramsden and Walker hypothesize that the positive relationship they found is
bidirectional, that is that better literacy skills influence the ability to use textisms
and that more frequent use of textisms may also help develop literacy skills, but this
remains mere conjecturing.61 The only studies that look into the direction of the
association are those by Wood et al., whose regression analyses indicate that it is textisms that influence literacy rather than the other way around.62 Although the crosssectional nature of the majority of these studies precludes causal interpretations,
Kemp suggests three likely interpretations for the greater occurrence of positive correlations between texting or IMing and literacy reported in the studies reviewed: (i)
young adults [adolescents or children] with stronger linguistic skills can better
employ these strengths to create and decipher textisms than those with weaker linguistic skills; (ii) the language play encouraged by extensive practice with textisms
helps to boost interest in language and thus scores on language tasks; and (iii) all
these skills are driven by an underlying level of linguistic or general intelligence.63
It remains a challenge for future research to further explore the question of causality:
studies with experimental intervention, preferably longitudinal rather than concurrent
studies, would be preferred to overcome the limitations of the studies discussed and to
provide more insight into causality. Hopefully, we will then get a definitive answer on
whether @TEOTD txtN & IM r messin ^ d skilz of our yth 2 read, wrt n spel or r rly gud 4
em or av basicaly no ffct, coz @ dis point we cant B sur! :-s64

Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Sanne van Vuuren, Pieter de Haan, Bettelou Los and Sandy
Barasa for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this article. Needless to say,
I alone bear full responsibility for any remaining errors in the present article. My
thanks also go to Hetty Hughes for granting me permission to reproduce her prizewinning poem here.

61

See Durkin, Conti-Ramsden and Walker.


See Wood et al., The Effect of Text Messaging; and Wood et al., A Longitudinal Study.
63
Kemp, 65.
64
Translation: at the end of the day, texting and instant messaging are messing up the skills of our youth to read,
write and spell or are really good for them or have basically no effect, because at this point, we cannot be sure!
(confused smiley).
62

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599

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Appendix

Year of
publication Author(s)

Focus

Participants age group Participants


(age range/mean age) nationality

2007

texting

young adults (1819)

American

texting

children (1012)

British

texting

young adults (M age = American


22)
children (1012)
British

2008
2009

Massengill Shaw,
Carlson and
Waxman
Plester, Wood and
Bell
Drouin and Davis
Plester, Wood and
Joshi

2010

2011

texting

Sample size
(no. of
participants)

What aspect(s) of literacy?

Findings

86

spelling

no correlation

100

writing, spelling

80

reading (uency and word


recognition), spelling
reading, spelling, vocabulary,
non-word reading (alphabetic
decoding), phonological
awareness
writing, spelling

conicting
ndings
conicting
ndings
positive
correlation

88

Winzker, Southwood texting, adolescents (grades 8, South African


and Huddlestone
IMing
11, age range/mean
age unspecied)
Kemp
texting young adults (M age = Australian
22)

88

Rosen et al.

American

718

reading, spelling, morphological


awareness, phonological
awareness
writing

Malaysian

264

writing, spelling

Canadian
Australian

40
227

spelling
spelling

texting, young adults (1825)


IMing
texting young adults (1822)

Shae, Darus and


Osman
Varnhagen et al.
IMing
Bushnell, Kemp and texting
Martin

adolescents (1217)
children (1012)

61

conicting
ndings
positive
correlation
conicting
ndings
conicting
ndings
no correlation
positive
correlation

601

(Continued )

The Effects of Messaging on Literacy

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Table 1 Chronological Overview of the Empirical Studies Discussed

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Drouin

Focus
texting

Participants age group Participants


(age range/mean age) nationality
young adults (M age = American
21)
late adolescents (17)
British

Durkin, Contitexting
Ramsden and
Walker
Geertsema, Hyman texting, adolescents (grades 8, South-African
and Van Deventer
IMing
9, age range/mean
age unspecied)
Kemp and Bushnell texting children (1012)
Australian
Powell and Dixon

texting

Wood, Jackson, Hart, texting


Plester and Wilde

2012

Wood, Meachem,
texting
Bowyer, Jackson,
Tarczynski-Bowles
and Plester
De Jonge and Kemp texting

Sample size
(no. of
participants)
152
94

What aspect(s) of literacy?

reading (uency and accuracy), conicting


spelling
ndings
reading (efciency and accuracy), positive
spelling
correlation

22 (teachers!) writing, spelling


86

young adults (M age = British


24)
children (910)
British

94
114

children (812)

British

119

adolescents (1315);
young adults
(1824)

Australian

52/53

Findings

writing, reading (speed and


accuracy), non-word reading,
spelling
spelling
reading, spelling, non-word
reading (phonological
decoding), phonological
awareness, phonological
retrieval, lexical retrieval
reading, spelling, phonological
awareness, phonological
retrieval
reading, non-word reading
(phonological decoding),
spelling, morphological
awareness, orthographic
awareness

negative
correlation
positive
correlation
positive
correlation
conicting
ndings

positive
correlation
negative
correlation

L. Verheijen

Year of
publication Author(s)

602

Table 1 Continued.