Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 37


JLRXXX10.1177/1086296X14534061Journal of Literacy ResearchTurner et al.

Journal of Literacy Research
2014, Vol. 46(2) 157­–193
Demystifying Digitalk: © The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
The What and Why of the sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/1086296X14534061
Language Teens Use in Digital jlr.sagepub.com


Kristen Hawley Turner1, Sandra Schamroth Abrams2,

Elvira Katíc3, and Meredith Jeta Donovan1

The language teens use in digital spaces—from social network posts to instant
message chats to text messages—often does not adhere to Standard Written English
(SWE). Their digital writing involves a combination of written and conversational
languages and often has a digital thumbprint that distinguishes the writer. As a
means to understand this digitalk, we conducted a mixed method study that not only
examines the conventions of digitalk, but also explores the impetus behind teens’
languages choices. Over the course of 2 years and three rounds of data collection,
we investigated the digital language use of 81 adolescents (Grades 7-12) from urban
and suburban, public and private schools in a large metropolitan area. Data provide
insight into the conventions of digitalk and the reasons these features of language
have been conventionalized within adolescent digital communities. Ultimately, we
see teens engaging in purposeful writing that may differ from SWE, but, nonetheless,
shows an awareness of audience, efficiency in communication, expression of personal
voice, and inclusion in a community of practice.

digital language, adolescent writing, home language, discourse practice

1Fordham University, New York City, NY, USA

John’s University, New York City, NY, USA
3Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ, USA

Corresponding Author:
Kristen Hawley Turner, Fordham University, 113 West 60th Street, Suite 1102, New York City, NY
10023, USA.
Email: krturner@fordham.edu
158 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Teachers, parents, and media bemoan the linguistic practices of today’s teens, arguing
that digital writing, riddled with errors, is influencing academic work. According to
the Pew Internet and American Life study, “A considerable number of educators and
children’s advocates . . . are concerned that the quality of writing by young Americans
is being degraded by their electronic communication, with its carefree spelling, lax
punctuation and grammar, and its acronym shortcuts” (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, &
Macgill, 2008, p. 3). Adults outside the adolescent digital community see the language
as “degrading,” “carefree,” and “lax.” In short, the language teens use when writing
digitally is wrong.
The Pew study suggests that adolescents spend a significant amount of time writing
outside of school. They post messages to social networks (SNs), chat via instant mes-
sage (IM), and communicate by text messaging. However, the language used in these
digital spaces often does not adhere to Standard Written English (SWE). Rather, ado-
lescents experiment in their digital writing and the result is digitalk (Turner, 2010,
2011), a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational lan-
guages. Much has already been written about the values of home languages and regis-
ters to provide crucial oral language skills, strong foundations for print literacy,
communicative competence, and socio-emotional development (Alim, 2004; Barton
& Hamilton, 1998; Compton-Lily, 2003; Delpit, 1995; Kirkland, 2010). However, the
digital language of adolescents has been largely ignored in these conversations. The
present study seeks to fill this gap by examining the language choices teens make
when they write digitally and engage in digitalk.
Over 10 years ago, Crystal (2001) began his analysis of Internet language with the
question, “Will all users of the Internet present themselves, through their messages,
contributions, and pages, with the same kind of graphic, orthographic, grammatical,
lexical, and discourse features?” (p. 9). We reconsidered Crystal’s words in light of the
evolving community of adolescent writers and contemporary linguistic norms. Thus,
our research addressed the following questions: (a) What are the conventions of digi-
talk? and (b) Why do teenagers make the language choices they do when they write
texts, IMs, and SN posts? Such questions not only extend Crystal’s analysis, but also
help to respond to Thurlow’s (2006) call to investigate the ways that individuals
manipulate language in digital settings, rather than accepting popular discourse about
the nature of the language and the reasons for its existence. Thus, this present study
adds to the growing body of literature on the nature of digital language by focusing on
a nearly absent population—adolescents who engage daily with information and com-
munication technologies (ICTs)—and exploring the authentic, linguistic practices of
this community of writers.

Perspectives/Theoretical Framework
A Community of Digital Writers
According to Vygotsky (1978), individuals internalize the language and tools of a
culture by participating in that culture. Prensky (2001, 2006) suggested that the culture
Turner et al. 159

of today’s adolescents is highly saturated with ICT tools. As digital natives (Prensky,
2001, 2006), these adolescents have had access to computers at an early age, and they
carry cell phones wherever they go. Their reliance on ICTs has helped them to inter-
nalize the tools and the languages associated with a digital world.
Digital natives communicate with each other via IM, text, or social networking
tools. Although their language is a key feature in this study, the students’ communica-
tion—and the ways of being that which their language represents—cannot be fully
understood through a traditional, cognitive view of literacy. Rather, a socio-cultural
frame (cf. New Literacy theories; Barton, 1994, 2001; Gee, 1996, 2000; Street, 1995,
1999) helps call attention to the intricate and nuanced expressions that are inherent in
digitalk, a form of communication that not only identifies an adolescent’s behavior
and/or value system, but also positions the individual within and among specific
Gee (2000, 2012) clarified how “discourse with a little ‘d’ just stands for language
in use” (Gee, 2000, p. 204) whereas his concept of Discourses “with a capital D”
acknowledged situated meanings that are tied to language and “ways of behaving,
interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that
are accepted as instantiations of particular identities (or ‘kinds of people’)” (Gee,
2012, p. 3). Gee (2000, 2012) underscored the situated nature of language and noted
that different milieux call for different genres of behavior and language; acknowledg-
ing that language and actions vary from the boardroom to the town pub, Gee exempli-
fied how “the very form of language is always an important part of Discourses” (Gee,
2000, p. 204). Therefore, as we explore dimensions of digitalk, we may use small “d”
discourse to focus a discussion on linguistic elements, but we do not see language
divorced from its socio-cultural context. Furthermore, the concept of “big D”
Discourses (Gee, 2012) helps us to conceptualize how value systems shape interac-
tions as teens use modern technologies that afford them the space and the tools to form
unique communities.
The examination of Discourses is inherently tied to social participation and what
comes to the fore is the “encompassing process of being active participants in the
practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these com-
munities” (Wenger, 1998, p. 4). Within virtual communities, adolescents use and
develop a language system that combines elements of SWE with abbreviations, frag-
mented sentences, “initialisms” (Jacobs, 2008, p. 204), emoticons, and other manipu-
lations of conventional SWE. Teens embrace the creativity afforded by this
non-standard language and internalize the structures that allow for shared meaning
within their communities of practice where participation and identities evolve (Wenger,
1998). These communities of practice and their culturally bound language and activi-
ties can be central to the development of teens’ primary Discourses. Gee (2012)
explained that

Our primary Discourse gives us our initial and often enduring sense of self and sets the
foundations of our culturally specific vernacular language (our “everyday language”), the
language in which we speak and act as “everyday” (non-specialized) people . . . Primary
Discourses can change, hybridize with other Discourses and they can even die. (p. 153)
160 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

In this way, Discourses, like communities of practice, are protean; they are shaped
and reshaped by the values and actions of those within the particular group or com-
munity. Likewise, “Discourses have no discrete boundaries because people are always,
in history, creating new Discourses, changing old ones, and contesting and pushing the
boundaries of Discourses” (Gee, 2014, p. 55).
Furthermore, of utmost importance is the alignment of participant and community
ideals, objectives, and desires (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002), and general
community practices may be modified to accommodate the needs of specific subsets
of the community-at-large. With Discourses at play, individual voice becomes impor-
tant. Yancey (1994) explained that voice is connected to both Discourse and

Voice is not an independent variable, isolated within itself, or within only its immediate
context. It is a means of expression, creation, and communication that lives according to
the interaction of several variables: a writer, his or her language and knowledge of
language and writers; a reader with similar knowledge, with different knowledge, able to
bring both to the reading, able to hear it in some way, on some level; and the language
itself, the culture it embodies. (p. xix)

In digital worlds, teens experiment with language in part to capture voice; this
experimentation contributes to the evolution of their own primary Discourses.
Because communication in digital worlds is often written, not spoken, rules of reci-
procity (Nystrand, 1986) apply to this linguistic play. Nystrand (1986) articulated the
collaborative nature of writing: under a contract of reciprocity, each individual “pre-
supposes—indeed counts on—the sense-making capabilities of the other” (p. ix). As
Lewis (1969) explained, an individual “must choose what language to adopt according
to his expectations about his neighbors’ language” (p. 8). To maintain reciprocity, writ-
ers in a virtual setting must use particular conventions because they believe that their
readers will understand the meaning of their written text. For the digital generation,
digitalk is standard practice, allowing the hybridization of both self and language in
accordance with the expansion of audience to a more “public sphere” (Gee, 2012, p.
154). Essentially, when primary Discourses include digitalk, teens have the space and
the tools to communicate in ways that distinguish their being-doing-valuing systems
and mark their membership to specific communities.
Although widespread use of these conventions standardizes them (Lewis, 1969)
within a general community of practice, we have learned that teens’ are also part of
localized or friend-specific subsections of the digitalk community, and their modifica-
tions to online language help to position them within their Discourse sub-communi-
ties. Here, we call upon the notion of Discourse sub-communities (Abrams, 2009,
2013) to underscore how nuanced language and behavior situate students not only as
part of a general population that uses digitalk, but also as part of a specific cadre that
has its own rules, cues, and parameters (Cherny, 1999). Digitalk is a form of commu-
nication that could be used within specific affinity spaces (Gee, 2004; Gee & Hayes,
2011), but unlike passionate affinity spaces, where “who is ‘in’ the group is not always
Turner et al. 161

easy to define” because of varying degrees of involvement (Gee & Hayes, 2011, p.
70), users of digitalk are identifiable because of their linguistic choices. Furthermore,
in our forthcoming discussion, we explain how digitalk has both general and commu-
nity-specific or “closed” features. Thus, for the purposes of this research, we examined
teens’ communication across a range of digital spaces— social networking sites,
instant messaging venues, text messages, and email. We reconsidered the concept of a
“Discourse community” as we examined how digitalk situated teens among others,
and the concept of Discourse sub-communities helped us to aptly capture and explain
how nuanced digital language can position individuals in specific cultural contexts and
communities of practice.

Digitalk: A Discourse of a Digital Generation

In his discussion of new media literacy, Kress (2003, 2010) explained that any given
mode offers affordances and limitations. The affordances and limitations of techno-
logical tools help to explain the continuous evolution of digital language. As commu-
nication technologies evolved from telephone to computer chat capabilities, the
discourse of “talk” likewise transformed. Immediate conversations that once took
place orally could occur via writing, in real time. To avoid overlapping utterances and
to increase communicative efficiency, shortcuts that involved fewer keystrokes became
standard practice among many users (Crystal, 2001).
Similarly, the development of text technology via mobile phone has afforded users
the choice of immediate or delayed response. Initially, numeric keypads and the
expense of text messages encouraged users to minimize keystrokes. The more recent
introduction of unlimited messaging plans, QWERTY keypads, and auto-correction
tools has led to more variety in language choice. Thus, digital language continues to
evolve in response to the affordances and limitations of technology and the capabili-
ties of the users.
Most teens use both the Internet and cell phones to communicate with their peers,
and patterns of language cross technological boundaries. Referring to the language as
either “net”-based (i.e., netspeak) or “texting”-based (i.e., textspeak Crystal, 2001,
2008a, 2008b) does not capture its true nature. For adolescents today, it transcends
both spheres. Manipulation of standard written conventions most often occurs when
teens “talk” to each other via technology. Writing in digital venues blends elements of
written discourse with those of spoken word (Baron, 2008; Gee & Hayes, 2011) and
what the terms, “netspeak” and “textspeak,” share conceptually is an attention to the
oral nature of the language used in these spaces. Whether teens are sending text mes-
sages or IMs, they think of and refer to the communication as “talking.” Such talk
includes each teen’s voice, or “the medium employed by the writer to create his or her
presence in the text” (Yancey, 1994, p. x), and is the driving force behind much of the
digital writing of adolescents.
For these reasons, the language that adolescents use in this digital communication
might better be called digitalk. The term captures the nature of the writing, which in
most cases replaces verbal communication, and it encompasses the wide variety of
162 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

digital technologies that allow for this exchange. Becoming an adept user takes prac-
tice and knowledge of the Discourse and linguistic conventions of a community.
Digitalk then, is a new literacy of the digital generation.

Literature Review
Characteristics of Digital Language
As cell phones and computers have become ubiquitous, popular media has shown
great interest in the question of how language can and should be used in virtual media
where teens communicate with peers. At the same time that adolescents connect
online, spending a large amount of their time each day “always on” (Baron, 2008, p.
xi), teachers, parents, and news outlets spend quite a bit of time fretting over the fate
of the English language and the possible connection between the use of digitalk and
students’ literacy skills. In a study of over 100 print media reports on digital language,
Thurlow (2006) found that the portrayal of digital writing and the language that often
accompanies it is vastly negative. In short, popular media indicates that digital prac-
tices have inspired a linguistic revolution that may be a threat to social order, one
established on the premise that “Standard English is Right with a capital R, and that
anything else is improper, bad, incorrect, and fractured” (Wheeler & Swords, 2006, p.
5). In response to his findings that media largely disparaged digital linguistic practices,
Thurlow called for the systematic study of computer-mediated discourse (CMD). As
Thurlow stated,

What is less certain is the degree of accuracy and the specificity of detail offered in media
representations of computer-mediated discourse. For this reason, if no other, future
research should pay greater attention to the linguistic and orthographic dimensions of
CMD and undertake more situated analyses of CMD practice. (p. 690)

Several studies have contributed to this situated understanding (e.g., Baron, 2008;
Cherny, 1999; Crystal, 2001, 2008b; Haas, Takayoshi, Carr, Hudson, & Pollock,
2011). As Crystal (2001) pointed out, online writing emulates spoken language because
it has a fluid structure, spontaneity, social interaction, and limited time constraints. It
corresponds to written discourse because it is revisable, constrained by space, and
does not have visual and non-verbal context. Given this blending of oral and written
practices, digital language has its own linguistic patterns, including graphic, ortho-
graphic, grammatical, lexical, and discourse features. In studying the online communi-
ties of Multi-User Dimensions (MUDS), which encompass virtual gaming worlds and
instant messaging, Cherny (1999) identified the characteristics of a particular MUD
community, which included manipulations of all five of these features of written lan-
guage. Her analysis suggested that virtual communities develop their own linguistic
registers, creating conventions that mark the writing of community members and serve
as barriers to outsiders. “Regular” members of the MUD community in her study were
able to use linguistic cues to identify a “newbie,” “guest,” or “random” (p. 43).
Turner et al. 163

Cherny’s (1999) work demonstrated that linguistic conventions evolve within a

virtual community of practice. However, she acknowledged that “individual creativity
sometimes results in new routines” (Cherny, 1999, p. 147). These routines may be
mimicked by others and eventually adopted by the community. Baron (2008), who
examined the linguistic practices of IMs written by college students, suggested that by
the time individuals enter college, they have extensive experience writing on key-
boards for academic work, and “their fingers tend to go on automatic pilot” (p. 70).
They “seem to have neither time for nor interest in such linguistic posturing” (p. 70)
and that their linguistic choices lean toward standard conventions. However, her anal-
ysis found that these college students did use a variety of non-standard features,
including abbreviations and acronyms.
Baron (2008) analyzed 23 IM conversations, a relatively small sample. Haas et al.
(2011) also examined the IMs of college students, but their expanded sample size (N =
103) allowed them to look for “patterns of usage” (p. 379). Their analysis uncovered
variations on punctuation, letters, words, dialect, and metadiscursive markers (p. 385).
These alterations to the conventions of SWE are not arbitrary, but rather they serve
specific, purposeful communicative needs. In his analysis of texting language, Crystal
(2008a) argued that many of the apparent errors that surface in text messages are lin-
guistic choices that are based on information value, and whether or not the recipient
needs a particular linguistic feature for comprehension. For example, a “high informa-
tion value” (Crystal, 2008a, p. 80) is placed on consonants (as compared with vowels)
because consonants provide linguistic cues that are needed for understanding the
intended word. Punctuation, in contrast, has a “low information value” (Crystal,
2008a, p. 80) and is less necessary for a reader to construct meaning. In essence, users
attend to issues of reciprocity when they write text messages.
Baron (2008), Haas et al. (2011), and Crystal (2008b) all focused on the language
patterns of adult users, neglecting the population of adolescents who engage with ICTs
even as they learn the fundamentals of SWE. Parental, media, and teacher concerns
that digitalk is affecting students’ grasp of the conventions of SWE must be addressed.
To answer questions related to this issue, the patterns of linguistic choice that teens
make must be examined.

Digitalk and Literacy Skills

Despite the fears of waning literacy in a digital world, a growing body of research has
shown that not only is digitalk not detrimental to students’ literacy, but also the prac-
tice of manipulating language may actually signal advanced literacy skills. Many stud-
ies on the relationship between digital language and literacy measures have shown a
positive correlation (Kemp & Bushnell, 2011; Plester, Wood, & Bell, 2008; Wood,
Jackson, Hart, Plester, & Wilde, 2011). In a study that compared the relationship
between texting and literacy skills in adolescents with and without a specific language
impairment (SLI), Durkin, Conti-Ramsdent, and Walker (2011) found that adolescents
with an SLI wrote shorter text messages and used less digitalk in their messages. The
authors discovered that typically developing readers and writers showed a higher
164 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

fluency in and use of digital language, demonstrating that use of digitalk may actually
be a mark of growth and proficiency in literacy instead of a deficit.
Plester, Wood, and Joshi’s (2009) study of 10- to 12-year-old children in Great
Britain found a positive correlation between digitalk and a myriad of literacy skills,
demonstrating the expansive benefits of digitalk in many and varying literacy mea-
sures. The children’s use of “textisms” (p. 145) correlated positively with word read-
ing, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. Even after controlling for differences in
age, memory, vocabulary, phonological awareness, and phone ownership, use of tex-
tisms predicted word reading ability. These results indicated a broader influence of
digitalk, and they suggest that concerns over teens’ “text talk” and underdeveloped
vocabulary (Griffiths & Gourlay, 2010) may not be warranted. In addition, Plester et
al. (2009) found no relationship between use of textisms and children’s spelling abil-
ity. Despite the opining of teachers and parents, digitalk appears beneficial to students’
literacy skills and has no adverse effect on conventional spelling.
The question then becomes: What causes this constructive relationship? Powell and
Dixon (2011) found that adults’ exposure to misspellings had a negative impact on
spelling ability, but their exposure to textisms had a positive effect on spelling ability.
This study distinguished digitalk from ordinary spelling errors in a tangible, meaning-
ful way. While exposure to common misspellings may negatively affect an individu-
al’s spelling proficiency, using digitalk may foster metalinguistic awareness—a
heightened consciousness of how words are spelled—that leads to improved spelling
In addition, Coe and Oakhill (2011) observed that poor readers spent more time on
their phones per day than strong readers, but strong readers used more textisms in their
messages and were faster at reading all types of messages. This study shows the
unique, positive role of digitalk specifically, rather than just the effect of technology in
general. General time spent online does not affect students’ literacy skills in the same
ways as intentional time online spent communicating. It appears that the thoughtful,
creative use of digitalk may benefit students’ reading and writing abilities. All of these
studies suggested that the relationship between digitalk and SWE is complex and that
purposeful manipulation of language is a literacy skill that is fostered in virtual

Digitalk and Audience

Manipulations to SWE occur in digitalk, as Crystal (2008a) described, based on
“information value” (p.80) or, as Nystrand (1986) might have argued, according to the
rules of reciprocity. In other words, alterations to language in digital writing are made
by the same metric used in all forms of written communication—the writer attends to
the reader’s comprehension needs. Alvermann (2008) locates this “centrality of audi-
ence as a major contributor to adolescents’ fascination with self-created online con-
tent” (p. 10). Given the expanding social worlds and increasingly diverse audiences
the internet offers, this attention to audience is one of the defining characteristics of
digitalk and adolescents’ online proclivities at large.
Turner et al. 165

Plester, Lerkkanen, Linjama, Rashu-Puttonent, and Littleton’s (2011) comparative

study of Finnish and British preteens’ use of text-message language elucidated this
influential role of audience in digitalk. Their findings show that Finnish digitalk cor-
responds more to the spoken Finnish register than the formal written register: “Finnish
children text what they hear spoken to a greater degree than UK children do” (p. 44).
Finnish children were also more likely to include “language mixing” (p. 45), even
though both participant groups were equally linguistically diverse. Results also show
that participants altered the amount of text-message language depending on the amount
used by their interlocutor—indicating a “metalinguistic sensitivity to the communica-
tive needs of the person who would ostensibly receive the reply” (p. 46). This research
illustrated the highly influential role that audience plays, showing variation in digitalk
across very distinct communities of practice.
In a study of American college students’ digital literacy, Drouin (2011) found this
attention to audience a determining factor in digitalk’s influence over literacy abilities.
The study identified a positive correlation between text messaging and literacy skills
but also identified a negative correlation in the participants’ use of digitalk in certain
contexts (i.e., social networking sites, emails to professors) and literacy skills. These
results provided a nuanced picture of the relationship between digitalk and literacy and
highlighted the influential role of audience in this relationship.
The positive relationships between digitalk and literacy skills identified in many
studies have their limitations—namely, attention to audience. Students who did not
demonstrate conscious awareness of audience in their linguistic choices, those who
were not adept at code-switching, did not show the same correlations to strong literacy
skills. The ability to code-switch—to alter one’s language and register to meet the
needs of audience and context (Wheeler & Swords, 2006)—then becomes a crucial
factor in digitalk’s ameliorative impact on literacy. In order for digitalk to have an
advantageous influence on an adolescent’s language and literacy growth, it seems he
or she must also have the knowledge and skills to alter language to meet the demands
of settings and context.

We believe that the question of how new technologies influence the development of
writing and the English language is a crucial one. As teacher educators and writing
researchers, we have a vested interest in understanding the evolving relationship
between language and technology. For this reason, we designed a two-phased study
that focused on (a) describing the digital language of teenagers and (b) exploring the
reasons for their linguistic choices.

Setting and Participants

This study examined the digital language of 81 adolescents (Grades 7-12) from subur-
ban, urban, public, and private schools in a large metropolitan area in the northeastern
United States. Willing teachers invited all of their students to participate. Researchers
collected consent forms during data collection visits. To protect the teen’s privacy, we
166 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Table 1.  Digital Demographic Survey Responses.

Percentage of Average for

Digital practices participants Digital practices participants
Has a cell phone  97% Number of text 13.7 Messages
messages sent per
Has a computer at home 100% Number of hours 3.2 Hours
spent on computer
per day
Has a Facebook page  97% Number of log-ins and 5.9 Log-ins/use
use of Facebook per per Day

asked for self-selected examples of the participants’ digital writing, which they sub-
mitted via email or transcribed in handwritten form. A demographic survey revealed
that 32% of participating students identified themselves as Caucasian, 27% as
Hispanic, 27% as African American, and 15% as Asian. Twenty percent of participants
also reported speaking a language other than English in their homes.
In addition, this demographic survey asked general questions about participants’
digital habits to obtain an accurate portrait of the adolescents’ everyday experiences
with technology. Table 1 illustrates the breakdown of those everyday experiences.
These numbers suggested that the participants in this study were comfortable using
various forms of technology and in using digital media in diverse and prolific ways.
These digital natives (Prensky, 2001, 2006) had a primary Discourse (Gee, 2012) satu-
rated with ICT practices.
From 81 participants, we selected two students from the suburban group (Carly and
Sarah), two students from the urban group (Guster and Lebron), two students from a
private school (Bree and Keyla), and three students from a middle school (Dillan,
Leah, and Jenny) to interview regarding their individual language choices. These stu-
dents (all names are pseudonyms) were selected according to the following criteria: (a)
their use of the conventions identified in our initial analyses of the writing samples,
and (b) their availability to speak with a researcher. The data from these interviews
influenced the design of a user-choice survey that was distributed electronically to all
participants. Due to a low response rate from the initial 81 participants, we recruited
additional students from their respective schools to complete this anonymous survey.
We assumed peers within the schools would be similarly comfortable with technology
and use out-of-school Discourses in like ways. We did not assume that the ethnic
make-up of the final sample reflected the initial demographics, and, therefore, we did
not attempt to distinguish results by ethnicity. In total, we analyzed 75 surveys.

Data Sources
Digital writing.  To focus on the language, or lowercase “d” discourse, we asked partici-
pants to provide examples from their digital writing that used non-standard language.
Turner et al. 167

Though we requested writing from all digital venues (texts, email, IMs, social net-
working posts, blog entries, and other web posts), text messages, IMs, and social net-
working posts dominated the self-selected samples of digital writing from the 81
adolescents. We focused our analysis of language on the writing from these three

Demographic survey.  Participants also completed a survey that collected demographic

and technology-related data. These data helped us to understand the individual users
and to identify trends in technology use among the teens in the study. The types of
phones that the participants used led us to question the role of technology in the lan-
guage choices that the teens made and influenced our decision to ask directly about the
role of technology in user choices. The responses on this survey also helped us to
interpret the written data that the participants submitted.

Focal student interviews.  After we identified the conventions of digitalk, we interviewed

nine focal students from the adolescents who had submitted written samples. We used
stimulated-recall methodology (Dipardo, 1994), which involved showing the individ-
uals their writing and asking them to discuss their language choices. From these inter-
views, we identified several possible reasons why teens used the language features that
we uncovered in our analyses of their writing. These qualitative data informed our
initial understanding of the students’ Discourses (Gee, 2000, 2012) and helped us to
create a user-choice survey, which we administered to a larger group.

User-choice survey.  We created a survey based on our analyses of the focal interviews
to further explore the language choices teens made. Doing so enabled us to gain better
insight into the students’ Discourses and how the students used the digital spaces and
tools to express membership in unique communities. This survey focused dually on
the role of technology in language choices and other purposes (e.g., personal voice,
community membership) that we identified in the analyses of the interviews.
The survey consisted of 52 total questions, 42 of which were questions with quanti-
fied results and 10 of which requested descriptive or explanatory qualitative data. The
survey was divided into two sections. The first section (32 questions) asked a series of
questions about the students’ personal writing choices while using the computer and
cellular phone. The second section (20 questions) asked students to translate two text-
message samples and independent written elements within the samples. Students
needed to indicate whether they had used similar conventions in their own digital writ-
ing and the reasons they believed the authors of the samples may have done so. (See
Appendix A for survey questions.)

Data Analysis
The research team included several individuals with unique professional backgrounds
and academic expertise, which included research interests in teaching composition,
digital D/discourses, technology and semiotics, and urban adolescent language
168 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

practices. Bringing together these multiple perspectives allowed individuals to see

beyond personal biases. Routinely in our conversations and writing we challenged
interpretations, and we drew on multiple fields to help situate our understanding of the
data. Furthermore, we included the perspectives of practicing teachers, who served as
secondary coders, to balance our researcher bias.

Conventions of digitalk.  Analyzed from a framework where discourse conventions are

situated within a community of practice, we looked for both SWE and non-standard
features of language within the large group and across subgroups. Because three types
of writing dominated the data (submitted by nearly every participant), we focused the
analysis on text messages, IMs, and SN posts. We selected up to five lines of writing
from each participant within each category. We limited the number of lines to five so
that an individual who submitted many lines would not skew the results. If a student
submitted more than five lines of any given type of writing, we randomly selected one
conversation and included the first five lines of that text.
We used Atlas.Ti to code the digital writing according to the five features of lan-
guage identified by Crystal (2001). We looked for data manipulations in the categories
of (a) orthographic, (b) graphic, (c) lexical, (d) syntax, and (e) discourse, and induc-
tively developed sub-codes in each area. Three coders worked collaboratively to refine
the code list, using the work of Crystal (2008b) as a guide. This iterative process
included multiple rounds of independent coding, discussions about the individual code
assignments, turns to the literature, and refinement of the codebook. The final list
included 46 codes (e.g., “non-standard capitalization,” “use of ellipses”). Inter-coder
reliability was over 95%. (See Appendix B for complete code list.)
To determine the features of language that marked conventions of digitalk, we dis-
played the data in several ways. Unlike Ling and Baron (2007), who discerned differ-
ences between texting and IM patterns, we looked at features of language across all
three media (texting, IM, and SN) and identified those features that teens used in each
digital venue. Because these three types of digital writing dominated the data, we drew
the conclusion that manipulations to SWE occurred most frequently when using these
media and that commonalities among the media may better help us understand the
community of writers at large.
From this list of features that crossed media, we examined features across users.
Guided by Lewis (1969), who suggested that conventional behavior in a culture devel-
ops when members of a community may reasonably expect others in the community
to recognize and accept a given behavior, we determined that those features used by a
majority of participants represented community conventions. We conducted this anal-
ysis for the entire teen community (81 participants) and for communities grouped
geographically as “suburban” (39) and “urban” (42). Our hope was to find conventions
that crossed geographic boundaries and to discern any unique characteristics of the
smaller communities.

User choice. To more closely examine the socially situated nature of digitalk, we
turned from discourse to Discourse and used the list of conventions to conduct
Turner et al. 169

stimulated-recall interviews with focal students, asking them to explain their language
choices related to the identified conventions. These interviews were recorded and tran-
scribed for analysis. After a preliminary analysis of the transcripts, where we identi-
fied broad themes and categories, the research team met to discuss the various reasons
for using (or not using) the conventions that the teens articulated. After the four pri-
mary researchers agreed upon the themes, the transcripts were coded according to the
following categories: (a) efficiency, (b) peer influence, and (c) voice, understanding
that the individualization of voice is rooted in each person’s “own voiceprint, the
speaking analogue to fingerprints” (Yancey, 1994, p. viii). As we continued a collab-
orative coding process and considered theories of reciprocity (Nystrand, 1986) and d/
Discourse (Gee, 2012), we revised the code of “peer influence” to “audience” and
added the code of “community practice.”
From the broad categories we identified in the transcripts, we developed a user-
choice survey that focused on the influence of the tools of technology and on other
reasons for language choices among the teens. After we piloted this survey with the
focal students, we refined it for distribution to the larger group. We charted the closed
responses to the user-choice survey, using frequency counts to lead us to trends among
the participants. We coded the extended responses according to our developing
scheme, using the interview data to elaborate on the survey results. Though we do not
claim that the nine students interviewed were representative of the group, their
responses, which guided our development of the survey, did elaborate the quantitative
results and helped to enrich our understanding of digitalk. A final review of all of the
qualitative data through the lens of voice, audience, and efficiency helped facilitate a
thorough discussion of digitalk and students’ intentions.

Results and Discussion

The analysis of the data enabled us to determine what features of language the group
of teenagers used in their writing, and it allowed us to explore why teens make the
choices they do when they break from standard conventions.

Conventions of Digitalk
Though little has been done to analyze the digital writing of teens, popular opinion
suggests that this kind of communication lacks convention. The data showed that ado-
lescents have, in fact, adopted conventions within their digital communities and that
these choices vary by geographic location as well.
For the entire sample, including teenagers from both suburban and urban schools,
17 discourse features met the criteria to be labeled conventions of digitalk. In other
words, these 17 discourse features were used by a majority of the participants in the
study, and they occurred across all three digital venues. (See Table 2.)
Of these features, four follow conventions of SWE: (a) complete sentence, (b)
question mark used, (c) end period used, and (d) apostrophe used. The remaining fea-
tures follow non-standard conventions. These include (a) end period not used, (b)
170 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Table 2.  Percentage of Participants Using Features of Digitalk.

Features All participants (%)

  Complete sentence 97
  End period not used 96
  Non-standard capitalization 94
 Acronym 76
  Question mark used 74
  Standard capitalization 72
  Abbreviation (cut off end) 71
  Logograms (letters for sounds) 68
  Apostrophe not used 65
 Fragment 65
  Lowercase i 63
 Run-on 63
  Compound words 62
  Multiple consonants 60
  End period used 59
 Ellipses 54
  Apostrophe used 54
  Multiple vowels 50
 Slang 63
  Phonetic spelling 63
  Capital I 50
  Abbreviation (missing vowel)b 47
  Question mark not used 47
  Exclamation point used 46
aFound in over 50% of participants and across all three media.
bNot found in over 50% of participants or not found across all three media.

non-standard capitalization, (c) acronym, (d) abbreviation: cut off end, (e) logograms:
letters for sound, (f) apostrophe not used, (g) fragment, (h) lowercase i, (i) run-on, (j)
compound words, (k) multiple consonants, (l) ellipses, and (m) multiple vowels. Other
discourse features were used by a majority of the teens in the sample, including (a)
standard capitalization, (b) phonetic spelling, (c) slang, and (d) capital I. However,
these features were not used across media and therefore not included on the list of digi-
talk conventions.
Overwhelmingly, manipulations of Standard English occurred at the orthographic
level (72% of coding frequency). Grammatical (12%), lexical (12%), and graphic
(4%) codes surfaced in the analysis, but changes in spelling, punctuation, and capital-
ization dominated the data and the list of conventions of digitalk.
Turner et al. 171

Demystifying Digitalk
To begin, some popularized notions of digital language (e.g., using numbers to repre-
sent sounds, as in “I g2g,” or abbreviations by omitting vowels, as in “tmrw”) do not
appear as conventions. Despite the popularity of these linguistic practices in the media
(e.g., Griffiths & Gourlay, 2010; Jokinen, 2009; Lee, 2002), this inquiry did not find
these features as defining characteristics of teens’ digital language. In fact, using num-
bers to represent sounds and abbreviations without vowels, two popularized notions of
digitalk, did not appear in the top 50% of usage among the teens in this sample. Some
stereotypes of digitalk simply do not correspond to the reality of adolescents’ actual
use of language within this study.
Also contrary to popular misconceptions (Dillon, 2008), teens do write in complete
sentences with attention to standard punctuation. Nearly all of the participants (97%)
used complete sentences in their writing. Despite all the freedom of digitalk to invent,
create, and break SWE, adolescents in this study chose to adhere to foundational struc-
tures with the basic unit of communication—the sentence—holding syntactic power
for teens in their out-of-school discourse. Interestingly, though their syntactic patterns
followed standard rules and a majority of teens did use end periods and questions
marks, these same participants frequently omitted end periods and capital letters that
traditionally mark sentence boundaries. For example, one student wrote, “they’re let-
ting me go at 8:30” without capitalizing or providing an end period. Like many teens
in this sample, this individual constructed a complete sentence but chose not to follow
other standard conventions. These conventions of digitalk (the absence of end periods
and non-standard capitalization) break from SWE in ways that spark condemnation
from readers outside the community; however, the lack of periods and capitals in digi-
tal communication does not detract from reciprocity. Teens have widely adopted the
non-standard practices.
The fact that four of the digitalk conventions adhere to SWE and the remaining
alter standard practice indicates that the adolescent participants made purposeful and
consistent choices about which rules of SWE were necessary and useful for them
given the affordances and limitations of digital communication. A cursory glance at
the list of digitalk conventions raises questions about conflicting practices. For exam-
ple, “apostrophe used” and “apostrophe not used” both made the list of conventions.
Further analysis of the data revealed reasons for these choices. In the case of apostro-
phes, the type of phone or autocorrect program may influence the practice. Another
curious, and seemingly contradictory, practice occurred with end punctuation. Though
using an end period and omitting the final period were both acceptable in this teen
community of digital writers, the participants were twice as likely NOT to use end
periods. Given the same choice with interrogatives, they were four times more likely
to use the question mark. Omitting this punctuation did not appear to be an acceptable
convention. It seems that teen writers have determined that periods may not be needed,
particularly when a line break serves the same communicative function, but question
marks are necessary to transmit their intended messages. Likewise, omitting apostro-
phes has little impact on the message, and therefore, when technology does not inter-
vene, adolescents find this practice acceptable.
172 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

The influence of technology on user choices in orthography could be seen in the use
of lowercase and capital I, both of which appeared throughout the data. Sixty-three
percent of the participants used lowercase I, and 50% used Capital I. In other words,
many of the teens used both at some point in the sample of their writing, sometimes
adhering to SWE and sometimes breaking from it. In the technology survey, partici-
pants’ responses showed that this choice about whether or not “i” is capitalized was
sometimes based on their phone’s automatic functions (about 55% of participants had
cell phones that capitalized “I” automatically). When students made a conscious deci-
sion to use a lowercase i, 52% of the teens reported doing so for the purposes of speed
and efficiency, but another 36% chose to use lowercase i to instill personal voice in
their writing; in choosing not to capitalize the letter “i,” the students exercised the
agency inherent in digital communication. What this example illustrates is that
although technology has played a pivotal role in the development and evolution of this
discourse of digitalk, it is not the whole story. Teenagers are also making choices that
ignore and may even defy the ease of technology, choices based on a broader set of
personal, social, and communicative aims.
Popular impressions of digitalk have suggested that teenagers’ language is inhibited
by the limitations of technology and that these same teens are too lazy to put in the
extra effort required to follow SWE (Lenhart et al., 2008). In short, this perception has
assumed that digitalk is solely a by-product of a cell phone keypad and not a Discourse
of its own built on socially co-created purposes. Certainly some of our data supported
this point with the affordances and limitations of technology playing a role in language
choices. However, the manipulation of SWE is, in fact, a choice users make, and the
systematic conventionalizing of non-standard features by a large community of teen-
agers suggests purpose in their use. Some of these purposes are related to the individ-
ual and community identities of the writers.

Geographical Group Differences

A remarkable feature of the data was the general uniformity of conventions. In both
suburban and urban samples, the top three conventions (each used by at least 94% of
the subgroup participants) included (a) complete sentence, (b) end period not used,
and (c) non-standard capitalization (see Table 3).
The fact that nearly all of the participants used these three conventions shows that
there exists a relatively consistent system of language use within the large group and
that teens from various subgroups are likely to understand and accept the conventions
used by other teens outside their geographic communities.
Although there is uniformity in the results across groups, the analysis of the data by
geographical group revealed distinctions between the urban and suburban communi-
ties. For example, when compared with their suburban counterparts, more urban teen-
agers manipulated the grammatical, lexical, and graphic features of language. As a
community, the urban teens conventionalized (a) abbreviation (missing vowel), (b)
phonetic spelling, and (c) use of slang. Lines like “just wanted u to kno u aint the only
one in trbl these dayz” captured a distinct voice of the urban data. Abbreviations like
Turner et al. 173

Table 3.  Conventions of Digitalk and Percentage of Users by Geographic Subgroup.

Conventions Urban (%) Conventions Suburban (%)

Complete sentence 100 Complete sentence 94
End period not used 97 End period not used 94
Non-standard capitalization 95 Non-standard 94
Logograms (letters for sounds) 86 Acronym 81
Phonetic spelling 84 Run-on 74
Question mark used 81 Lowercase i 71
Abbreviation (cut off end) 81 Apostrophe not used 68
Standard capitalization 76 Standard capitalization 68
Acronym 73 Question mark used 65
Compound words 70 Multiple consonants 65
Slang 70 Apostrophe used 65
Fragment 68 Fragment 61
Apostrophe not used 62 Abbreviation (cut off end) 58
End period used 62 Logogram (noises for 58
Ellipses 62 End period used 55
Lowercase i 57 Multiple vowels 55
Multiple consonants 57 Compound words 52
Run-on 54  
Abbreviation (missing vowel) 54  
Capital I 51  

“trbl,” without the vowels, phonetic spellings like “dayz,” and the use of slang like
“aint” were much more common among the urban teens in the sample than they were
among suburban users.
In the suburban community, fewer than 40% of participants used these features of
language; the high percentage of teenagers from the urban community that used them
showed a marked difference between the two groups. These differences (types of
manipulations and adopted conventions) may reflect urban vernacular structures and
phonetic variations within these dialects. In essence, the adoption of these conventions
may reveal socio-culturally situated ways of being or the hybridization of Discourses
(Gee, 2012), suggesting that digitalk can include nuances of urban dialectical patterns
as well as related ways of being.
In a similar vein, suburban teens adopted two conventions unique to their subgroup:
(a) exclamation point used and (b) logograms (noises for actions). In the line, “Hardy
har har i love you too. And my sunburn hurts so bad!” the author captured a laugh
action through the phrase “hardy har har” and included an exclamation point. As both
of these conventions relate to emotion within the text, their adoption, like the distinct
conventions of the urban teens, may signal attempts to incorporate personal voice into
the forms of digital writing that embrace digitalk. The two groups have simply chosen
different features of language to accomplish similar goals.
174 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

The differences in types of manipulations and adopted conventions illustrate that

teenagers do participate in distinct communities of practice, using language in their
own subtle but distinct ways, and suggest that digitalk may extend Discourses into
digital communication spaces. The choice to adopt community conventions is made
by the individual writer, and the manipulation of SWE is purposeful.

Purposes Influencing User Choices

In this study, we wanted to examine the language that dominates teens’ out-of-school
writing. Analyses of the data collected showed that, though teens in the sample experi-
mented with their digitalk, at times they also adhered to SWE if they felt that using
SWE conventions was a better fit for their message or voice they were trying to con-
vey in a particular digital space. For example, students often forwent capitalization,
punctuation, and correct spelling (even with devices that had an autocorrect function)
in text messages or IMs. However, when posting to SN sites, they expressed that they
consciously shifted their digital language choices to align more with SWE because
they innately understood the power of reception and perception in digital messages, as
well as the need to adjust language within dominant, digital and/or cultural
With regard to technological devices and if/whether their affordances influenced
students’ writing choices, it seemed that the answer was somewhere between “some-
times” and “not terribly.” For the most part, it appeared that students chose to express
themselves using SWE even though it would seem that some technological settings
would encourage the use of alternative, digitally influenced modes of expression.
When they chose to deviate from SWE, it was a deliberate choice (rather than a “lax”
or “carefree” one), made overwhelmingly for reasons of efficiency or voice. It seems
that the participants primarily made writing choices that were convenient and/or
meaningful for them and depended somewhat less on technological affordances.

Efficiency and Technology

In collecting and analyzing our data, we did not assume that students made purposeful
choices in their digital language. In fact, we questioned them specifically on how tech-
nology might have made choices for them. For example, survey questions 1 and 2
asked respondents to indicate whether they used a phone or computer that automati-
cally capitalized “I.” A majority of respondents used technology with this affordance
(phone, 55%; computer, 79%), and they allowed the phone and computer to make this
correction automatically. Even so, 39% of the teenagers in this study reported that they
had used a lowercase i purposefully (see Table 4).
These respondents suggested two distinct reasons for this choice. About half of
these students reported that the use of “i” increased the efficiency of their communica-
tion. However, 36% of the teens who purposefully used this convention suggested that
audience and voice also influenced this decision.
Initial data suggested that technology, and not the user, made linguistic choices for
a writer. The influence of technology became clear in autocorrect functions, as in the
Turner et al. 175

Table 4.  Digitalk User-Choice Survey Results: Section 1.

Digitalk Exit Survey Questions: Section 1 Y (n) Y (%) N (n) N (%) Total (N)
1. Do you have a phone that automatically 41 55 34 45 75
capitalizes “I” for you?
2. D
 o you use a computer that shows you have 59 79 16 21 75
not capitalized “I?
3. Do you ever use lowercase “i” on purpose? 29 39 46 61 75
4. D
 o you use a phone that automatically 53 71 22 29 75
capitalizes the beginning of a new sentence for
5. Do you use a computer that shows you have 55 73 20 27 75
not capitalized the beginning of a new sentence?
6. D
 o you ever choose not to capitalize the 28 38 46 62 74
beginning of a new sentence?
7. Do you use a phone that capitalizes proper 17 23 57 77 74
nouns for you (like New York City or Michael)?
8. D
 o you use a computer that shows you have 53 71 22 29 75
not capitalized proper nouns (like New York
City or Michael)?
9. Do you ever choose not to capitalize proper 24 32 51 68 75
10. D
 o you use a phone that automatically puts 1 9 10 91 11
periods at the ends of your sentences?
11. Do you use a computer that shows you that 9 82 2 18 11
you have not put periods at the ends of your
12. D
 o you ever choose not to put a period at the 28 38 46 62 74
end of your sentences?
13. Do you use a phone that wants to expand 25 33 50 67 75
a word for you (like “prob” turned into
14. D
 o you ever choose to let the phone insert the 25 35 46 65 71
expanded word?
15. Do you use a phone that shows you when you 27 36 48 64 75
spelled a word wrong?
16. D
 o you use a computer that shows you when 68 91 7 9 75
you spelled a word wrong?
17. Do you ever choose to let the phone 34 46 40 54 74
autocorrect your spelling?
176 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Table 4.  (continued)

Digitalk Exit Survey Questions: Section 1 Y (n) Y (%) N (n) N (%) Total (N)
18. Do you ever choose to let the computer 59 80 15 20 74
autocorrect your spelling?
19. D
 o you have a phone plan that limits how many 8 11 65 89 73
text messages you can send?
20. Do you have a phone plan that limits how long 27 37 47 64 74
your outgoing text messages can be?
21. D o you use abbreviations when you text 21 29 52 71 73
because of the phone plan you have?
22. Do you know what types of phones your friends 59 81 14 19 73
23. D o you adjust your texting to fit your friends’ 15 21 56 79 71
24. Do you use language differently depending on 36 50 36 50 72
whether you text, IM or write social network

capitalization of “I.” Most students owned phones and computers that would capitalize
the “I” for them automatically, and they would allow this correction to stand. However,
if this function was disabled or unavailable, the students often did not capitalize “I.”
Guster and Lebron explained their acceptance of the choice of the technology:

Researcher: Okay, so one thing I noticed is that you capitalize all your “I”s.
Lebron: Oh, yeah.
Guster: That’s, that’s on my phone.
Lebron: My phone, it automatically does it. So I can’t. I don’t want to backspace
and put it in lowercase.
Guster: Like with this here, the “I’m,” it capit . . . it fixes that all the time.
Lebron: All the time.
Researcher: If it didn’t, you wouldn’t?
Lebron: If it didn’t I wouldn’t. I’d leave it.
Guster: I’d leave it.
Researcher: How about in your instant messages? Do you capitalize your “I”s?
Lebron: It’s the same thing.
Guster: Same thing.

Guster and Lebron confirmed that the phone and the computer made the choice for
them in certain situations. Their decision to accept the technology’s correction stems
more from matters of efficiency than of correctness, however. As Lebron said, “I don’t
want to backspace” to change the capitalized I to a lowercase i. Keyla gave a similar
explanation of the role of technology in her language use: “Like my phone . . . if it
Turner et al. 177

recognizes like a proper noun, like for example, New York, it will capitalize New York
for me. In web it won’t capitalize for me. I don’t choose to either. Just quick, you
know, hello/goodbye conversation. So that’s my reason.” Keyla’s acceptance of the
technology relates directly to her purpose of efficiency in communication.
The adolescents in this study often cited efficiency as a reason for making linguistic
choices within digital spaces. Our interpretation of this purpose grew from the stu-
dents’ references to the ease and speed of modified language. For example, survey
responses to the question of why the user chose lowercase i included the following:
“Because it is easier” (Survey 21); “It is faster to get my message accrossed [sic]”
(Survey 71); and “I don’t want to waste time capitalizing” (Survey 25). These types of
comments clearly demonstrated the purposes of ease and efficiency in the writers’
Understanding this purpose, we also examined the responses of students who
claimed that their choices stemmed from laziness. For example, one survey response
stated, “too lazy to capitalize the ‘i’ whenever i say i’m doing something . . . like right
now” (Survey 10). This student characterized himself as lazy; however, he chose to
use the convention of digitalk on a handwritten survey that he completed in school,
where using a capital I took no more effort than the lowercase. We found his charac-
terization interesting, just as we found the judgments many students made about the
sample messages on the survey. While students often characterized their own reasons
for using conventions of digitalk in terms of ease and efficiency, many respondents
suggested that the authors who composed the sample messages were lazy. For exam-
ple, one response said that the author used “wat” rather than “what,” “Because they get
lazy to write” (Survey 31). Another suggested that the use of “u” was because the
author “maybe was lazy to write the whole thing” (Survey 29).
As socio-cultural researchers who understand digitalk as a Discourse, we feel that
these pejorative characterizations result from the larger discourse about language prac-
tices of teens in digital spaces. When asked specifically about their reasons for using
conventions like lowercase i, non-standard capitalization, or logograms (like “u”),
most of the teens in our sample suggested that ease and efficiency in communication
affected their choices. When asked to make a judgment about why other writers use
those same conventions, many of them attributed it to laziness. This inconsistency
may reflect the stereotypes that society has created about teenagers and their digital
practices. In some cases, they have internalized this view.
Despite the pejorative connotation of “lazy,” the students have called attention to
their need to convey meaning in an effective and efficient manner. Digitalk has helped
them do just that. For example, not capitalizing proper nouns and the beginnings of
sentences, which takes extra effort on most phones and an extra stroke on a keyboard,
“takes less time” (Survey 70) and teens are able “to send the message faster” (Survey
25). In her interview Carly noted, “When I am chatting online, it is quicker to respond
if I don’t bother with capitalization or punctuation.” As Carly suggested, use of end
punctuation is also largely a matter of efficiency. Nearly 38% of our survey respon-
dents indicated that they sometimes chose not to use end periods. Interestingly, 96% of
the writers in our sample did not use end periods, making it the second highest ranked
178 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

convention evolving from our data. This disconnect in the data may reflect features of
particular types of digital writing, where line breaks in IMs and SN posts, and the
nature of finality in hitting the send button for a text message effectively perform the
same function as a period. As one participant wrote, “In texting it’s not necessary”
(Survey 41).
In essence, the teens may not recognize the omission of the period as a choice
because it is standard practice in digital communication. Those who did note the
choice to omit end periods cited speed and efficiency as primary influences. For exam-
ple, one survey respondent said, “When I’m fast in a hurry I don’t bother” (Survey 76),
and another wrote, “Just to save time” (Survey 16). However, many of the users who
indicated that they chose not to use end periods explained their purposes in terms of
reciprocity. Comments like “The person I’m writing should know when I’m done typ-
ing” (Survey 57) and “still makes sense without it” (Survey 63) indicate that the need
for efficiency is accepted by the end user. In short, the audience would understand
what they had written without the inclusion of the period at the end of the sentence.
Because students recognized the connection between audience and efficiency, we
were not surprised that when we asked the participants to analyze sample messages,
they were able to decipher and anticipate the writer’s intentions; their explanations as
to why the author chose to make non-SWE writing choices were primarily for reasons
of efficiency and secondarily for reasons of voice or audience. In five of the nine
sample questions, reasons of efficiency were (sometimes overwhelmingly) cited as the
driving force behind the author’s choices (see Tables 5 and 6). The samples were as
follows: Sample (1). Sameee . . . so wat did u get on the chem test, and Sample (2). ahh
that sucksss. im gonna have to make it up =/.
With regards to Sample 1, the large majority of students answered that three non-
SWE elements of the message were chosen by the author for reasons of efficiency: (a)
wat (rather than what) 91%; (b) u (rather than you) 96%; and (c) chem (rather than
chemistry) 95%. When asked to give reasons as to why they thought the author chose
to use the non-SWE term “wat,” their responses included “To write faster, to save
space” (Survey 34); “save time” (Survey 35); “I use it a lot to make typing shorter”
(Survey 48). Similar explanations were given for the choices of the non-SWE terms
“u” and “chem”: “Shorter than chemistry” (Survey 36); “short cut” (Survey 41); “type
faster” (Survey 48).
In Sample 2, students felt that two elements of the message used non-SWE terms
for reasons of efficiency: (a) im (rather than I’m) 82% and (b) gonna (rather than going
to) 65%. When asked to give reasons as to why they thought the author chose to use
the non-SWE term “im,” students generally continued the theme presented in Sample
1 of saving time, writing more quickly, or laziness on the part of the author. For the
non-SWE term “gonna,” the same themes of speed and/or laziness were cited in the
majority (65%) of the students’ explanatory responses.
Though we have focused here on the purposes of efficiency and technology, the
data clearly demonstrated other influences on the writers’ linguistic choices. For
example, one survey respondent indicated that she used non-standard capitalization
(including lowercase i) because “it looks better” (Survey 12). Another suggested the
Turner et al. 179

Table 5.  Digitalk User-Choice Survey Results: Section 2, Sample 1.

Digitalk Exit Survey Questions: Section 2, Sample 1

Sample 1: “sameee . . . so wat did u

get on the chem test” DI (n) DI (%) HSI (n) HSI (%) HNSI (n) HNSI (%) Total (N)

1. sameee (rather than same) 7 37 8 42 4 21 19

2. . . . 12 75 4 25 0 0 16

3. wat (rather than what) 12 67 6 33 0 0 18

4. u (rather than you) 12 71 5 29 0 0 17

5. chem (rather than chemistry) 5 29 7 41 5 29 17

Sample 1: “sameee . . . so
wat did u get on the chem
test” V (n) V (%) R (n) R (%) E (n) E (%) T (n) T (%) Total (N)

1. sameee (rather than 15 79 2 11 2 11 0 0 19


2. . . . 9 41 13 59 0 0 0 0 22

3. wat (rather than what) 1 5 1 5 20 91 0 0 22

4. u (rather than you) 0 0 1 4 22 96 0 0 23

5. chem (rather than 0 0 1 5 19 95 0 0 20


Note: DI = done it; HSI = have seen it; HNSI = have not seen it; V = voice; R = reciprocity; E = efficiency; T =

role of audience in language choices: “To my friends, I write how I want to write”
(Survey 63). These types of responses suggest that audience and voice also play key
roles in digitalk.

Audience and Voice

Elbow (1994) indicated that “audience has a big effect on voice” (p. 4). When indi-
viduals speak, Elbow argued, they both imitate and respond to the listeners. Though
“spoken language has more semiotic channels than writing” (Elbow, 1994, p. 5),
authors attempt to achieve a “presence in the text” (Yancey, 1994, p. x) using nuanced
language features. Digitalk, a blend of spoken and written discourses, allows for teens
to project a voice and to place themselves in a community through the written word.
Given that voice and audience are linked (Yancey, 1994), the discussion of one is con-
nected to that of the other. Keyla’s interview helped to highlight how digitalk is rooted
in factors other than efficiency:
Researcher: So what about you? Why would you use “u” instead of “you”? Is it an
abbreviation as well or--
Keyla: For me it’s like a shortcut term basically. It depends on the situation and the
audience I’m speaking to. Like if it’s freezing cold outside, your thumbs are just
180 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Table 6.  Digitalk Exit Survey Results: Section 2, Sample 2.

Digitalk Exit Survey Questions: Section 2, Sample 2

Sample 2: “ahh that sucksss. im gonna

have to make it up =/” DI (n) DI (%) HSI (n) HSI (%) HNSI (n) HNSI (%) Total (N)

1. sucksss (rather than sucks) 6 35 5 29 6 35 17

2. im (rather than I’m) 5 29 11 65 1 6 17

3. gonna (rather than going to) 8 57 5 36 1 7 14

4. =/ 7 54 4 31 2 15 13

Sample 2: “ahh that

sucksss. im gonna have to
make it up =/” V (n) V (%) R (n) R (%) E (n) E (%) T (n) T (%) Total (N)

1. sucksss (rather than 16 94 0 0 1 6 0 0 17


2. im (rather than I’m) 2 12 0 0 14 82 1 6 17

3. gonna (rather than 6 30 1 5 13 65 0 0 20

going to)

4. =/ 18 95 0 0 1 5 0 0 19

Note: DI = done it; HSI = have seen it; HNSI = have not seen it; V = voice; R = reciprocity; E = efficiency; T =

not working out. And somebody asks you something ridiculous or something,
I’ll just write like, use “u.” Or like when you start spelling W-H-A-T as in what,
spelled what as in W-A-T. It’s just short terms, depending on the circumstances,
but depending on the audience. It just becomes basically after a while when you
start thinking in the beginning that it’s cool, let me start talking like that. It
becomes a habit after a while.”

Similar to communicating via IM or SN sites, texting is a social literate activity that

can “cement” relationships (Taylor & Harper, 2003, p. 268) and can represent indi-
vidual and/or community Discourses. The conventions of digitalk not only reveal how
adolescents use voice to communicate, but also indicate an understanding of context
and audience. Given that digital language can “embody that which is special to the
owner” (Taylor & Harper, 2003, p. 273), it comes as no surprise that the students used
digitalk to create and/or extend a social voice or linguistic imprint (Yancey, 1994) in a
digital, literate space.

Audience Awareness
Inherent in the discussion of digitalk is an understanding of how an audience will per-
ceive and respond to digital communication. Results from the user-choice survey sug-
gested that the participants had a heightened awareness of the digital context and how
Turner et al. 181

their use of language “depends on the person whom you communicate to” (Survey 35).
Likewise, the interview data helped to clarify and confirm that the perceived context
influenced ways of being and communicating digitally.
The students we interviewed appeared to modify their form of digitalk according to
how they perceived the intended recipient’s authority, technological savvy, and/or
inhabitation of Discourses. As Keyla noted in her interview, she felt comfortable
adopting the conventions of digitalk when she communicated with a fellow member of
her Discourse community; however, when she sent a text to one seen as an outsider,
she reverted to the traditional conventions of SWE. She said,

I’m not going to sit there and write the whole [word]—unless I’m talking to an adult, like
maybe my dance teacher texts me about dance . . . if I’m talking to an adult that I know
that is not, they’re young but they’re not my level young but they still text so they know
some of this technology . . . but if they like kind of old . . . just not as cool . . . I just talk
properly to them.

Anticipated acceptance of digitalk, therefore, seemed to guide the linguistic judg-

ments the students used when “talking” to someone within or outside of the digitalk
community. In fact, all the students we interviewed alluded to and/or distinguished the
difference between their digital communication and “proper” or “school” writing,
which in their view involved adhering to the conventions of SWE. Keyla even
acknowledged that she did not talk the way she texted because “that would just make
me sound kind of like uneducated.” This teenager, like many in our sample, recog-
nized the pejorative positioning of digitalk conventions in relation to the traditional
Discourses of SWE. She understood socially situated practices and contexts.
This awareness of audience also calls attention to the ways in which the students
recognized the disparities between their digitalk and academic worlds and their ability
(most of the time) to use purposeful language across and within Discourse communi-
ties. Echoing previous sentiments, Keyla explained that knowledge of her audience
was the driving force behind linguistic choices: “If it’s a friend, it’s different. But if it’s
like to you as a teacher or to another teacher, I will capitalize. I will use commas. I will
use parentheses and stuff like that.” Likewise, Lebron was aware that there were spe-
cific times when he could not abbreviate language or use symbols: “Only with my
grandmother, that’s when I text proper. She really doesn’t understand the
Social expectations also surfaced as a factor. In the user-choice surveys, student
responses included the following: “friends might find it funny if you write correct”
(Survey 29), “my friends and I definitely have our own language that we understand”
(Survey 70). Lebron, Keyla, and 18 of the survey respondents noted that language
choice changed according to the medium (e.g., Facebook, IM, email, text) and audi-
ence; one survey respondent explained that she used language differently “depend[ing]
on who I’m talking to” (Survey 64). In a similar vein, the students we interviewed
unanimously understood that the conventions of digitalk were socially based and were
not acceptable in schoolwork or teacher−student communication. Nonetheless, the use
182 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

of digitalk seemed automatic and students admitted that their abbreviated language
occasionally surfaced in academic essays. Sometimes they would not recognize the
error, as Lebron explained, “because you’re so used to reading it” in digital communi-
cation, which they were not accustomed to rereading or revising; for these students
that aspect of the writing process seemed solely reserved for academic contexts.

Voice and Digitalk

As noted above, Keyla anticipated her reader understanding the abbreviated language,
thus suggesting that the cross-over of community Discourses into digitalk is connected
with an awareness of audience. Attention to voice, or linguistic fingerprints (Elbow,
1994; Yancey, 1994), is important when considering how students claim, maintain,
and/or create a social space in the digital world. Digitalk grants students a degree of
agency to develop situated voices that can even be community specific.
The disparity between the students’ adherence (or attempted adherence) to conven-
tions of SWE in schoolwork and those of digitalk in their communication to friends
reveals the socially situated and proprietary nature of digital genres that allowed stu-
dents to experiment with language and symbols and claim a space that was their own.
The world of digitalk appears to be free from the intrusion of academic assessments,
where, as Dillan noted in an interview, it “doesn’t really matter [to have proper gram-
mar] because [friends are] not gonna, like, fix it for you.” This freedom from the for-
mality of SWE also makes text messages, IMs, and SN posts reminiscent of a first
draft; as Jenny stated, “it’s like free-writing. Cause nobody . . . it’s not like it’s going
to get graded. It’s just whatever you want.” Teens’ out-of-school writing often remains
in draft form because students rarely proofread it, perhaps in the name of efficiency,
convention, or even control. Knowing their grammatical errors will escape critique,
adolescent users of digitalk have the ability to play with language, and, as one female
participant noted, claim a level of autonomy over a linguistic space: Keyla asserted
that “it’s my decision . . . because I already talk properly all the time so it’s one time
not to talk properly.”
Teens use digitalk at times to take an agentive stance in their digital communica-
tion. In the survey responses, 79% of the teens indicated that the repetition of vowels
and consonants were direct attempts to insert voice. For instance, Lebron noted that
emotion could be expressed in multiple vowels: “like basically if you saying some-
body got hit, like hit by a car or something, nobody’s gonna put ‘wow’—w-o-w. They
gonna be like ‘woooooow.’ They gonna express theyself. Basically, it’s like an emo-
tion.” Leah echoed a similar sentiment, noting that “like if you’re upset, you say it’s
‘baaaaaddd’” in an effort to accentuate voice, or, as Leah explained it, to sound “more
enthusiastic.” Sarah stated that the presence of multiple consonants could be for
emphasis, just as she would “do like a triple V . . . to emphasize like the forever.” Carly
also asserted that the repetition of vowels can be “for emphasis like soooo,” but that
she used double Ks when writing “thinkk” because “I think it’s just how I say it . . .
Everyone thinks I have an accent . . . I say think like ‘think’ [said with emphasis on the
‘k’]. Like it should be two Ks.” In other words, the presence of multiple vowels and
Turner et al. 183

consonants may have phonetic or linguistic emphasis that helps teens to infuse their
voice, or even personal accent, into digital conversations.
Similarly, digitalk afforded students the liberty to invent terms with ephemeral or
lasting cache. When explaining how his friends and he used the word, “slime,” in place
of “friend,” Lebron noted how words, similar to clothing, went in and out of fashion:
“You know how people change like their whole clothing wise . . . basically that, if a
new word comes in, then they be using the new word . . . it’s like a new pair of Jordans.
Everybody’s going to get them. It’s the same thing as a word, you know?”
Lebron’s discussion of “slime” also brought to light that some aspects of digitalk
were not consistent across Discourse communities. Some conventions, such as abbre-
viations, absence or presence of certain punctuation, compound words and multiple
consonants, and vowels appeared to be an accepted practice among the general digi-
talk Discourse community. However, there were Discourse sub-communities that rec-
ognized and used community-specific nuanced language and value systems (Abrams,
2009, 2013). In other words, when cadres of friends communicated with each other
through digital means, they acknowledged and privileged semiotic signatures used to
identify themselves within their specific, local communities. Just like the “gangstas”
in Moje’s (2000) and MacGillivray and Curwen’s (2007) studies, students created
(digital) tags to mark their association with others. Given that “we identify and recog-
nize people by their voices” (Elbow, 1994, p. 3), personal tags within digitalk served
as ways to extend place-based voices and Discourses into digital communication. In
this way, digitalk facilitated the creation and/or extension of social voices into the digi-
tal realm.
At times, certain linguistic choices also became socially identifying features. Carly
explained that, among her friends, ellipses did more than just help her to maintain a
flow of conversation; it was a style that others identified her with because “I’m like the
only person who does it.” Guster called attention to specific identifying features when
he explained that “everybody that texts will always have one special signature” that
helps distinguish him/herself and verify one’s presence. Lebron supported this notion
when he acknowledged that his friends “know how I talk,” and would recognize his
use of the numeral 5 in place of the letter S. Similarly, Carly knew that the repetition
of letters in multiples of three was her sister Sarah’s “thing.” Linguistic fingerprints,
therefore, enabled students to create and/or maintain a voice that not only situated
them within their communities, but also helped them to claim ownership within their
digital literate spaces and identify themselves as individuals.
In addition to maintaining a voice or linguistic rhythm and distinguishing owner-
ship, language choices also protected the privacy of a conversation. If specific stylistic
elements were missing, then friends could be aware of imposters: Guster explained
that linguistic style helps him discern if his best friend Lebron is texting or if Lebron’s
girlfriend is using the phone: “If I see ‘What’s’ doesn’t have a 5 at the end and how
[Lebron] writes ‘what you doing,’ I know it’s not Lebron.” At that point, realizing that
Lebron’s voice might not be present in the text, Guster might modify his communica-
tion, knowing he might not be able to trust the recipient on the other end.
184 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Finally, image was important to the teen writers in this study. They adhered to con-
ventions and manipulated language to project personality, voice, and personal style, all
seemingly in the name of satisfying peer expectations. As noted earlier, across all
demographics students seemed to transfer nuances of oral language into texts, some-
times in an attempt to maintain a station. Lebron, who acknowledged that his friends
“know how I talk,” purposely omitted the letter, “g,” for words that end in “ing,” rep-
licating in written text the sound of his voice when he spoke such words aloud, such
as “chillin.” Sarah explained that she wanted to be perceived as “cool,” and therefore
adopted language she thought her readers would associate as “cool.” As a result,
Discourses from spoken language entered the digital realm as a means for students to
claim space and/or replicate linguistic identifiers. It was a purposeful semiotic manip-
ulation to perform and maintain a specific image. Students assumed their readers
would identify them by personal language patterns and choices, suggesting that the
Discourse sub-community would recognize a user’s experimentation and divergence
from SWE as a mark of confidence, savvy, and individualism. Furthermore, an indi-
vidual’s language also situated his or her membership to a specific Discourse com-
munity that valued and understood the particular form of digitalk as an extension of a
real-world social context. Digitalk, therefore, helped to bridge individual and collec-
tive Discourses across non-digital and digital worlds.

In the past few years, several articles that explored the nature of digital language have
been published (e.g., Baron, 2008; Cherny, 1999; Crystal, 2001, 2008b; Haas et al.,
2011). The recent interest in what we call digitalk has resulted from the increased use
of non-standard language in some forms of digital writing and discourse practices that
may be influencing teenagers’ academic work. The veracity of the claims by adults
that “the abbreviated language styles of text messaging, email, and wall posts are fil-
tering inappropriately into formal school writing” (Lenhart et al., 2008, p. 21) have
been challenged by Baron (2008) and Crystal (2008b), and it seems important for
scholarship in educational research to test these claims by examining the writing that
teenagers produce in school. Both Baron and Crystal, in addition to the recent publica-
tion by Haas et al. (2011), focused their analysis on the writing of adults, but there are
distinct differences between middle and high school students and college/adult learn-
ers. This study focused on the teenage population and their out-of-school Discourse
communities, specifically the communities that were virtual and fostered digital writ-
ing as the primary means of communication.
At the beginning of this study, we did not take for granted that students used “text-
speak” only in text messages or “netspeak” only in their computer-mediated commu-
nication. Rather, we asked the teenage participants to share with us the writing that
exemplified digitalk. We suggested genres such as (a) email, (b) blogs, (c) SN posts,
(d) text messages, (e) IM conversations, and (f) other digital writing where they did
not write in SWE. The data corpus, collected throughout the calendar year of 2009,
contained only seven emails and two blog posts or other form of writing. SN posts,
Turner et al. 185

text messages, and IMs dominated the data. Since we asked the teens to submit exam-
ples of writing where they broke from the conventions of SWE, our first finding indi-
cated that these three media facilitate the spaces where non-standard writing occurred
most frequently.
This finding is consistent with the other results of this study, namely that teenagers
gained facility in audience and voice in their out-of-school Discourse. By conforming
to the conventions of their digital communities, teenagers experimented with language
and received immediate feedback from their peers. They adopted non-standard con-
ventions to meet the expectations of their audience. They manipulated features of
SWE to project a personal voice within the community. When asked, teenagers articu-
lated why they made the choices that they did. The survey and interview data from this
study clearly showed that the participants made conscious choices. This metalinguistic
awareness, facilitated by our questioning, suggested that adolescents did not seem to
be blindly following trends in language use nor did they seem to be acquiescing to the
affordances of technology.
Teens who fluently wrote and communicated digitally with peers took ownership of
their language. Although the digital world grants them autonomy to experiment, they
found freedom in conformity. Adolescents were immersed in a world outside of school
where the written discourse differed from SWE. As Gee (2012) might say, their pri-
mary Discourse conflicted with the secondary Discourse of school. When teens enter
school, they are asked to conform to the conventions of SWE and are often penalized
if they do not. In the digital world they can freely experiment with language while they
must adjust to reap the rewards of the academic community. For some, these rewards
are tangible and the motivation to code-switch is evident. For others, adjusting to the
constraints of SWE is neither automatic nor welcome.
This study revealed that students’ writing was purposeful and that they made lan-
guage choices based on efficiency in communication, the desire to belong to a com-
munity of practice, and the need to express personal voice. The teens in this study
understood the concept of audience, and rules of reciprocity guided their choices.
Though digital conventions may have caused them to slip in academic settings where
they did not consciously attend to language, they valued SWE and, surprisingly, the
rules of academic language played into their digital writing. Not only did teens adopt
conventions of SWE, but, as Guster admitted about the language he used in school, “It
just sticks in your head sometimes,” and it influenced the choices he made in his
Language practices are complex and the discourses used in schools differ from
those teenagers use in their out-of-school Discourse communities. Perhaps teachers
and parents should not look at digitalk as deficient, but rather as a form of motivated
code-switching. If adults can guide students to see their digitalk as a legitimate use of
language within a specific community and to understand the conventions that guide
that community’s practice, choices in language can be made consciously, and students
can bridge the divide between their out-of school practices and the more formal regis-
ter of school. They can bring their knowledge of audience, purpose, and voice, which
they have developed in their digital communities, into the writing classroom.
186 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

In order for this shift in thinking to occur, educators must recognize that many
mainstream stereotypes (e.g., those present in the media articles cited throughout this
study) about digitalk are simply not accurate. The analysis of the writing from teens in
this study indicated that some popularized notions of digitalk (e.g., using numbers to
replace sounds) are, at best, outdated. Alternative spellings exist, but for the partici-
pants in this study, phonetic spellings helped convey voice, and they were not in fact
common across users.
Given that individuals can choose to write in phonetic spellings, despite the fact it
is not necessarily conventionalized across users, demonstrates the power of these digi-
tal, “literate spaces” (Abrams & Merchant, 2013). Without fear of a red pen, teens
develop their awareness of audience and context, building their 21st-century skills in
an authentic 21st-century setting. Educators have the power to help students become
more conscious of this knowledge, build metalinguistic awareness, and make linguis-
tic choices purposeful in all contexts. This process begins by asking students why they
use the language that they do in out-of-school writing, rather than simply telling them
the language they should be using in academic contexts. Though we approached the
task as outside researchers who examined the writing of a diverse group of students,
we believe that our study can be replicated by classroom teachers and the adolescents
they teach. Asking students to bring samples of their digital writing to the academic
table will value their out-of-school Discourses, even as it focuses on the specific con-
texts and communities of those teens. The present study revealed that language choices
are, indeed, influenced by communities of practice. Instruction in language, then,
should begin by understanding the community, both in and out of school.

Future Research
We acknowledge that the writing samples we collected during the calendar year of
2009 might already be out of date. Digitalk is an evolving Discourse that may have
general characteristics, but it also has unique variations according to the user commu-
nity. For this reason, it is important for teachers to question stereotypical portrayals of
teens’ language in the media and to conduct classroom analyses of students’ out-of-
school writing. We advocate for instruction like that outlined by Wheeler and Swords
(2006), who documented contrastive analysis with speakers of African American ver-
nacular, and Smith and Wilhelm (2007), who suggested that teachers look for patterns
of error and prioritize their teaching. The practices suggested by these authors value
students’ out-of-school Discourses. Since digitalk is one such Discourse, we call for
future research to explore how and why digitalk might be brought into the classroom—
and the effects doing so might have on students’ and their writing.
Language is constantly evolving, and this understanding applies to digitalk as well.
Demystifying digitalk doesn’t mean that educators and researchers need to understand
every abbreviation; on the contrary, given our data that reveal community-specific
digital communication, we cannot assume that students are using digitalk in uniform
ways, even if they are following the conventions we’ve found, such as abbreviating
language, using multiple consonants, and omitting end periods. Furthermore, we
Turner et al. 187

cannot assume that future generations of pre-service educators will understand how
digitalk can be incorporated into the classroom; future research is needed to explore
how these young teachers value digitalk and recognize it as a socio-cultural (and pos-
sibly socio-political) artifact steeped in authorial agency.
Finally, the present study looked broadly at language features and did not focus on
the role of first languages and non-standard dialects on digitalk. Because digitalk
blends both spoken and written literacies, the effect of home languages on digitalk is
important, particularly in multicultural settings. The variations in urban and suburban
conventions in the present study indicated there is more to be uncovered in this area.
In short, we advocate for continued analysis of both the what and the why of digital
language practices. This kind of work must question mainstream stereotypes and value
non-standard practices as they evolve in a digital world.

Appendix A
Digitalk Survey.
Do you use a phone that automatically capitalizes “I” for you? YES NO
Do you use a computer that shows you that you have not capitalized “i”? YES NO
Do you ever use a lowercase “i” on purpose? YES NO
If yes, why do you do this?
Do you use a phone that automatically capitalizes the beginning of a new sentence for YES NO
Do you use a computer that shows you that you have not capitalized the beginning of YES NO
a new sentence?
Do you ever choose not to capitalize the beginning of a new sentence? YES NO
If yes, why do you do this?
Do you use a phone that capitalizes proper nouns for you (like New York City or YES NO
Do you use a computer that shows you that you have not capitalized proper nouns YES NO
(like New York City or Michael)?
Do you ever choose not to capitalize proper nouns? YES NO
If yes, why do you do this?
Do you ever choose not to put a period at the end of your sentences? YES NO
If yes, why do you do this?
Do you use a phone that wants to expand a word for you (like “prob” turned into YES NO
Do you ever choose to let the phone insert the expanded word? YES NO
Do you use a phone that shows you when you spelled a word wrong? YES NO
Do you use a computer that shows you when you spelled a word wrong? YES NO
Do you ever choose to let the phone autocorrect your spelling? YES NO
Do you ever choose to let the computer autocorrect your spelling? YES NO
Do you have a phone plan that limits how many text messages you can send? YES NO
Do you have a phone plan that limits how long your outgoing text messages can be? YES NO
Do you use abbreviations when you text because of the phone plan you have? YES NO
Do you know what types of phones your friends have? YES NO
Do you adjust your texting to fit your friends’ phones? YES NO
Do you use language differently depending on whether you text, IM, or write social YES NO
network posts?
If yes, why do you do this?
188 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Instant Messaging: Is there anything else you want to tell us about the way you use
language in instant messaging (IM)?
Text Messaging: Is there anything else you want to tell us about the way you use lan-
guage in text messages?
Social Networking: Is there anything else you want to tell us about the way you use
language in social networking?
Translate this message into Standard English:

“sameee...so wat did u get on the chem test”

Why do you think the author used the following? Write your reason in the box and
check whether you have ever done something similar, have seen it but never done it
yourself, or have never seen it.

Why do you think

the author used
this? Done it Have seen it Have never seen it
sameee (rather than same)  
wat (rather than what)  
u (rather than you)  
chem (rather than  

Translate this message into Standard English:

“ahh that sucksss. im gonna have to make it up =/”

Why do you think the author used the following? Write your reason in the box and
check whether you have ever done something similar, have seen it but never done it
yourself, or have never seen it.

Why do you think

the author used
this? Done it Have seen it Have never seen it
sucksss (rather than sucks)  
im (rather than I’m)  
gonna (rather than going  
Turner et al. 189

Appendix B
Coding List.
Coding List Exemplars from data

Abbreviation (change word) here are the equns but u dont need them @ all for this test
Abbreviation (cut off end) samee…so wat did u get on the chem. Test
Abbreviation (missing consonant) wen did u come?
Abbreviation (missing vowel) I txted you lol but really I just wanted to tlk to you on the way home
Acronym Yehh i think i am but idk wat time 4 sure..
All caps omg, i HATE scary movies.
Apostrophe not used aaahhh! im going on Friday. good luck!
Apostrophe used I hateee work . . . I’d rather sit at home and vegitate lol
Capital I I’m not home brother
Complete sentence That sounds gooood. So what are you up to now?
Compound words its getting me outta studyingg for spanishh=]
Double negative I don’t got none of that
Ellipses my dad said i should stay home...but i hate missing school =/
End period not used No ill watch it now
End period used We will, i promise. I just gotta figure it out, and i just don’t want to do
that to you.
Exclamation point used Wow she’s so generous!
Expressions eww.. i have soo much to do for mine.
Fragment not much . . . you?
Inconsistency ill pick you up . . . well i’ll ttyl
Line break Yeah same
Gotta go
Time to eat dinnerrrrrr
Logograms (#s as sounds) ok i g2g to apple store
Logograms (letters for sounds) i kno when r u free next
Logograms (noises for actions) Haha wow. i would’ve cried
Logograms (symbols) Up @ 745?
Lowercase i i kno im sorrry! i forgot to tell u i couldnt go
Missing word wat u doing tom
Multiple consonants What are you doingggg
Multiple punctuation yayayayayayayy
thank you!!!
Multiple vowels coooooool I WILL SEE YOU TOMORROW
Non-standard capitalization i went to annemaires
Non-standard punctuation When the months over we gonna be goin mad crazy
Nonsense typing epwot erkthirhaw oerhse’
Numbers written That’s not that bad..u only failed by two points
Omitted preposition so u said u wanted tell me somethin earlier
Omitted subject sent you the email btw.
Omitted verb How uu??
Phonetic spelling yoo call mie wen cha goin 2 da skewl
Pictograms i <3 photoshoppp
Question mark not used so how was it
Question mark used wtf wasn’t it a 3 week camp?
Run-on laid in bed, worked on some english homework...good times. And yes, i
told you to hang up but you were like “no no!” so i hung up on you...lol
S-V agreement he be blowin minds
Slang yo just kiddin . . . you know my moms is a boss
Spanish used mm, y quien ta jugandoo ?
Standard capitalization Hey um I think my mom will pick me up I guess
Standard punctuation used Hey, I’ll be there in a few. Is ur condo 77 or 74 ?
Thoughts run-on oooooo coool & nm she said she didnt rly care jst a little she jst txted
back it was ok & he kept apologizing lol
Typo i like it..it jsut needs adjusting.
190 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article.

Abrams, S. S. (2009, July). Keeping an eye on the game: Video gaming, visual literacy and cul-
tural identity. Paper presented at the 3rd Global Conference: Visual Literacies. Retrieved
from http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/vl3abrams-paper.pdf
Abrams, S. S. (2013). Powerful gaming structures and practices: Videogames, situated lan-
guage, and cultural contexts [Special issue: Language and literacy: A socio-cultural per-
spective]. Languages and Linguistics, 30, 41-63.
Abrams, S.S. & Merchant, G. (2013). The digital challenge. In K. Hall, T. Cremin, B. Comber &
L. Moll (Eds.), International Handbook of Research in Children’s Literacy, Learning and
Culture (pp. 319-332). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Alim, H. S. (2004). You know my steez: An ethnographic and sociolinguistic study of styleshift-
ing in a Black American speech community (Publication of the American Dialect Society,
89). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Alvermann, D. E. (2008). Why bother theorizing adolescents’ online literacies for classroom
practice and research. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52, 8-19. doi:10.1598/
Baron, N. S. (2008). Always on: Language in an online and mobile world. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press.
Barton, D. (1994). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. Oxford, UK:
Barton, D. (2001). Literacy in everyday contexts. In C. Snow & L. Verhoeven (Eds.), Literacy
and motivation (pp. 23-37). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community.
New York, NY: Routledge.
Cherny, L. (1999). Conversation and community: Chat in a virtual world. Stanford, CA: CSLI
Coe, J. E., & Oakhill, J. V. (2011). “txtN is ez f u no h2 rd”: The relation between reading
ability and text-messaging behavior. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 4-17.
Compton-Lily, C. (2003). Reading families: The literate lives of urban children. New York,
NY: Teachers College Press.
Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the Internet. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, D. (2008a). Texting. ELT Journal, 62, 77-83. doi:10.1093/elt/ccm080
Crystal, D. (2008b). Txtng: The gr8 db8. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY:
New Press.
Dillon, S. (2008, April 3). In test, few students are proficient writers. The New York Times.
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/education/03cnd-writing.html?em&
Turner et al. 191

Dipardo, A. (1994). Stimulated recall in research writing: An antidote to “I don’t know, It was
Fine.” In P. Smagorinsky (Ed.), Speaking about writing: Reflections on research methodol-
ogy (pp. 163-181). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Drouin, M. A. (2011). College students’ text messaging, use of textese, and literacy skills.
Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 67-75. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00399.x
Durkin, K. Conti-Ramsdent, G. & Walker, A.J. (2011). Txt lang: Texting, textism use, and
literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of
Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 49-57. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00397.x
Elbow, P. (1994). What do we mean when we talk about voice in texts? In K. B. Yancey (Ed.),
Voices on voice: Perspectives, definitions, inquiry (pp. 1-35). Urbana, IL: National Council
of Teachers of English.
Gee, J. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (2nd ed.). London,
England: Taylor & Francis.
Gee, J. P. (2000). Discourse and sociocultural studies in reading. In M. L Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal,
P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3, pp. 195-207).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New
York, NY: Routledge.
Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse (4th ed.). New York,
NY: Routledge.
Gee, J.P. (2014). An introduction to Discourse analysis: Theory and method (4th ed.). New
York: Routledge.
Gee, J. P., & Hayes, E. R. (2011). Language and learning in the digital age. New York, NY:
Griffiths, S., & Gourlay, C. (2010). Text-talk teens lack the right words for work. Retrieved
from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6982283.ece
Haas, C., Takayoshi, P., Carr, B., Hudson, K., & Pollock, R. (2011). Young people’s everyday
literacies: The language features of instant messaging. Research in the Teaching of English,
45, 378-404. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/journals/rte/issues/v45-4
Jacobs, G. E. (2008). We learn what we do: Developing a repertoire of writing practices in
an instant messaging world. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52, 203-211.
Jokinen, B. L. (December 28, 2009). Can txt, cant spl: Is texting destroying the English lan-
guage? Lima News. Retrieved from http://dailyme.com/story/2009122800000930/txt-spl-
Kemp, N., & Bushnell, C. (2011). Children’s text messaging: Abbreviations, input methods and
links with literacy. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 18-27. doi:10.1111/j.1365-
Kirkland, D. (2010). English(es) in urban contexts: Politics, pluralism, and possibilities. English
Education, 42, 293-306.
Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication.
Park Square, England: Routledge.
Lee, J. (September, 19 2002). Nu shortcuts in school r 2 much for teachers. The New York
Times. Print. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/19/technology/i-think-
Lenhart, A., Arafeh, S., Smith, A., & Macgill, A. R. (2008). Writing, technology and teens.
Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2008/04/24/writing-technology-and-teens/
192 Journal of Literacy Research 46(2)

Lewis, D. (1969). Convention: A philosophical study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Ling, R., & Baron, N. S. (2007). Messaging and IM: Linguistic comparison of American col-
lege data. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26, 291-298. doi:10.1177/02619
MacGillivray, L., & Curwen, M. S. (2007). Tagging as a social literacy practice. Journal of
Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50, 354-369. doi:10.1598/JAAL.50.5.3
Moje, E. B. (2000). “To be part of the story”: The literacy practices of gangsta adolescents.
Teachers College Record, 102, 651-690. Retrieved from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.
Nystrand, M. (1986). The structure of written communication: Studies in reciprocity between
readers and writers. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Plester, B., Lerkkanen, M. K., Linjama, L. J., Rashu-Puttonent, H., & Littleton, K. (2011).
Finnish and UK English pre-teen children’s text message language and its relationship with
their literacy skills. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 37-48. doi:10.1111/j.1365-
Plester, B., Wood, C., & Bell, V. (2008). Txt msg n school literacy: Does texting and knowledge
of text abbreviations adversely affect children’s literacy attainment. Literacy, 42, 137-144.
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, 145-161. doi:10.1348/026151008X320507
Powell, D., & Dixon, M. (2011). Does SMS text messaging help or harm adults’ knowledge of
standard spelling? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 58-66. doi:10.1111/j.1365-
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. Retrieved from http://www.marcpren-
Prensky, M. (2006). Don’t bother me, Mom—I’m learning! St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Smith, M. W., & Wilhelm, J. D. (2007). Getting it right: Fresh approaches to teaching gram-
mar, usage, and correctness. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Street, B. V. (1995). Social literacies: Critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnog-
raphy, and education. New York: Longman.
Street, B. V. (1999). Literacy and social change: The significance of social context in the devel-
opment of literacy programmes. In D. A. Wagner (Ed.), Future of literacy in a changing
world (pp. 55-72). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Taylor, A. S., & Harper, R. (2003). The gift of gab?: A design oriented sociology of
young people’s use of mobiles. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 12, 267-296.
Thurlow, C. (2006). From statistical panic to moral panic: The metadiscursive construction
and popular exaggeration of new media language in the print media. Journal of Computer-
Mediated Communication, 11, 667-701. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00031.x
Turner, K. H. (2010). Digitalk: A new literacy for a digital generation. Phi Delta Kappan, 92,
Turner, K. H. (2011). Digitalk: Community, convention, and self-expression. In J. Rowsell & S.
A. Abrams (Eds.), Rethinking identity and literacy education in the 21st century (pp. 263-
282). New York, NY: Teachers College Record Yearbook.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Turner et al. 193

Wenger, E. C. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. New York,
NY: Cambridge University Press.
Wenger, E. C., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. C. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A
guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Wheeler, R. S., & Swords, R. (2006). Code-switching: Teaching Standard English in urban
classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Wood, C., Jackson, E., Hart, L., Plester, B., & Wilde, L. (2011). The effect of text messaging on
9- and 10-year-old children’s reading, spelling, and phonological processing skills. Journal
of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 28-36. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00398
Yancey, K. B. (1994). Definition, intersection, and difference—Mapping the landscape of
voice. In K. B. Yancey (Ed.), Voices on voice: Perspectives, definitions, inquiry (pp. vii-
xxiv). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Author Biographies
Kristen Hawley Turner is an associate professor in the Fordham Graduate School of Education.
Her research focuses on the intersections between technology and literacy, and she works with
teachers across content areas to implement effective literacy instruction and to incorporate tech-
nology in meaningful ways. She is a Teacher Consultant for the National Writing Project and
the director of the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.
Sandra Schamroth Abrams is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and
Instruction at St. John’s University in New York. Her research on the dynamics of digital litera-
cies, gaming, and learning includes the identities and practices developed, maintained, and
modified in online and offline social and academic contexts.
Elvira K. Katić is an associate professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey and the Executive
Director of the Semiotic Society of America. Her writing focuses on visual, social semiotic
research and emergent technological literacies.
Meredith Jeta Donovan is a doctoral candidate at Fordham University in Language, Literacy
and Learning. She is also an instructional coach at two, New York City public schools. Her
research interests include adolescent literacy, multiple discourses, and code-switching.