Technoliteracy

In a speech I gave to the University of Chester's final year teacher trainees, I touched on the concept of multi-literacy. This was in response to a question from a student about the potential dumbing down of language through SMS texting. She was concerned that txting was encouraging bad spelling which might adversely affect students' academic work. Referred to variously as 'squeeze text', txting, vernacular orthography or unregimented writing (Shortis, 2009), this kind of unorthodox spelling first emerged as a result of the 160 character limit on any single text message. The result is abbreviated spellings, emoticons and phonological representations of orthodox spellings, many of which have become a part of txting culture. The question thrown at me was about the potential problem of squeeze txt spellings appearing in assessed essays and other formal documents. I can see how it could become a problem. Students in my own programmes occasionally make phonological spelling errors. 'I could of...' is a regular mistake I see in the essays I mark. People are beginning to spell as they speak. But is this a problem, if they know what contexts to use these unorthodox spellings within and which to avoid? In 2008 David Crystal related the story of a young student who wrote an entire essay in squeeze text. One of the lines went something like this:

My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go 2 NY 2C my bro, his GF + thr 3 :-@ kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.

Crystal notes that the complete essay was never tracked down, leading to a fair assumption that the entire story was merely a hoax, and possibly an attempt to sensationalise the issue for the popular press. Regardless of its accuracy or provenance, the press had a field day, and a storm of protests ensued. Crystal, an acknowledged world expert on language was less impressed, and suggested that regardless of the strange appearance (or morphology) or the words, they never the less followed orthodox grammatical structure. He  wryly suggested that for sheer creativity, he would have awarded the student 10 out of 10, but for appropriateness, 0 out of 10.

Crystal and other make the point that language is evolving and new words are appearing all the time in the English language (in all its many forms worldwide), because language is organic and the culture it emerges from is constantly adapting to change, as are the meanings of some words. Is the controversy of squeeze text really as serious an issue as people are making it out to be? Or is there more than a hint of hyperbole and hysteria about the 'dumbing down' of the English language?

My view is that today's students are able to adapt to all the various media they use to communicate. In being habituated into a particular medium, the user assimilates the culture of that particular tool and begins to communicate appropriately within it. In many ways this is akin to living and working in a foreign country, where to survive and not stand out like a sore thumb, one learns to adopt the practices and social mores of the host country in parallel to learning the new language. This transcends skill and becomes a literacy. My theory is that students generally know the difference between communicating in SMS and writing a formal essay, and will usually follow the rules.

How many media do today's students use in regular communication? SMS, telephone voice, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, written language... the list is quite long, and they certainly use more modes of communication than those that were available to me when I went to university. It therefore follows that they need to learn more forms of literacy than I had to when I was in full time study. For Shortis (2009) the term technoliteracy is used to describe how adept a user is in communicating through any given device. For example, SMS texting requires a specific kind of technoliteracy, where the user has to be familiar with a number of features and affordances, including the capabilities (and error issues) of predictive text mode, the 160 character limitation per single text, and the multi function feature of the standard keys on the keypad. They will also need to be aware of the many regularly used abbreviations, some of which transgress into other modes such as Facebook and e-mail. My 85 year old father recently started using Facebook and soon sent a message including the phrase LOL. To most people using SMS or Facebook LOL stands for Laughing Out Loud. To him, it meant Lots Of Love. Heaven knows what he thinks WTF stands for... Welcome To Facebook perhaps? Whichever stance you adopt in the Gr8 Db8 - one thing is clear. We all need a good dose of technoliteracy.

References

Crystal, D. (2008) Txting: The gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shortis, T. (2009) Revoicing Txt. In S. Wheeler (Ed.) Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures: Cybercultures in Online Learning. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Creative Commons License
Technoliteracy by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.

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