By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Email: zemach at comcast dot net
Writing used to be one of the hardest skills for learners to practice on their own outside of class, back in the Dark Days before email and the Internet. Options were basically limited to keeping a written journal or exchanging letters and postcards with a pen pal and the occasional “letter to the newspaper” classroom assignment.
Now, however, opportunities to freely practice writing abound: keypals, social networking sites, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Web sites where customers leave reviews and comments, blogs, and so on.
So . . . writing skills must have vastly improved, right? Well, perhaps a certain degree of fluency has. However, what we also have is a host of new problems. You’re teaching a class the difference between two, too, and to, and then they come in wanting to spell all of them 2.
I think there are two basic problems: the models students see and the attitudes they can pick up towards writing.
Poor Writing Models Abound Online
Certainly the level of writing they could encounter from native speakers out there in Internetland is something of a concern. Masses of writers seem unaware of (or unconcerned about) differences between your and you’re, or loose and lose, or (a pet peeve of mine) our and are. Misspellings are rampant, even in these days when most Internet browsers have a built-in spellcheck feature. Posters, even of longer blogs, may eschew punctuation and even capitalization. If students then are answering with the same language they see, we can expect similar mistakes, or at least a lot of confusion.
Texting Shorthand Easier for Whom?
A bigger problem though is writers (native English speaker or otherwise) who simply don’t care. “It’s only an Internet message board,” a perpetrator might say, “not an English class.” Writers who use texting shorthand point out that it’s faster. Faster to write, yes, if one is used to that. But faster to read? I don’t think so, especially not when sloppy writing and no punctuation between sentences obscures meaning. If you didn’t communicate what you intended, then your message failed, even if you got it out there in cyberspace extra fast.
The choice then that the writer makes is whether to make things easier on him or herself or easier on his or her reader. Unless the message being written is truly a personal journal (in which case, why is it online?), there’s usually some reason to communicate to readers—to express an opinion, ask a question, give information, ask for help. It’s even likely that there will be multiple readers of messages, in which case I tell students that, as Mr. Spock would put it, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” At first, students are surprised to hear that writing sloppily is selfish; but give them some time to consider the idea, and you’d be surprised how many would agree.
It may not be an English class, but aren’t online writers in some sense being graded? They’re certainly being judged. I can take a certain amount of informality online, but when spelling and typing errors get to a certain level, I just skip over the messages without even trying to read them. It’s even more important to me that emails sent directly to me be clear and careful. A student who’s getting a grade from me in an English class isn’t going to look good by sending “yo yo sup dude did u get my homwork im pretty sur i sent it b4”. If you think teachers don’t get emails like this, check in with a high school teacher (of any subject) sometime. However, students can’t know what level of formality you expect if you don’t tell them directly. Merely copying what native speaker classmates are doing isn’t necessarily going to steer them in the right direction.
Appropriate Use of Informal Writing Needs to be Taught
I don’t see many teaching materials that address informal writing except to say not to use it. That’s also a mistake, though. Any community has its own discourse, of course, and being overly formal in a chat room isn’t going to be successful either. There’s a world of difference between kthnxbai and Please accept my sincere thanks for all of your assistance.
Students need explicit instruction to know what levels of language exist and when to use them. If you don’t have examples and materials, don’t worry—ask your students to bring you examples of written English from different Internet sites that they visit. Ask them to find English that they believe is the most correct and appropriate, as well as the least correct and appropriate, and then share and discuss the examples in class. Collect similar examples when you’re online and keep them in a file. Ask students what impressions they have of the writers and to what extent those impressions are formed by the language and the place in which it appears. Compile a class glossary of the common abbreviations and expressions they encounter online and code each one as appropriate for class or not.
And don’t forget to point out that they will never be disadvantaged by being better able to switch between informal and formal English than their native speaker friends.