How Digital Writing Is Making Kids Smarter

There's plenty of hand-wringing over how technology is affecting communication, but an illuminating article by Clive Thompson argues that technology may be doing more to increase literacy and encourage reading since the rise of the novel.

October 23, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Out-of-School Learning, Research & Studies, Technology Integration

There’s plenty of hand-wringing over how technology is affecting communication, from the death of cursive (but how will students read the original Constitution?!) to the fear that ever-texting and -tweeting students will have difficulty forming a sustained idea. (Will they soon start speaking in hashtags, as in this #hilarious Jimmy Fallon bit?)

But an illuminating article by Clive Thompson in The Globe and Mail argues that technology may be doing more to increase literacy and encourage reading since the rise of the novel. Why? Writing used to be strictly an in-school activity. Now, kids do 40 percent of their writing outside of school. Called “life writing,” young adults’ social writing spans texts, tweets, social media, and blogs -- and all of it’s making kids more literate.

At what other point in history have kids come home from school, tossed their backpacks aside, and spent a chunk of their afternoon voraciously writing messages, discussing and debating pop culture, and penning blog posts? The Globe and Mail article highlights a student who, in 10th grade, wrote a 13,000-word walkthrough for a Star Trek video game after receiving encouragement from the gaming community. Kids are writing more than ever before, and even if the quality isn’t always there, an unprecedented quantity is.

“Our students write more than any generation in history,” Jeff Grabill, author of a study in 2010 that looked into first-year college students' digital writing lives, told Mind/Shift. “They have to be doing something right.” Grabill’s study noted the pervasiveness of online writing and found that students valued texting and academic writing at just about the same level. “We are in the midst of massive changes in our writing lives,” Grabill said. “Digital writing matters, and our challenge in education is to figure out how it matters in order to ensure that we can be useful to those interested in leveraging it.”

Another layer that gives online writing meaning and value to students is a shift in audience. “Academic studies have found that whenever students write for other actual, live people, they throw their back into the work -– producing writing with better organization and content, and nearly 40 percent longer than when they write for just their instructor,” Thompson writes.

It seems as though these new ways we write and publish haven’t been the cause of grammatical errors, either. The Globe and Mail story points to work by Andrea Lunsford, a Stanford researcher who examined the frequency of errors in 877 “freshman composition” papers from 2006, 1986, 1930, and 1917. The rate of errors has basically remained the same for the last century, and the compositions actually increased dramatically in complexity and length over the decades.

Another study found the best-performing writers were much more likely to use the backspace key. Clicking the key was a sign of a writer who is fluent with technology, writes quickly, and continually reworks bad phrasing, a skill seen in well-trained adult writers.

Of course, with new tools come many new challenges. One Pew study found teachers were concerned about the “creep” of informal writing into formal writing as the lines between social and academic writing become blurred.

"No formal study has shown that 'txting' ruins student writing,” writes Troy Hicks, author of “Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres,” over at Edutopia. When informal text-speak inevitably does pop up, Hicks recommends teaching students to switch back and forth between formal and informal ways of writing. As he told Edutopia, "The best writing teachers have always invited their students to compose in a range of genres for a variety of audiences and purposes."

The National Writing Project’s Paul Oh goes a step further. "Status updates, tweets, text messages, 4Square check-ins -- our lives are awash in short-form compositions,” writes Oh in his collection at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is. “Are they ‘completely useless and meaningless,’ or do they derive their value from the social context within which they live?" Oh asks whether there are rhetorical strategies being employed within these new writing forms that educators should be paying attention to.

“The real core of learning to write and teaching writing isn’t actually about the tool,” says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, co-director of the National Writing Project. “It's actually about what you're going to do with the tool. It's about becoming better with audience, better with purpose, better with what I really want to say, clearer about that, more collaborative and able to make -- draft by draft, iteration by iteration -- something that's better.”

For more insights into using tech to encourage great writing, see what teachers are saying about Apps and Sites for Storytelling and Great Tech for Writing and Blogging by checking for Field Notes written about the products on the lists.

Photo by Colbalt123