7 Ways to Use Texting to Your Advantage in the Classroom

If you were to take a glance around a classroom in which no smartphone policy has been set, it would be easy to conclude that texting at school is nothing but a distraction. Just look at all of those bent heads and rapidly moving thumbs! Take a look at the caliber of those texts — “wat r u doing l8er” — and it would also be easy to assume texting will one day bring about the end of literacy and analytical thought, if it hasn’t already.

This may be true — and it may also not be. The studies in this area are even newer than texting itself, and results are mixed, with one study indicating that texting makes students worse in one academic area while another study finds the opposite. Let’s take a closer look at the good and the bad of texting, as well as at a few ways you can harness the benefits for the good of your classroom.

image00
Photo credit: Gordon Mei

 Why Texting May Not Be As Bad As You Think It Is

1. Texting May Just Be a Move Back to Oral Conversations

Formal writing may seem like the end all be all when it comes to fostering intellectual thought, but it emerged relatively late in human development — and it took even longer for writing to become an accessible skill beyond the most elite in society. In linguist John McWhorter’s excellent TED talk on this subject, he suggests that texting is simply a move back to a more oral form of communicating.

Texting, just like conversational speech, is loose in structure and lacks any concern for the rules. It is also more dynamic than formal writing, with new lingo emerging all of the time, and is more telegraphic than reflective. As such, it may not be useful or productive to think of texting itself as writing, so much as written speech. When we don’t reframe texting in this way, we may miss its emergent complexity — that is, how quickly terms like “LOL” and “haha” and “slash” evolve far away from their original meanings to communicate empathy and topical transitions instead.

Considered in this light, texting in itself is its own dialect. And as McWhorter suggests, if it’s good for the brain to be bilingual, it’s probably good to be bidialectical (though again, we won’t know for sure until more studies are done in this area).

2. Texting May Help Students Write More Quickly and Fluently

In one of the more landmark studies conducted on this subject, Stanford’s Andrea Lunsford examined 877 student composition papers written between 1917 and 2006, and found only a negligible increase in error rates (we’re up to 2.26 errors per 100 words as opposed to 2.11). Even more interesting, student papers were 6 times as long in 2006 as compared to 1917, countering the idea that texting in abbreviations leads to a concision in academic writing.

What’s behind this? As Clive Thompson poses in his excellent Globe and Mail piece, The Dumbest Generation?” kids who spend their evenings texting are writing casually in a way that just wasn’t possible 100 or even 20 years ago. That, combined with the writing they do on blogs and over email with their friends, has lead to a certain level of comfort with writing, as well as a fluency with analytical writing and thought. In a sense, quantity may lead to quality when it’s time to sit down and write that academic paper.

3. Texting Gets Students To Think Deeply About Grammar and Phonology — Without Knowing That’s What They’re Doing

In any linguistics 101 class, you’ll learn that even when children are learning how to speak, they make very regular and predictable speech errors that fit well within the rules of our language (and if they’re not, it’s cause for concern). For instance, a child learning English might say, “I go up now,” but they would never say, “Now go up I,” because verbs and subjects aren’t ordered that way in our language.

The same goes for texting. Students may abbreviate and make up their own words, but they do so in grammatically correct and consistent manners. In fact, when they make up their own words, they’re subconsciously thinking about what kind of speech it is, and ordering it in their text accordingly. What’s more, when they’re abbreviating or inventing, they’re also paying close attention to the phonology of the word. That is, they’re keeping the letters they know they need to communicate the gist of the original world, or they’re riffing on a sound or concept in a way that will be intuitive for the other person to decode. Phonological awareness is directly related to our ability to read, and so texting can help both create and foster readers.

In this way, texting is at most a fascinating form of creativity, and at most a form of pidgin.

Ways to Use Texting in the Classroom

Of course, texting both in the classroom and as a student struggles to complete homework is still a threat to the student’s attentional demands. What’s more, while fluency in reading and writing informal language certainly can set a student up for success with more formal writing, they will need good teaching to make that bridge for them. The below are a few creative ways to do just that.

1. Do a Translating Exercise

Translating exercises come in a variety of forms. You could, for example, have students translate a recent text exchange into long form, writing sentences either privately in their journals or in a shared GDoc (if they’re comfortable with it). Alternatively, you could have students volunteer text messages for you to deconstruct grammatically — something you can alternate with more formal English lessons. Just imagine that text message up on a sentence tree!

2. Use Texts For Interpretative Learning

Teachers with Shakespeare units on the curriculum often have their students translate the work of the Bard into contemporary English they can understand. Why not have students skip over the sentences and right into texting abbreviations, if that’s how they really speak? This can be done via transcription, or by having students rewrite scenes entirely through text message.

For a bonus, take the learning up to the application stage by having students construct new scenes using the same characters as they have a text exchange. Doing so will require students to not only understand what they’re reading but also to grasp the subtleties of characterization. These techniques aren’t just great for Shakespeare — any great work of literature will do!

3. Tell a Story Through Text

At its heart, texting is just another form of digital storytelling. Why not use the form as inspiration for creative writing exercises? Whether students are inventing characters or telling their family history, this is very similar to doing an oral storytelling unit but in written form. Texts could even work as a way to teach argumentative writing. Give your students a controversial topic and two character with opposing viewpoints. Then have your student text a debate between the two.

4. Use Texting as a Lesson on Audience

One of the most important things students today need to learn — especially in the context of texting — is how to communicate across different audiences. Doing so is key not just to being a good writer and reader but also to being a good digital citizen as they head online and interact with a global audience of people who are very different from them. Texting can be a great way to drive this lesson home, simply by having your student pretend like they’re texting the same message to a friend, a parent, and a new teacher. Teach etiquette and best practices, as well as differences in formatting and language choices as they toggle between these worlds.

5. Turn Texting Into Notetaking

To keep up in school, students must become adept at notetaking, even if they’re doing it now on digital devices that let them type faster than they could have ever written by hand. This means getting great at abbreviations — and why can’t texting be the source? After all, there’s no need to learn more traditional formatting if student notes are all for themselves. Have your students teach you all about their favorite texting abbreviations, and then have them practice using this lingo for formal notes.

6. Play the Creative Textisms Game

One of the best things about texting abbreviations is the creativity it requires. Why not embrace that fully by turning it into a competition? Create different categories, like “Goofiest,” “Sound Closest To” and “Most Useful,” and have students pitch their favorites. Not only will you get students playing with words, but you also just may come up with a secret class language. That can only be good for bonding!

Other texting game ideas include texting in to the teacher for live polling or using texts like a game show buzzer (that is, having students text in answers as fast as they can).

7. Match Textisms With Vocab Words

One of my absolute favorite ideas from this excellent Scholastic article, Can Texting Help With Spelling? is matching texts with vocab words. For example, “LOL” can map to “uproarious.” In this way, texting becomes just like a pneumonic device or abbreviation to cue students to the word’s deeper meaning. It’s a neat idea for any age, but it will prove particularly effective for students cramming for the SAT, as it’s a ready made study device.

In Short

There’s no doubt that texting in the classroom can be distracting, and no one is suggesting that there be a texting free for all. However, though the official scientific jury is still out, the act itself may not be as bad as you think it is, and there are countless creative ways to make the most of this format to which students are so naturally drawn — and apps to help you out.

How do you use texting to your advantage in the classroom? Let us know your best tricks in the comments below!

6 Comments

  1. Joseph

    December 2, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    The cell phone camera is a good tool for note taking . Cell phones are disruptive because students have not been taught to use them as a communication device and not a play toy.

    • Leah Levy

      December 3, 2014 at 11:34 am

      Excellent points! I love this idea.

  2. Louise McGuirk

    December 5, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Love having Shakespeare characters text. Definitely easier to manage student phone usage when it is simply seen by the teacher as an extension of the student. I found student attention returned to the lesson and the phone was pretty much a back chat. They became fairly good at monitoring their own behavior.

    • Leah Levy

      December 5, 2014 at 9:38 am

      Glad you enjoyed, Louise, and I love your framing here, i.e. the idea of the phone being an extension of the student…and that being okay.

  3. irf

    December 6, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Is your intention for phones to be used in class, or for the texting language to be addressed and manipulated? I’m impressed by Louise MCGuirk’s account that phones weren’t extremely distracting in the class. Using phones in the classroom also makes the fairly big assumption that students have phones. Many schools too, collect cell phones from their students to ensure attendance and limit cutting class, I wonder how introducing text-language in class would effect this, if at all?

    Associating text abbreviations with definitions and dense passages is a great idea to quickly capture the emotional charge of a word/text.

    • Leah Levy

      December 8, 2014 at 7:56 am

      Thanks for your thoughts here, Irf. I have a multi-pronged answer to your questions. My overall answer is that each teacher should determine whether or not having phones in the classroom is right for them, their unique mix of students, and their management style. I personally have confiscated many a phone from students, because we just weren’t getting anything done.

      However, given the reality that phones here to stay, I do think, given the article above, there are ways to harness the technology when possible or simply use the concept of texting as a way to relate to and unlock our students’ learning. So: yes and no, depending on what works for you.