Teens write all the time. They post updates on their Facebook pages, text their friends, and send instant messages. How can you help them bring their writing skills into the classroom?
My brother lives 3,000 miles away from me. The other day, he texted me to tell me that he was watching one of our favorite movies. Last week, he instant messaged me to let me know about his promotion at work. In fact, he and I “talk” all the time — but we hardly ever actually speak to each other. Our sibling connection exists almost entirely through written words. Likewise, I have other relationships, professional and personal, that rely almost completely on electronic communication.
You can probably relate to me. You probably also have multiple connections that are maintained digitally. As a participant in a digital world, you may even be comfortably reading this article on your computer. If so, try this experiment.
- Open your instant messaging program. Select one of your close friends from your list of contacts. Type a message.
- Now open your email program, and compose a message to your principal or your professor.
- You have completed two common tasks of digital writing. Compare the language that you used in these two situations. What do you notice?
More than likely, without much conscious thought, you adopted a different tone and possibly even altered your language to convey an intended message to the given audience. You made choices, just as writers make choices. You wrote.
Teenagers make these same choices in their electronic communication. Like writers, like my brother and me, and like you yourself, today’s adolescents write to communicate — via text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking posts. They are skilled at manipulating their out-of-school digital language to communicate with an intended audience and to capture individual voice. Because the writing is informal, teens have the ability to break rules, and they can do so without the threat of being marked wrong by the red pen of a teacher. This freedom encourages them to experiment with language and to alter standard conventions by creating their own style. This “digitalk” helps them to define their individual identity while participating in a community of peers.
However, most adolescents don’t consider the writing that they do in digital venues as “real writing” (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, & Macgill, 2008, p. 4). Rather, they view what they do as “talk.” But the term “talk” in these situations is really a misnomer. Talk is fleeting; writing is not. The messages teens send, frozen in time and on screen, represent a large portion of their everyday written literacy. Adolescents are, in fact, writing all the time and engaged in the process. Unfortunately, they do not always bring this same energy for writing to the classroom, and they are not aware that they possess skills in understanding audience and manipulating language for various purposes that are useful in academic settings. How can teachers harness the competence that teens develop in their out-of-school communities to help their students learn in the classroom?
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