The WhatsApp effect on teenage literacy

A raft of teachers believe that the immediacy of social networks is having a negative impact on spelling, grammer and coherence

A WhatsApp user on her cell phone.
A WhatsApp user on her cell phone.Gema García

WhatsApp is a universe without accents, commas or periods; one in which abbreviations demand the removal of vowels, and words and phrases are replaced by emojis, stickers and GIFs. The main thing is not to be left on read – a risk if you don’t use the lingo. It may seem an affront to traditional language, but 17-year-old Alberto Marín finds it strange when people bother to write “properly” on social networks. And he’s not alone. Ninety percent of young people say they intentionally change their writing style online.

The influence of mobile messaging on language has been a focus of experts since the birth of the SMS. Different studies indicate that the language used on WhatsApp and other social networks does not undermine offline writing skills – quite the opposite. But teachers are noticing a change. And not for the better.

Elisa García, a retired Language and Literature teacher who was in the profession for 34 years, has noticed a decline over the last decade in the way students express themselves. García left the job last year with the feeling that the students wrote texts and essays as if they were telegrams, lacking the ability to link ideas and build arguments. “They try to save on structures and write disjointed sentences, with a lack of connectors,” she says. Although some of the students know how to differentiate between online language and the language required in exams, the average pupil wrestles with spelling, vocabulary and grammar when wielding a pen. They are further challenged when the text is longer, as has been noticed in university entrance exams. “There are a lot of complaints from university professors because they have students who don’t know how to write correctly,” says García.

Another Language and Literature teacher, Marta Gutiérrez, agrees that her students have an increasingly limited vocabulary, and, also, difficulty expressing ideas in words, not to mention spelling mistakes. A teacher since 2007, Gutiérrez has noticed a pronounced change in the last two or three years, indicating that the Covid-19 pandemic may be another factor at play. “The fact that they have been in lockdown and without face-to-face class for a few months has affected them tremendously,” she says. “It’s as if they’ve lost years of schooling.” The use of computers and cell phones to study during lockdown has made pencil and paper even more alien than before. Gutiérrez has noticed that many have difficulties with handwriting and even holding a pen: “Their heads go faster than their hands,” she notes.

But while studies have found no evidence to back these teachers’ observations, a survey suggests that, among teachers, the observations are widespread. In 2018, professor of Didactics of Language and Literature at Spain’s University of Málaga, Raúl Cremades, conducted a survey involving 652 teachers from state schools as well as teacher trainees, asking them how they perceived the influence of online messaging on their students’ writing. According to the survey, the negative impact on the development of communicative competence was undeniable.

Four years later, Cremades states categorically that social networks are leading to an impoverishment of linguistic performance. “We write more than ever, we read more than ever, but the type of online writing and reading does not contribute to their formation,” he says. This is due to the contagious nature of the beast – colloquial language is being used so often that it is confused with formal language.

High school students in Valencia, Spain.
High school students in Valencia, Spain.Mònica Torres

The accelerated pace of the digital world means that people fail to take their time when it comes to reading and writing. Ana Pano Alamán, professor of Spanish who specializes in social networks and language education at the University of Bologna in Italy, argues that spelling mistakes are not particular to teenagers, nor are they the worst offenders. The concern regarding the influence of digital writing is that it leads to very short, immediate and dialogued texts. “There are problems when it comes to writing long essays that use connectors such as but, however, moreover, or on the other hand,” says Alamán. “These elements are disappearing.”

Mistakes and inconsistencies mainly affect Generation Z and Generation Alpha – the next teenagers – as they are the ones who spend most time on their cell phones and have had the least experience of formal writing genres. On the other hand, Alamán argues that these generations have developed communication skills through social networks that other generations don’t generally have. “There are 13-year-olds who are capable of coming up with a very creative meme in five seconds,” she says. “They manipulate the image and a text to formulate a new message. A meme is already a genre. That enriches communication.”

With regard to spelling mistakes, the lack of connectors and the difficulty in creating texts with a coherent beginning, middle and end, both Cremades and Alamán consider that the problem could be solved by encouraging more reading of formal texts and the study of different genres. “The solution is to train students in the classroom in the formal and informal register,” says Alamán.

According to Cremades, another key is for teachers to be prepared to adapt their methods and not give up in the face of new student demands and challenges. “When a person is well-educated, they can always go back to the normative roots because they know them,” Alamán agrees.

Diego Sanz, 18, admits that being on “automatic pilot” leads him to commit errors. “On paper not so much, but if you’re on the computer, you abbreviate, particularly if you want to write something fast,” he says. To improve his skills, this audiovisual student believes he should “take a sheet of paper and a pen” and “start writing seriously, without abbreviations” for at least a few days a week. Meanwhile, he continues to use a language where “the important thing is to be understood.”

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