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clive thompson

James Braithwaite/The Globe and Mail


Part of an occasional series about the way digital culture affects the way we think, learn and live.

Sara: Haha there was a weird comercial for computers that had flying sumo wrestlers

John: Hahaha saweeeeet I'm still tryin to picture how that works

Sarah: Haha yeah so am I this opening ceremony is so weird

John: It must be

Sarah K: Now there's little kids doing karate

This is a typical teenage text exchange captured by an academic. Now, multiply that by 60, and you've got the median number of messages sent and received daily by kids using mobile phones.

Add five hours or so a day spent online, where the most common activity is yet more typing away on social networks. Check in on the millions of comments on Instagram and Kik, or tweets by Taylor Swift's followers. Still, you'll only see part of the vastness that is digital chatter among young people.

This outpouring often produces an anguished outcry, particularly in September as kids head back to school and screen time starts competing with homework: Technology, pundits warn, is zombifying our young and wrecking their ability to communicate clearly. LOL-speak has infected the grammar of "millennials," who gormlessly deploy it – and cutesy emoticons – in essays. Short-form media such as Twitter have made them incapable of penning a sustained thought.

But is this actually "the dumbest generation"?

In fact, there's powerful evidence that digital tools are helping young people write and think far better than in the past.

Literate? :)

Let's start with some hard data. The only way to tell whether kids today are really less coherent or literate than their great-grandparents is to compare student writing across the past century. Tricky, but precisely what Andrea Lunsford, a scholar of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, managed to do by collecting 877 "freshman composition" papers from from 2006 and comparing their error rate to those in papers from 1986, 1930 and 1917. If the digital age had hurt students' prose, the error rate in spelling, grammar and word use should have increased.

It hadn't. Indeed, the average rate of errors had barely budged in almost a century, from 2.11 errors per 100 words in 1917 to 2.26 words today. What's more, there were "almost no instances" of the smileys or LOL-style short forms that have supposedly metastasized everywhere. (When students do deploy "textisms," it's not unintentional, University of Toronto linguist Sali Tagliamonte has found: They use short forms as flourishes of wit; and they do it more rarely than you would suspect.)

But Prof. Lunsford did find a big change in how students were writing – and it was a positive shift. Over the past century, the freshman composition papers had exploded in length and intellectual complexity. In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple "personal narratives." By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a "researched argument or report," with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.

"Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection," Prof. Lunsford concluded.

Why this astonishing uptick in quality and sophistication? It undoubtedly reflects rising educational standards, and the better availability of information in a digital age. But there has also been an explosion in composition.

It used to be that students did comparatively little writing out of school; even if you were in university, there was little call for it, and few vehicles to showcase your writing. But now, as Prof. Lunsford's research has found, 40 per cent of all writing is done outside the classroom – it's "life writing," stuff students do socially, or just for fun. And it includes everything from penning TV recaps to long e-mail conversations to arguments on discussion boards.

"They're writing more than any generation before," she says. The members of "dumbest generation" aren't just passively consuming media any more. They're talking back to it.

More subtle yet – but equally powerful – is the fluency with which they compose. Students not only write more, they write more quickly. It's hard for us to imagine now, but in 1917, the act of writing was arduous. Fountain pens spilled ink and shredded paper if you tried to write quickly. They were such a nightmare that when the ballpoint pen emerged in the 1940s, businesspeople happily spent the equivalent of $90 in today's money for a single pen.

And when it comes to writing and thinking, speed matters. It's what's called transcription fluency: "If you can't write fast enough, you can lose an idea or a way of phrasing something, and it never comes back," Steven Graham, a literacy scholar at Arizona State University, told me. In contrast, when you can write and edit more swiftly, you can include more ideas and flesh them out more deeply. The emergence of the cheap ballpoint pen, the typewriter – and now the computer and smartphones and tablets – precisely match the cognitive curve of our students' performance.

Take the curious recent findings from the National Association of Educational Progress in the United States, which analyzed student writing samples: The best-performing writers with the highest grades were massively more likely to use the backspace key. Why would that be a sign of literacy? Because it's the heat-signature of a writer who is fluent with the technology at hand – their hands moving quickly, iterating as they compose, going back over bad phrasing, just as well-trained adults do.

13,000 words, for you

But technology doesn't just make students better writers or more fluent. Digital tools also let them communicate easily with others – their peers, their friends and the world at large. And this, it turns out, can make them even more powerfully motivated to become genuinely (and wittily) literate.

Consider the case of Eric Davey. In Grade 10, he decided to write a "walkthrough" for one of his favourite Star Trek video games. Walkthroughs are fascinating technical documents: They describe – in nuanced detail – what happens as you play a particular game, so that if you're stuck, you can use it as a reference to help you out. They're fiendishly hard to write, because you need to take extensive and meticulous notes on a game. And to write them well, you have to inhabit the mindset of a neophyte player – an act of domain awareness that many journalists, frankly, aren't very good at.

Eric spent about 18 months on his walkthrough, plastering his room with sticky notes. The final work was 13,000 words and carefully written. (I used it myself.)

And here's the thing: He wrote that at the age of 14, in his spare time, at a point when the longest assignment he ever had in school was maybe 500 to 1,000 words. What motivated him? Other gamers. He had written a little bit of the guide and put it online – when he started getting e-mails saying how much other players liked it, were using it and asking when he was going to complete it.

Part of what makes the online environment so powerful, as Prof. Lunsford says, is that it provides a sense of purpose: "[Students are] writing things that have an impact on the world – that other people are reading and responding to."

One reason students phone in their school assignments – and only halfheartedly copy edit and research them – is that they're keenly aware that there's no "authentic audience." Only the teacher is reading it. In contrast, academic studies have found that whenever students write for other actual, live people, they throw their back into the work – producing stuff with better organization and content, and nearly 40 per cent longer than when they write for just their instructor.

Smart teachers have begun to realize they can bring this magic into the classroom. In Point England, New Zealand – a low-income area with high illiteracy rates – the educators had long struggled to get students writing more than a few sentences. So they set up blogs, had the students post there and, crucially, invited far-flung family and friends to comment. At first, the students grumbled. But once they started getting comments from Germany and New York, they snapped to attention.

"They realized they were writing for a global audience," one of the educators, Colleen Gleeson, told me. They began closely critiquing each other's writing, finessing it for the folks abroad, such as pondering which local references a foreigner would not understand. By the second year, this explosion of writing was evident in their test scores, some of the schools that had adopted the blogging experiment – schools that had long lagged behind the country – were making advances 10 to 13 times larger than the national average, and some had risen all way to the average.

Because they are public, today's online forums also have deeply civic aspects. Ontario elementary-school teacher Heidi Siwak has set up Twitter events in which her students conduct conversations with anyone who wants to join in. One that was focused on Hana's Suitcase – a book about a teenager killed in the Holocaust – became so popular that strangers from Asia to Europe were chatting with her students.

"They're learning how to conduct themselves online – how to have productive conversations and exchanges," Ms. Siwak told me the day I dropped by her classroom. And while social critics mock the 140-character limits of Twitter (who can say anything substantive in such a short space?) her students told me the tight limits pushed them to think more carefully about every syllable they were using. "It's like writing a poem, because every word counts," one said.

The digital coffee house

It's not all a pretty picture. Technology does pose certain challenges to writing and thinking. For example, linguist Naomi Baron argues that teenagers' explosive use of social networking might be "casualizing" their language. They're not LOL-ing everything, but they are less likely to understand the crucial power that formal academic prose can have in constructing a clear argument when you are wrestling with complex matters.

A recent Pew Rsearch Centre poll of teachers found they, too, were worried that students were writing too informally. Even kids understand this; another Pew survey found that they regarded formal instruction in school as crucial to developing their writing skills. The Internet motivates to them to write; teachers show them how to write well.

Another area of concern is Google literacy. While it's popular to talk about "digital natives" – kids inherently fluent in how technologies work – their existence is a myth. Younger people may be familiar with tech tools, but they still need formal instruction in how they work. Research by Bing Pan and Eszter Hargittai found that even college students put blind trust in whatever Google throws up as the No. 1 hit; worse, while they know they are supposed to check the credentials of who is writing a piece of information online, they don't.

We can't entirely blame students for this lapse. Our school system rarely formally teaches "intelligent searching." Many librarians have heroically attempted to fill this gap, but our curriculum needs to evolve so these digital skills are taught with the urgency we teach grammar.

But these are all manageable challenges. And every new medium has posed similar ones – in fact, we've seen the same cultural freak-outs when each new one came along.

In the 17th century, the advent of the coffee house was regarded as the Facebook of the day, a morass of gossip where "scholars are so greedy for their news" that "they neglect all for it."

A century later, the rise of the novel provoked similar concerns that youth would drown in morally debased, trivial tales. ("Perpetual reading inevitably operates to exclude thought, and in the youthful mind to stint the opening mental faculties, by favouring unequal development," as one social critic fulminated.) Today, of course, we understand the powerful and delightful cognitive role of novels and coffee-house chatter, and carefully steer our students toward them.

One day soon we will smile over the old-fashioned joys of a well-turned tweet.


An earlier version of this article on literacy described Stanford University Professor Andrea Lunsford's work analyzing and collecting 877 "freshman composition" papers from 2006 – and comparing them to a similar study she'd done in 1986, and other papers collected from 1930 and 1917. The article did not make clear that the papers from 1930 and 1917 were collected by other academics.

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