There’s an amusing little meme that has been making its way through Facebook lately that takes a shot at people who are a little weak in the grammar and punctuation department. While there are several posts, images and facets to this mini-onslaught of jokes, pictures and even videos, my favorite is the e-card-type image with an attractive woman with her arm around a man saying, “You had me at the appropriate use of ‘you’re.”

Having several opportunities recently to speak to groups of educators and parents about social media, I heard the theme popping up there, too. “Kids today don’t know how to spell, are horrible at grammar and don’t know punctuation,” is the typical complaint. When I ask why they think this is, they inevitably blame it on texting or social media. The argument is that abbreviated communications has led to a deficiency in the student’s ability to communicate in a more traditional, long form.

pointing-finger

Image by purpleslog via Flickr

I was asked about this phenomenon in my interview for the Verizon Thinkfinity Education Speaker Series, which was published this morning at Thinkfinity.org. (You have to register to see the interview, but the community is a free resource intended for educators, teachers, parents and administrators.) My response to the issue surprised the Verizon folks and forced educators to take a step back and reconsider their analysis of the situation.

When I think of how young people, or even older people, who are texting or Tweeting or sending other social media messages and how they abbreviate, use acronyms and the like, I see a different reason. What’s happening is that these individuals, knowing they are confined to short text fields and time frames in which to communicate often lengthy replies, are simply creating more efficient ways to do so. While Mrs. Polly Prude might think “gr8″ is poor spelling or grammar, when you only have 160 characters (limitation on SMS text messages), that’s a gr8 way to make a five-letter word a three-letter one.

Keep in mind this behavior evolved before smart phones, when kids had to punch a numerical keypad 3-4 times to get to a certain letter. Writing a complete sentence used to take far longer than it should have.

My challenge to the parents and educators complaining about their children and students writing habits was to have them write an essay, a letter or something with less constraints, and different context. My bet is that the students, in the right frame of mind, can spell and punctuate just fine. They’re just communicating most effectively in the medium and context of the moment.

Here’s where the parents and educators get mad at me

If at that point your children still struggle with spelling, grammar or punctuation, you can only point your finger of blame in a couple of directions … and none of them are cell phones, Twitter or social media. You can only blame the student or, perhaps more appropriately, their educators.

Just like businesses are looking for an easy button to push to make social media happen, educators and parents want an easy button to push to take themselves off the hook for the lack of performance of those under their care. And if they don’t want to take responsibility for Junior or Missy’s current ineptitude, why not take responsibility for moving forward and changing it?

Part of the reason I’m involved with literacy organizations (I’m a board member for the National Center for Family Literacy and my local library’s foundation) is because I believe strongly that while students should take responsibility for their education to be successful, literacy — not just reading and writing, but functional literacy as well — only comes when parent, child and teacher all work in unison to build it.

But I have to stand up and remind everyone now and again that blaming technology, a website or just social media in general for someone’s lack of performance or desire is wholly misguided. It’s the same application of blame when the media asked why Twitter would make Anthony take pictures of his Weiner.

A good craftsman never blames his tools. Shouldn’t a good teacher or parent not blame the kid’s phone?

I think so. You?

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.francis-moran.com Francis Moran

    I’m completely with you here, Jason.

    For as long as I have been a wordsmith — a time frame that damn near goes all the way back to cold type and certainly predates mobile phones of any sort — all but the most well-schooled were atrocious spellers and grammarians. I have worked in half a dozen newsrooms, often as an editor, and one of my first functions would be to hang up where everyone could see it a large poster setting out all the many variations of your, their and its, and the proper use of each. Even in newsrooms, where a high command of the language is a core requirement, folks would regularly get these and other basics wrong.

    I have a learning disability that makes the proper spelling of many words a particular challenge for me. Technology has greatly aided me in correcting for this disability, and I have a thoroughly well-thumbed dictionary beside my keyboard. It is a point of professional pride for me — and a non-negotiable standard in my agency — that writing be clear, concise and accurate.

    So don’t blame the tools the kids have in their hands. They are no worse than generations who came before them. Indeed, there is growing evidence that rampant use of text-based communications tools is actually making this generation more literate, not less. And that’s just gr8 by me.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the perspective, Francis. Appreciate that.

  • http://ludvikherrera.com Ludvik Herrera

    I can see your viewpoint with some basis for your hypothesis. But in reading, as much as in researching and writing hypothesis and theories, one must have evidence and sometimes, like in this case, maybe bring more weight to your proposal with an universal sample. Have you gather enough information from more than 400 individuals randomly selected? Since your work is related to social media marketing, is your hypothesis bias to not blame technology? Lastly, is Verizon or any other mobile carrier, paying you for your services? and if so, would this also constitute a conflict of interest?

    I strongly agree that education has to be a responsibility of students, parents and educators. The truth is that the U.S. has fallen way below more than 20 countries in education and literacy. That could be blame in several aspects, starting from parents and educators, but the truth is that technology being the medium and the tool is not blameless.

    More than technology, where I can agree that being a tool, has no position of blame, the media and technology producers are the ones at fault. So let’s not blame the actual mobile phone, or smart phone. Let’s then blame the carriers, the media producers, facebook, twitter, et cetera. As this companies are big distractors of not only the students, but the parents and the educators. 

    Thus, we can ask, is technology blameless or not? Is your viewpoint without bias or not?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I appreciate your inquiry, but I disclose any and all biases as necessary. My post here was an opinion piece, not based on research. But I will offer a bit of push back with your insinuations: If you want to blame devices or technology for the woes in U.S. education, then you must mean to imply that other countries don’t have children using devices. Which we know isn’t the case.

      No piece of equipment is going to teach us how to do or not to do anything. It’s all in our focus and determination as humans, be it as a student or a teacher. If you’re not well educated or lack in education in some form, you can’t blame inanimate objects or even technology that people use. Teachers need to teach better. Students need to focus and learn better. Has nothing to do with a phone.

      • http://ludvikherrera.com Ludvik Herrera

        Thank you for your reply Jason. My intention was not to insinuate, since I though I was clear with the questions. And now that I know this is an opinion piece I can understand your viewpoint. It read as if it was a research piece with such statements as “My response to the issue surprised the Verizon folks and forced educators to take a step back and reconsider their analysis of the situation.” because I didn’t know if it was a handful of educators, tens, hundreds or thousands.

        I do believe that blaming technology is not the right approach. But once that we go on taking that approach, we must then do so with the same level of integrity and understanding. What that is? That if we can not blame technology, we can not praise it either. 

        If the teachers are responsible for the instruction and teaching better, and students should focus on learning better, which I agree. We can not blame nor praise the tools for the content and knowledge that is imparted. And as such, we must not say that technology is the solution to education. And that goes for all other mediums, and in accordance to your last sentence, education has nothing to do with a phone, a computer, a tablet, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/neicolec Neicole Crepeau

    What a smart point. I think you’re spot-on, Jason. My kids seem typical and much like I was as a kid. When they do papers, one of my daughters and two of my sons are fairly careful and check their spelling, punctuation, etc. One of them is lazy on that front and I have to make him sit down and edit the paper. All of them, when they are in online games or texting/IMing use abbreviations. So do I, for that matter.

    I’ll add another one. You often hear parents and educators concerned about online gaming and how it is making kid antisocial. But my kids are always meeting others online or having them over to game together. They talk constantly during the games, even the first person shooters, coordinating their attack. And their favorite game right now is one called Minecraft, where you mine different materials, craft them into blocks and other items, and build incredible creations with them–including building circuit-like things to create railways and automated items. The kids chat with friends online during the game about how to build different things. They will all pile in the study together, each on their own computer, but constantly turning to talk and coordinate as they work together to get the materials they need and build. That sounds an awful lot like the kind of team work we do in our jobs everyday, and want our kids to learn to do. Nothing antisocial at all.

    • http://ludvikherrera.com Ludvik Herrera

      There is more communication, but it is very indirect. Very easy to say something to a computer or through the use of technology. But put these same kids and adults face to face with the same group of people and watch their reactions. People are facing physical social presence awkwardness. Which also is a part of learning how to communicate and to talk to individuals. It is great to communicate with short messages and coordinate efforts through games. But I’d encourage you to hear most of todays’ kids ages 10-16 phone conversations. Listen in, carefully and let me know if you can find a complete sentence or if it is an outbursts of short messages. 

      I am not blaming technology, I actually like it and I use it, but definitely the parents and educators and not being conscious into how young people use of technology and that is in reality where the responsibility lays on. Now aren’t mobile phones only ways to communicate, but nannies, entertainment centers and anti-theft devices.

      Just my two cents.

  • http://twitter.com/Noadi Sheryl

    My mom is a teacher and in her opinion technology and specifically the internet has improved her students reading and writing. Why? Because the web is still mostly a text environment so kids are reading more and the more you read the better you are at it. I read fewer book now than I did 10 years ago but the total amount of text I read a day is much higher.

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