What we don’t know will hurt us.

Posted by Jack Jarvis on January 3, 2011

hhos    i wasn’t rofl

Next time you read a 6th grader’s written assignment, don’t be surprised if you see unfamiliar acronyms popping up and a lack of proper grammar and basic punctuation.  The student may simply be stuck in “texting mode.”  Examples: hhos (Ha Ha only serious, as in “funny with an element of truth”) and rofl (rolling on the floor laughing).

We recently observed this incursion of text messaging shorthand into Standard English when students in our advanced computer group switched to the web-based version of their Holt Social Studies textbooks.  In reviewing  online assignments completed by these  students, I was shocked to see what appeared to be bone-headed errors in their written responses to social studies questions: first words of sentences lacking capitalization, ends of sentences missing periods, proper nouns without capitals.  Yet, these kids were proficient or above on last year’s CST.  What was going on?

The answer? These students are avid texters. They live to text. They don’t talk on the phone; they text. They don’t email; they text.  And the practice is now permeating their school writing—brb, culatr, omg, lol.  Not a capital to be found.  Abbreviations abound.  It would be safe to bet that time they spend texting and reading text messages surpasses the time they read and write in school.

We may be unwittingly aggravating the situation.  For awhile now, I’ve noticed teachers inadvertently limiting their students’ reading time by doing most of it for them.  At my site, we recently argued about how much reading a 6th grade teacher should do for the students.  In order to settle the argument, we asked those same proficient students what they thought. Their response? Yes, they can read the text themselves. Yes, the teacher “does it a lot,” said one student,  “and it takes a lot of time. ” “They should let us do it,” her classmate added.

We discovered another interesting fact in working with this bright group. When the students created PowerPoint presentations to summarize what they’d read in their online textbook, the same errors did not exist.  I asked a group of four students to explain.  Their reply? “We may have to present this to other kids and they’ll think we’re dumb.” Aha! A ray of hope.

The staff and I  certainly learned some useful lessons:

  • These kids actually want to read more on their own.
  • They text more than they read or write in school.
  • They sometimes slip into texting habits, but they’ll use better English when they know their work may be seen by a wider audience.

But perhaps the most important lesson we learned was the value of talking to them about their own learning more frequently.   As educators, what we don’t know about our students will hurt us!

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Jack Jarvis

Principal, Hidalgo Elementary, Fresno Unified, Fresno, CA. Enjoy hockey, golf and music.

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