Our students spend a lot of time tweeting, composing Instagram captions, and text messaging. In the process, they are carefully observing and decoding the subtleties of social media text. They know when it’s cool to replace “yes” with “yas” and how to turn a common courtesy into a sarcastic “thanksss” with just a few extra letters.
Even if internet-fueled trends like the popularity of ellipses drive you crazy, embracing social media writing still offers exciting possibilities. Our students are fluent in the language of pop culture. They spend hours of their free time writing and analyzing social media text. Instead of viewing such writing as a deficit, let’s leverage the thinking that students are already doing when they write a text or engage in social media.
The changing norms of social media writing don’t match standard classroom English expectations, but they do follow patterns of language development. For example, you may have noticed that many students are leaving the period off the end of their text messages. The lack of punctuation may seem sloppy or haphazard to an unaware reader, but the missing period carries meaning. Many digital natives interpret the use of a period at the end of a text message as angry, overly formal, or an abrupt end to a conversation. Even if students can’t tell you exactly why they didn’t include a period, they can probably detect a difference in tone.
A missing period at the end of a sentence might make teachers cringe, but it’s a real-life example of how readers and writers develop a shared understanding of what conventions mean and how language works in patterns. When we help students analyze this trend or others, like multiple exclamation points or the use of slashes, we’re helping them analyze patterns that they use instinctively—and they can apply that kind of analysis in other, more formal contexts.
To get students to translate their knowledge of social media writing to the classroom, have students make lists of the ways that a particular convention is used in texting or tweeting. If they find multiple tweets that include periods to emphasize a point by punctuating every. single. word., they can correctly conclude that the period is being used for emphasis. Then, do the same activity with standard English examples. The comparison will provide plenty of fodder for discussing convention expectations in different writing contexts. By building on what they already know, students will be even more effective at analyzing classroom writing expectations.
Social Media Code-Switching
Of course, it’s not enough just to analyze grammar. Good writers move seamlessly between writing at all levels of formality. The breezy language of an email to a friend is different from the more formal language required for a grant application. But developing writers often need specific support to code-switch between the informal language of social media or text messaging and the formal language required for school research reports.
Instead of banishing the writing students use most often, use it to help them identify the kinds of writing that a given context calls for. For example, students have no trouble identifying the different writing demands of texting their friends versus texting their parents, but they might not be able to dissect the exact ways that their writing changes between these two contexts. Consider making lists that compare informal and formal writing. Or spend a bit of class time finding examples of how writers show emotion or sincerity differently depending on the context.
Kristen Hawley Turner suggests using Flip the Switch, an activity where students translate sentences from one context to another. Students might figure out how a greeting, for example, changes between an email to a boss, a text message to a bestie, and an introductory letter to a new teacher. Acknowledging the validity of each context helps students translate their writing into the most appropriate form instead of writing off the informality of social media altogether.
Texting and social media writing aren’t going away anytime soon. Linguist John McWhorter suggests viewing the changes as an “expansion of [young people’s] linguistic repertoire.” The changing, informal conventions of social media aren’t a challenge to standard classroom English—they’re an opportunity.