Speech-language therapy to help teens to text? Are you joking?

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Far from it. And I’ll tell you why. But, first, a quick story.

When I last went back to University, things had changed. Students took notes on iPads. Lecture notes and journal articles were accessed instantaneously online. People collaborated on assignments in real-time using Google Docs and Skype. Assignments could be “handed in” by clicking a button. Fellow students discussed an array of social and academic topics in torrents of criss-crossed, emoji-studded Facebook messages and texts, many of which appeared to be written in code. It was a steep – sometimes intimidating – learning curve for a middle-aged bloke accustomed to taking notes on Legal pads, tracking down cloth-bound tomes from dusty library shelves, committing to all-day-photocopying sessions, attending face-to-face group work meetings on weekends, calling people on landlines, and driving to campus to hand in assignments with actual hands. It took a lot of effort and time to figure it all out.

Just imagine if I’d had a language disorder to deal with as well. Would I have coped?

Now, consider these facts:

1. Many teenagers love texting and see it as an integral part of their social lives

  • Almost all teenagers and young adults in developed countries like the US, UK and Australia have mobile phones (e.g. Nordicom, 2009).
  • Texting is popular amongst teens and young adults (e.g. Rideout et al., 2010).
  • One in three teenagers in the US and UK send more than 100 texts a day – more than 3000 a month (e.g. Lenhart et al., 2010; Skills Development Scotland, 2010).
  • In addition to traditional short messaging service (SMS) texts, there are now a slew of messaging and social media apps, e.g. WhatsApp (now owned by Facebook), Facebook Messenger, Viber (now owned by Rakuten), Discord and of course Twitter used by millions of teenagers worldwide. For simplicity, I’m going to refer collectively to traditional sms-texting and “messaging” on these apps as “texting”.
  • Texting:
    • is informal – spelling and grammar mistakes are tolerated, and sometimes actively encouraged (Madell & Muncer, 2007);
    • combines principles of written language but also elements of spoken language. Some researchers think it is more like speaking than writing (e.g. Ling, 2005); and
    • has evolved its own language conventions – sometimes called textisms or text-speak. These include abbreviations, acronyms and slang. Sometimes, words are shortened by dropping letters or endings, using letters, numbers, symbols or combinations as replacements for standard spellings (e.g. “cu l8r”). There are now even text-speak dictionaries, e.g. Netlingo.
  • Teenagers across the world, have subjected standard forms of language to (sometimes very) creative manipulation, mainly based on local slang and dialect terms. These include abbreviations, and the use of phonetic-based spellings (e.g. “da” for “the”, “cuz” for “because”). Text-speak evolves quickly – it’s likely the examples cited here will be hopelessly outdated by the time this post is up.
  • Many young people prefer texting over talking on mobile phones. For many teens, sending texts is one of the main modes of keeping in touch with friends and planning social activities (e.g. Durkin et al., 2010).
  • As people experience the social benefits of texting, they tend to engage with it more (Reid & Reid, 2010).
  • Most young people receive little, if any, direct instruction in how to text – they learn to do it by doing it.

2. Texting does not harm literacy – it may actually help

  • For some (often self-appointed) defenders of “proper language” (whatever that might be), texting and text-speak trigger something approaching moral panic (e.g. Humphreys, 2007).
  • Research to date has shown that this concern is unfounded:
    • there seems to be no statistically significant differences between regular texters and non-texters in measures of word identification, reading fluency and spelling (Drouin & Davis, 2009);
    • higher levels of text language use are actually associated with higher scores on word reading, vocabulary and phonological awareness tests (Plester et al., 2009); and
    • texting may foster the development of literacy skills of 10-12 year olds (Plester et al., 2009).
  • Some researchers think that innovative text-speak requires advanced literacy skills (e.g. Crystal, 2008).

3. Some teens have language disorders that affect their communication skills and confidence, often with serious consequences

  • Approximately 3% of teenagers have “Specific Language Impairment” (SLI), a kind of language disorder that can’t be explained by IQ, deafness or other sensory impairments, or neurological damage (McKinley & Larson, 1989).
  • Young people with SLI are at risk of negative self-perceptions about communicating with others (e.g. Conti-Ramsden & Botting, 2004).
  • Teenagers with SLI are, on average, shyer than their peers, and have more problems making friends (Wadman et al., 2008).
  • Some teenagers with SLI have poor quality friendships than peers without SLI. In one (devastating) study, 40% of 16 year olds with SLI had no friends with whom they shared activities (Durkin & Conti-Ramsden, 2007).
  • SLI can severely limit opportunities for social interaction with peers (Conti-Ramsden et al., 2010).
  • Teenagers with SLI are at greater risk of social marginalisation than peers without language disorders (e.g. Brinton & Fujiki, 2002).
  • Many young people with SLI have difficulties with literacy: reading comprehension and/or writing (e.g. Bishop & Clarkson, 2003; Puranik et al., 2007).
  • Teens with SLI have difficulties understanding and using slang and jargon (e.g. Reed 2005).

4. Research tells us that teens with language disorders struggle with texting

  • A 2011 study compared 47 typically developing 17 years olds and the same number of 17 year olds with SLI (see full citation below).
  • The researchers found that, compared to their typically developing peers, teenagers with SLI:
    • were less likely to send text messages in response to invitations;
    • produced fewer and shorter messages; and
    • were less likely to use text-speak.

Clinical bottom line

We’ve known for a long time that language disorders can wreak havoc on teenagers’ academic and social participation and later job prospects. Technological change can help people with language disorders. But it can also make things worse.

Writing-based texting services, applications and platforms are an important part of many teenagers’ lives. That’s unlikely to change soon, even with the increased use of image and video-based technologies.

Teenagers who struggle to read and to write texts and to use text-speaking conventions are at increased risk of social exclusion. As text-based technologies are used more in schools (e.g. Canvas and Edmodo) and workplaces (e.g. Asana or Slack), these teens may also find it more difficult to access the curriculum and, later, to find and hold a quality job.

So, just as with other functional communication needs, teens with language disorders may benefit from supported introductions to texting. No joke.

Principal source: Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G., & Walker, A.J. (2011). Txt lang: Texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 49-57.

Inspiration: Thanks to @Wespeechies curator, Charlotte Forwood, who alerted me to Kevin Durkin’s research during a #WeSpeechies Twitter chat on 1 March 2016.

Related articles:

Image: http://bit.ly/1PAyWgM

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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