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#EFLproblems – Teaching writing in the age of WhatsApp

Examples of text speakWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. In this week’s blog, Stacey Hughes responds to Klaudija Pralija’s Facebook post. Kaludija’s problem is not only getting students to write more than just short messages, but also teaching them to use appropriate language and grammar in more formal writing.

The challenge of text speak

Klaudija outlined a common problem in many classrooms. Students who are used to texting short messages full of emoticons, jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and other non-standard English can feel it is acceptable to use these same features in more formal writing. On the plus side, if students are texting in English, research conducted by the British Academy (2010) suggests that this may have a positive impact on their language development. It is also worth noting that social media discussions can be the starting point for later articles, reports or studies.

For example, an idea brought up in a blog discussion or Twitter chat amongst EFL professionals could spark ideas that lead to a conference presentation further down the line. So students need to learn when it’s OK to use text language, and they need the flexibility to be able to switch between it and more standard or formal language.

To work on this flexibility, ask students to match common ‘text-speak’ with more formal phrases, which could then be used in whatever writing task is coming up. So, for example, in a unit where students have to write a formal letter, students could match items as below:

🙂 = I would be pleased/ delighted to…; I am happy to…
!? = Could you please clarify…
Thx = Thank you for…
i wanna = I would like to…
cu l8r = I look forward to seeing you later

Alternatively, ask students to choose a recent text message and ‘translate’ it into standard/formal English. If their texts are not in English, they could even do some research to find out the English equivalents. Discuss when text speak is an appropriate form of writing to help students begin to have an awareness of different types of writing for different purposes and audiences.

Another idea is to have a checklist that can be used for all student writing:

  • I used full sentences
  • I didn’t use abbreviations
  • I didn’t use slang
  • I used full forms rather than contractions
  • I used standard spellings

Writing in standard English

Getting students to be motivated to write longer texts can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The key is to get students invested in the task. Let’s imagine that you are on a unit in which students need to write a report with arguments for and against something. Start by brainstorming something that the students feel strongly about. This could be related to something happening in the school (putting in a new vending machine, creating a new club, etc), in the community (building a new supermarket), or in the wider world.

Once you have decided on an issue (or issues if you want students to work in groups on different issues), ask students to use whatever social media channels they wish to discuss it. They can tweet about it, blog about it, Facebook chat about it, WhatsApp it – whatever they choose. With younger learners, issues of safety online should be addressed before this stage. Another alternative is to provide a chat wall where students can put up ‘tweets’ or messages using post-it notes. Chatting about issues via social media mirrors what happens in the real world and shows students how these channels can play a role in laying the foundation for other types of writing.

The next step is to decide who to write to about this issue – the Headmaster? The Mayor? The President? This audience awareness will help students focus on using more standard English and more serious arguments. Discuss why a headmaster or government official might want arguments for and against something and not just a one-sided viewpoint (e.g. s/he wants a clear picture of both sides of an argument, etc.). Discuss why it needs to be in more formal language (e.g. to be taken seriously; the headmaster doesn’t understand text speak, etc.).

Students then work to extract ideas from the chats and put them into more standard or formal language. They will need to evaluate the arguments to decide which can be used in their report. They will also need to decide which arguments are stronger and which they support. They may also wish to write recommendations. Finally, students write the report. If possible, allow students to write it on the computer so they can use the spell check and grammar check function built into word processors. Far from being a ‘cheat’, these tools force students to look carefully at what they have written in order to correct it (or not – computers make mistakes, too!). Typing out a report also makes it look and feel more ‘official’. Build in some peer review of the report, too. Again, this collaborative approach mirrors what happens in the real world and can lead to better work.

Ideally, if appropriate, students can send the report to the intended audience. What better motivator than to know their work is actually being read!

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about getting students to write in standard English, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 8 November at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. You can let us know by commenting on this post, on Twitter using the hashtag #EFLproblems, or on our Facebook page. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.

Here are the topics for the next three blogs:

27 November, 2013: Motivating younger learners
04 December, 2013: Learning English beyond the exams
18 December, 2013: Written self-correction for younger learners