Saturday science subject: The literacy revolution

— 2:55 PM on August 29, 2009

Is the era of Twitter, SMS, blogs, and YouTube making us illiterate? Prescriptivist rants and tales of SMS language peppered through school essays would certainly suggest so. However, as Wired reports, Stanford English Professor Andrea Lunsford came to a very different conclusion after a five-year study of student writing.

The study spanned 14,672 writing samples from not just class assignments, but also blog posts, e-mails, and chat sessions. Lunsford found that schoolwork only accounted for 62% of the Stanford students' writing, the other 38% being what she calls "life writing." The professor sees a stark contrast with previous generations, who rarely put pen to paper unless their job or school required it.

But what about the quality of the students writing? Is quantity supplanting quality? Wired has more:

Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it's over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn't serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.

Believe it or not, the study even casts doubt on those SMS shorthand stories: "When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn't find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper," the article says. Perhaps Stanford students are just too high-brow; or maybe only 13-year-old British kids do that kind of thing.

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