Can Texting Help Teens with Writing and Spelling?

One of my parents dropped me a line today, asking for a bit of advice about her daughter—who, because of a bit of reading reluctance has always struggled with spelling proficiency. 

Specifically, she was wondering whether or not texting might be a good forum for spelling practice for her daughter—and if so, whether cell phones with autocorrect become a crutch for kids who struggle with spelling.

Interesting questions, aren’t they?  And they’re right up my alley, considering I can’t spell to save my life! 

(Didn’t know that about me, did you?)

It’s true.  Even though I’m a professional writer who just finished his third book and his 500th blog entry here on the Radical, spelling has never been a strong suit of mine.

That bing siad—sorry, had to do it—here’s a few thoughts on texting, spelling and teens.

Texting certainly provides dozens of new opportunities for kids to write.

Let’s face it:  Us adult types have been pretty skeptical about texting, haven’t we?  Find me one parent or teacher that believes texting has value as a teaching/learning tool and I’ll find you fifty who think texting is the root cause of the decline of Western Civilization as we know it.

Heck, a few years back, the Librarian of Congress went as far as to argue that texting is leading to the death of the sentence. 

That’s hardcore.

But it is impossible to deny that texting has provided dozens of new writing opportunities for our kids.  After all, the average teen sends 50 texts a day—a number that rises to 80 when you look at just the teen girls who are texting.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  It’s difficult to see much writing value in messages that are full of text-speak.  Can we really count the six “LOLs” and “ROTFLs” sent per day as writing opportunities? 

The answer is yes—because no matter how short-hand-ed-ly written a message is, it is still an opportunity for writing that our kids didn’t have back in the good ol’ text-free days of yesteryear.

Did YOU write 50+ messages a day to anyone back when you were a teen or a tween?

Me neither.


But teens don’t see texting as a tool for writing.

Here’s the hitch:  Our kids DON’T see texting as a tool for formal writing.  Instead, texting is a tool for the kinds of informal conversations that the rest of us grown-up-types used to have on those things called landlines.

“Hey,” we’d say.  “Whaddya’ doin’?”


“Me neither”

“Bummer, dood.”

Transcribe a few of those conversations word for word, Mr. Library of Congress Man, and you’ll quickly discover that hormones and teen-aged-hood have been trying to kill articulate thought for a long, long while now! 

Teens have never been particularly formal when interacting with their peers—whether that was on the rotary phones of the late 1970s or in the text messages of today.

That doesn’t mean that rotary phones and texting are automatically bad for the intellectual development of our kids, but it does mean that texting isn’t a natural way to encourage quality writing practices in today’s kids because that’s not how today’s kids see texting.

If we really want to use texting as a tool for meaningful writing instruction, we’re going to have to shift our students’ perception about the purposes of texting as a form of communication—and that shift might just allow us to take advantage of the most motivating forum for teenage writing ever seen.

But when was the last time that changing the way that teens communicate—that laying a layer of academics over the top of a tool that kids use almost exclusively for social purposes—was easy? 

My guess:  Never.


Creating meaningful writing opportunities out of texting requires specific tasks and, possibly, new audiences.

If I wanted to try to use texting as a tool for giving students opportunities to develop writing and spelling proficiency, I think I’d wind ‘em up on 25 word stories

A fun Twitter project that I first learned about from Kevin Hodgson, 25 word stories are exactly what you think they are:  Attempts to write complete stories in 25 words or less.

The 25 word limit is beautiful for lots of reasons.  Perhaps most importantly to me as a professional writing teacher, 25 word stories require authors to be creative in their word choice and to craft pieces that force readers to rely on inferences to figure out what’s really going on. 

Here’s a 25 word story I wrote yesterday.  See how readers are left to wonder—what is the man dreaming about?  What about his past was broken?  How does he feel about bedtime?  Will he ever reclaim his life?

For kids, 25 word stories are beautiful because they’re 25 words long!  That’s infinitely more doable than the five-paragraph essays we’re asking them to write all the time, isn’t it?

25 word stories work a lot like brain teasers.  When you’re limited to 25 words—or to the 160 characters allowed in one text message—you’ve got to puzzle a bit to get your piece just right.  For a lot of kids, that mental puzzling is fun. 

When my kids were done with their 25 word stories, I’d have ‘em text them to their friends—who could pretty easily respond with feedback.  Suddenly, the audience for a text message becomes the audience for an interesting bit of writing.

And once the audience for a text message becomes the audience for an interesting bit of writing, spelling matters again

By giving kids a specific, interesting task for the text messages that they’re writing, we can start to shift their perception of messaging as a forum for informal communication to messaging as a forum for sharing bits of interesting, well-developed thought.

Does that make sense? 

One final thought:  If I were a parent pushing my child in the direction of 25 word stories as content for text messages and she didn’t have any friends who were willing to play along, I’d create a Twitter account for her and start posting her stories there.

The writers posting their 25 word stories on Twitter take the practice seriously and give one another feedback all the time.  Shifting audience might make short messaging more successful as a writing practice for kids whose friends just aren’t interested in trying something new.


Knowing how to spell isn’t essential—knowing how to identify errors and correct them is.

The short answer to my parent’s last question—do cell phones with autocorrect spelling features become crutches for kids—is a resounding yes.

If your goal is for your child to be a master speller on their own—like one of those kids on the National Spelling Bees at 3 AM on ESPN 2 in the middle of February—you should avoid autocorrect tools at all costs. 

But here’s the thing:  Most researchers will tell you that spellers move through developmental stages and that many adults will never get to the top levels of spelling ability no matter how many spelling lists they memorize in elementary school.

I’m living proof, y’all!  Heck, when I write on the board in my classroom, the kids laugh hysterically at how mangled my words are.

What I tell them once they catch their breath and wipe the tears out of their eyes is that knowing how to spell isn’t essential.  Instead, knowing how to identify—and then to correct—errors is what’s really essential.

Back in the day, knowing how to identify and then to correct errors was a chore, though.  It involved all kinds of proofreading (I read my papers backwards to avoid being blinded by context) and phonemic awareness (I sounded out every word that was more than 3 letters for a long, long time). 

Today, knowing how to identify and correct errors is way easier.  Start by looking for the red lines.  Then, right click on your mouse and find the correct spelling in the list that is automatically generated for you by the device you’re using.

Kids never had it so easy!

Sure, there are going to be times when spell check doesn’t work.  There may even be times where you’re not able to access a device that spell checks and autocorrects—although that’s getting less and less likely for everyone working beyond the unplugged public school classroom where most devices are banned and/or broken.

But for the most part, I’m a big fan of taking advantage of tools that make me more efficient because I can use the time that I save on chores to do more interesting stuff. 

When I can invest my mental energy into the content of a writing piece instead of into the drudgery of figuring out how to spell a million incorrect words, my work is more engaging and my mind is more engaged.


So whaddya’ think? 

How important do you think spelling proficiency really is in today’s world?  Are you an “autocorrect-makes-‘em-lazy” kind of guy or a “I-love-me-some-red-lines” kind of guy?

Have you ever thought about using texting as a tool for improving the writing and spellling proficiencies of your students?  Why or why not?

Do you think we’re missing an opportunity when we don’t take advantage of texting as a forum for expression and meaningful communication?  After all, our kids have certainly embraced it.

9 thoughts on “Can Texting Help Teens with Writing and Spelling?

  1. Turning Winds Page

    The 25 word story sounds like a good exercise for my teen. I think it’s just a matter of how you remind your children of the importance of grammar and spelling beyond texting that matters. It’s reasonable if they do shortcuts with important messages to send because it’s definitely the faster way to do it. But then, they should also learn how write them correctly when not texting. Check their spelling and grammar once in awhile, you might find if they’re having trouble with the English subject or not.

  2. michelle h.

    First, as the mom who sent you this email, you are so kind to have put this much thought into it.
    Her father and I are still haggling over upgrading her to a model with spellcheck but you did come down on my side so I of course had to point him here. I check her texts messages every so often and the spelling is just so bad that it alarmed me she was developing worse habits by spelling poorly.
    As you know, she’s on twitter now and writing her 25 word stories which seem to really be fun to her. No stress since they are so short.
    She’s actually asked more about spelling words this week than every before – if she’s tweeting people, she wants to get it right. So those are positives – not just the asking but the caring.

  3. Terry Dassow

    Resisting change is an impossible feat, so teachers have been right to utilize texting in a way that is useful to teenagers’ ability to write standard English. There are so many components to writing well! Assigning students to write a 25 word story teaches them not only about the bare essentials to the plot of a story, but also how to be concise and eliminate wordiness.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Maria wrote:
    My daughter and her friends spend a lot of time in chats related to
    – They discuss books they read and other media, ideas they
    contributed, and how these ideas will go into the stories they write
    – They beta and critique through chats
    – They have whole roleplay worlds where they write in-character through
    chats and discuss their writing out of character, through chats again,
    for hours at a time
    You know, Maria, your daughter and her friends are a perfect example of my third point because theyve created a specific purpose for their texting. They dont see texting as simply a tool for social communication—theyre using it for learning purposes, and it sounds like theyve designed these opportunities on their own, which is pretty cool in and of itself.
    For teachers, theres a lesson here: When we show kids that texting can be something more than a tool for social communication, great things are possible.
    I do think, though, that your daughter and her friends are unique. Most kids wouldnt automatically create the same kinds of opportunities for themselves without a bit of guidance from parents and/or teachers. Its not that they dont want to be learners—its that they dont always see the natural connections between the tools that they are using and the behaviors that define learners.
    You seemed surprised by my assertion that most kids dont see texting as a forum for writing. Thats drawn from the hyperlinked Pew study, where 60% of teens surveyed said that they didnt see their texting as writing.
    Hope this makes sense,

  5. Drdouggreen

    Thanks for the excellent post. It should make teachers think. Why shouldn’t we let kids use spell check in school when they can use it on the job? For short cuts to professional development for educators go to DrDougGreen.Com. Keep up the good work.

  6. gasstationwithoutpumps

    Spell checkers are useful tools, but you have to get students to care about spelling before they bother to use them. I see a lot of writing from college seniors and grad students where it is clear that they haven’t bothered to spellcheck.
    I also see a lot of writing (in newspapers as well as academic writing) where it is clear that the writers have done spell checks, but not bothered to check whether the right homophone was chosen.
    Typos in chats, blog comments, and other rapid-writing contexts don’t bother me. But the more chances there are to edit, the more I get irritated by sloppiness in the mechanics of writing.

  7. MariaDroujkova

    What do you mean, teens don’t see texting as a writing tool? My daughter and her friends spend a lot of time in chats related to writing:
    – They discuss books they read and other media, ideas they contributed, and how these ideas will go into the stories they write
    – They beta and critique through chats
    – They have whole roleplay worlds where they write in-character through chats and discuss their writing out of character, through chats again, for hours at a time
    – They talk about writer retreats, coordinate classes, arrange their NaNoWriMo cafe meetings and do other logistics work, in chats
    – They help one another with participation in larger writer communities, such as blogger groups or
    – They share tools and apps that help, sites (e.g. mind-mapping) and other reference material
    These kids are homeschooled and thus probably are more used to self-organizing. I have been observing this activity somewhat, and occasionally contributing an idea or two, but they built their whole writing personal learning network themselves, and it’s been very effective over the years.

  8. Lindsay Henry

    You’re preaching to the chior! My students this year have hd the opportunity to use iPads in the classroom and it has made a world of difference in quality, productivity, and interest in their writing… and yes grammar and spelling have improved too!! I’m going o try the 25 word story sometime! Thanks!

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