XKCD vs hand-wringing about what texting does to kids' literacy


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Hmph. Everything was better back in my day. Even pencils were considered high-tech.

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Yea, writing and sending a postcard via post almost seems as big a hack now as making a satellite receiver from a Realtek DVB-T USB dongle, an appropriate band LNB, and a wok.

Texting manners is like mobile phone manners, or line queueing manners, or table manners; both have little to do with the medium or setting and much to do with general manners.


of course our literacy metrics are questionable. it took me years to dishabituate myself of writing complex but vague sentences which maxed out the standardized testing metrics but were completely silly, if not counterproductive, in many other contexts.

it’s as if we took the quote “If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!” and reified it statistically.

i’m still cautiously optimistic about the effect of texting.


I learned to touch type by playing Starcraft (which did not have built-in voice chat), so I don’t find this kind of thing particularly surprising. Unfortunately, the joke kind of falls flat, since for every James Joyce there are millions of Anthony Weiners.

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I think his analogy is slightly off. The difference between texting and other written forms of communication seem significant enough that it’s like tossing a ball in the air all day with one’s arm behind one’s back. It would develop a skill, but not one necessarily applicable to baseball. I rather suspect that the texting/literacy connection is one of correlation rather than causation, frankly. After all, which kids are texting more? The ones that can afford to, i.e. kids with relatively wealthy (and educated) parents…

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Seems to me that the definition of “literacy” is changing, or at the very least acquired numerous (and more nuanced) definitions, any of which could be interpreted to complement or counter-indicate any of the others.

Sadly any sort of establishment assessmet and metrics are going to always be just far enough behind contemporary changes in common usage to always lead to alarmist conclusions.


We’ve been tutoring a lot of high school students lately, and the thing that we noticed was that few of them read long form anything anymore. This includes kids who in previous generations we would have considered “bookworms”. (Our bookworms always responded wonderfully to fiction when we finally helped them get into it. Whether it is too late for them to turn into reading junkies is hard to tell.) The biggest reader we dealt with had a great vocabulary from reading World of Warcraft novels. They might be formulaic, but they’re narrative.

Personally, I don’t care what the kids do with their spare time, as long is it isn’t too horribly destructive. What we are worried about is that they have a lot of trouble extracting information from written works, and those includes web pages. A lot of it has to be taught, or at least learned as some people do it naturally. There is a whole framework missing: start reading, buffer up questions as you go, learn to recognize answers. Reading stories to little kids builds this naturally, as they want to find out what happens next or the why, when and what of the situation. They are full of questions, and they learn to anticipate and appreciate the answers as they are revealed. The kids we worked with just got lost in word soup.

I’m not bitching about the kids. They just haven’t been taught. When we explained the parts of speech to a high school girl, she sighed, “It would have been real nice if we had been taught this in middle school.” Granted, it’s awfully easy to just coast through one’s education without realizing which things are important and will be useful in the future and which things are just examples and applications to help one learn the important stuff. That gets us into modern textbooks and the checklist approach to curriculum which all seems to be from Samsung or Microsoft and not at all focused like the Apple version.


When I find myself at the edge of calm lakes, I get the urge to see how many times I can skip my phone.

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Eh, Not particularly biting on the class argument. These days the cell companies seem to have gotten their heads right about costs of continuous voice vs occasional data packets, and unlimited txt seems to be the standard, especially the low end, prepaid month-to-month plans common among the less affluent.

Sure, Richy Rich kid might be texting on the iPhone9 with platinum bevels, rather than the Kyocera POS, but that dosn’t affect the quantity of texts, let alone the quality if the writing.


I agree and I think this is at least partly because so much of what kids are forced to temporarily memorize for the satisfaction of the adults is not important at any time in the kids’ lives.


Jim Abbott might like a word with you.

Also in that they improve with practice and age.

You try to skip this?

Something like a fifth of teenagers don’t have cellphones at all. It’s still an indicator, to some degree, of parental income and education, for example. There are probably plenty of other correlations that could also be made.

The thing I note about most online presences who don’t employ proper grammar and spelling in text isn’t that they can’t do so, but that they can’t be arsed to do so. They have the technical skills, they simply lack the motivation to bother.

That said, you’re completely right about standardized tests being complete nonsense. But if we’re seeing a statistically significant trend showing that children who text more frequently score better on these tests, surely that tells us something - even if it means they’re only better at exploiting the system and producing inputs which are complete garbage in any other context, but that work purely for the sake of getting through the test.

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I had a similar experience, learning to touch type playing in an old text-based MUD.

I still sometimes rarely will reflexively type out the “LOOK” command in the silliest of circumstances - most recently while mucking around late at night in Blender I needed to check some numeric value in one of the many info boxes and instead of clicking the button to show the box, I typed out “look” and hit enter, unconsciously expecting that to open the window I needed. I cringed so hard I swear I pulled something.


Maybe they’re just gearing up for a career in Marketing. But seriously, we might look askance at exploiting the system, but it can be a useful skill, especially if your pay depends on meeting metrics that are also complete garbage in any other context.


A fifth??? A fifth of TEENAGERS do not have a cellphone? What country is that?

I googled up some statistics for Austria…
In 2006, 99% of 15 to 25-year olds had a cellphone in Austria.
2011: 82% of 12-year olds had a cellphone.
2013: 87% of 15 to 18 year olds had a smart phone (i.e., they probably use WhatsApp rather than text messages).

Source: Various google results, surveys of doubtful quality and reliability. They all seem to agree that virtually everyone has a cellphone, though.

That would be the US of A, where about a fifth of households with children are living in poverty…