Internet Shorthand Sometimes Used in Students’ Coursework

As e-mail messages, text messages and social network postings become nearly ubiquitous in the lives of teenagers, the informality of electronic communications is seeping into their schoolwork, a new study says.

Nearly two-thirds of 700 students surveyed said their e-communication style sometimes bled into school assignments, according to the study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing. About half said they sometimes omitted proper punctuation and capitalization in schoolwork. A quarter said they had used emoticons like smiley faces. About a third said they had used text shortcuts like “LOL” for “laugh out loud.”

“I think this is not a worrying issue at all,” said Richard Sterling, emeritus executive director of the National Writing Project, which aims to improve the teaching of writing.

When e-mail shorthand — or for that matter, slang — appears in academic assignments, Professor Sterling said, it is an opportunity for teachers to explain that while such usages are acceptable in some contexts, they do not belong in schoolwork. And as the English language evolves, he said, some e-mail conventions, like starting sentences without a capital letter, may well become accepted practice.

“I think in the future, capitalization will disappear,” said Professor Sterling, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, he said, when his teenage son asked what the presence of the capital letter added to what the period at the end of the sentence signified, he had no answer.

The study is based on eight focus groups and the survey of 700 nationally representative children, ages 12 to 17, and their parents, conducted in 2007. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Schools are grappling with the language of electronic communication. At the Bank Street School for Children in Manhattan, Stanlee Brimberg has set up an electronic message board for his class. On it he posts nightly questions, assigning students to respond to one of the questions and then to respond to another student’s response.

“After the first night, we had to talk about whether they had to write the way they do in class, or whether it could be the way they do online,” said Mr. Brimberg, who is Bank Street’s upper school coordinator. “We decided that their response to the question should be in standard English, proofread, with capital letters, but their response to the other kid could be informal. And that worked.”

Most teenagers do not think of their e-mail messages, text messages and social network postings as “real writing,” the study found.

More than half of the teenagers surveyed had a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace, 27 percent had an online journal or blog and 11 percent had a personal Web site. Generally, girls dominated the teenage blogosphere and social networks.

Most teenagers write for school nearly every day, the study found, but most assignments are short. And many write outside school, on their own, although that varies significantly by race and sex. Almost half of black teenagers said they wrote a personal journal, compared with 3 in 10 whites. And nearly half of the girls keep a journal, compared with only 3 in 10 boys.