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Student perceptions of the impact of Instant Messaging on academic writing.

Picture this: a teenage girl walks down a crowded middle school hallway. The girl makes eye contact with others, presumably friends, as she makes her way down the corridor. Every so often, she stops briefly to talk with some of the other students. The conversation is not anything elaborate--maybe just 'How are you doin'?' or 'What's up?' At most, the conversations are a sentence or two in length before the student continues her way down the hall. As she does so, she spots another friend and has a brief conversation. This situation happens again and again. This scenario is not unique to any school, street, or town, for it happens almost every second of the day. And, it does not just occur in person--it also takes place when people are on computers Instant Messaging each other.

New and intriguing phenomena are happening in online communication these days. This generation of students has always been surrounded by technology, and their social lives reflect this. Moreover, this phenomenon is changing students' relationships with others, including how they talk with their friends. Currently, the initial scenario of a chat in the hallway appears to be as common as talk via the computer and Internet. Many times, these conversations happen with two, three, five, seven, even ten people at once. Sometimes there is even a new kind of language being used: 'My summr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2g2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids F2F. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc' (Diamond 2003, p. 2). This a brief part of Instant Messaging talk: 'My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It's a great place' (Diamond 2003, p. 2).

Instant Messaging is not just found in the previous situations. It is happening across the nation. And, for teenagers, it is also taking the place of email (as cited in Noguchi, 2006). While email is still present in adolescent communication, Instant Messaging is preferred. Additionally, recent statistics showed that approximately half of instant-messaging teens (32% of all adolescents) use IM every single day through cell phones or handheld devices. Other striking numbers include the following:

* 75% of online teens (2/3 of all teenagers) use Instant Messaging

* 48% of teens who Instant Message do so at least once a day (Lenhart et al. 2006).

* 25% of all online teenagers see Instant Messaging as their main communication tool in their life (Zucco, 2003).

Background information

Looking at the overall information on Instant Messaging's impact on the classroom, there appear to be two camps of thinking on this topic. One side believes that this condensed form of writing is wreaking havoc on academic writing in the classroom. These complaints include students' papers missing end punctuation and students neglecting to capitalise the first letter of a sentence. Some teachers grumble that unique spellings of words are finding their way into academic papers (Diamond 2003, Landrum 2003). Teachers also acknowledge how computers have changed the language of students. Middle school teacher Jacqueline Harding notes that, instead of just covering the usual mistakes in writing--there, their, they're; you're, your; to, too, two; its, it's--at the beginning of the year, she must now also include such things as u (you), r (are), ur (you are), b4 (before), wuz (was), cuz (because), and 2 (two/too/to). 'To them, it's not wrong,' Harding notes. 'It's acceptable because it's in their culture. It's hard enough to teach them the art of formal writing. Now we've got to overcome this new instant messaging language' (Lee 2002, p. 21).

Another side of the issue believes that Instant Messaging is a good thing. Some of these proponents are realising that children's comfort with language can improve their written work if it is 'harnessed in the right way' (Helderman 2003, p. 4). The belief also exists that Instant Messaging is a new way for students to develop some effective writing skills. Of course, some adults do not agree with this and may 'dismiss online writing because they assume kids jot off anything that pops into their heads', which is not always true (Helderman 2003, p. 8). Other sources agree with this notion. Berzsenyi (2000) writes that chat rooms immerse students in writing their messages to a real audience. The audience may change; as a result, the students' voices adjust to the new audience. Therefore, students are able to access many different voices and types of people (Hill 2000). Leila Christenbury, past president of National Council of Teachers of English, agrees, noting, 'We should be encouraged to see a generation of youngsters tapping away at the keyboard instead of fingering a TV remote ... My gosh, this is an English teacher's dream' (as cited in NCTE's Council Chronicle, 2003, p. 5).

Current investigation

This study focuses on student perceptions of the impact of Instant Messaging on academic writing. Students who Instant Message frequently (at least five days a week) were sought in a middle school location. A triangulation of data-gathering methods as was utilised: focus groups and case studies (including examination of documents, interviewing, observations, and creation of Instant Message terminology used during the observation sessions). Eight participants were initially obtained for the study. From this group, five members emerged into case studies.

Background information: Computer use and Instant Messaging beginning experiences

The study participants had varying levels of experience with computers and Instant Messaging. For most of the participants, computer use began in elementary school. All the students' computer use heightened after they got email addresses. However, computer usage means a variety of things to these individuals. Many noted that they use the computer to word process, play games, download music, email, surf the net, make CDs, and do other homework. Students noted that their main use of the computer was for Instant Messaging, followed by doing homework and downloading music. Their online times range from zero to five hours each day. Of course, this also fluctuates from week to week. As one student remarked, 'I don't sit at the computer the whole time, but I'm online.'

Instant Messaging: Definitions and descriptions

Although participants' Instant Messaging experiences varied, there were some noteworthy similarities. Experience with Instant Messaging began several years prior to the study, and all participants were still engaged with the practice at the time of the interviews. Devising a precise definition of Instant Messaging was easy for the individuals: 'It's like a phone call on the computer.' The numbers of individuals with whom the study participants conversed varied, depending on such factors as time of day, availability of conversational partners online, and presence of worthy topics to discuss. Conversations could go on for a long time or just a few minutes. The messages that are written, according to study participants, are composed generally with great speed because the individual is anxious to keep the conversation going and is ready to jump into another line with a second, third, or fourth (et cetera) conversational partner. Most of the individuals at the focus group were comfortable with having multiple conversations at once; some noted that they were accustomed to carrying on five or six conversations at a time. One student recalled having 12 open windows at one time (i.e., 12 conversations were going on). On a slower day, one or two conversations was typical.

Most of the participants tended to finish their thoughts before sending, as noted in the following transcript:

Friend: whatcha wanna talk about

Friend: ok, fine I'll start talking

Friend: t**** looked at me!!!

Friend: omg

Friend: kj

Friend: lol, sry, jk

Study Participant: ok

Friend: i got to work with him, and i was like all hyper dis morning

(the researcher partially omitted a section of the transcript here to trim length)

(**** denotes that name has been adjusted by researcher.)

In contrast, two other participants often broke up their sentences in the middle of a thought. This is also present in the following example:

Friend: i really don't like her, haha

Study Participant: you don't!?!?!?!?!

Study Participant: and she doesn't like you?!?!?!?!

Study Participant: we're talking about the twins mom right?

Friend: are you kidding me? i can't believe you didn't know that

Study Participant: no

Study Participant: i did not

As he noted, the study participant's sentences are 'choppy and short' and are also broken up in thought. The purpose of this is to get the thought out more quickly and to hold the conversational partner's attention.

Abbreviations and clipped words are also present in the messages, and the student participants said that they had all seen abbreviations or clipped words in their Instant Messaging sessions and had used them at one point or another. The reason for the use of abbreviations and clipped words, according to one of the students, is that 'we're lazy ... (and) you can't type as fast as you talk.' Although not all of the participants saw their clipping of words and use of abbreviations in this light, they agreed that it is a time-saving measure. All the participants were quick typists and aimed to get the message out in an even quicker manner.

Another significant trend in the messages was lack of punctuation. Most of the messages did not have punctuation, as explained by one student: 'We never write correctly when IMing. It's usually incorrect.' According to the researcher, all of these observations were supported in both the observational sessions and Instant Messaging transcripts. Essentially, no end punctuation was used except for questions and question marks. And, many of the participants typed without capitalisation because, as one student noted, it was not needed because 'the computer does it for you now.' These points are noted in the following transcript:

Study Participant: hah

Study Participant: shes nice

Study Participant: i have to pack

Also present in the messages were numerous spelling errors. Some of the students minded these errors while others did not. Some messagers self-correct by typing an asterisk with the corrected spelling. This occurred during several observational sessions. It should be noted, however, that it did not occur frequently.

The opportunity to share writing online was also discussed by the study participants. As one student explained, 'A lot of times classes will have the same papers due. So you can talk to other people and ask them what they're writing about.' Another participant also has shared homework with friends. He feels that he receives good feedback from this practice. This may only be a trend with these three individuals because they attend the same school, are in the same grade, and have some of the same assignments as the individuals with whom they converse. Another individual noted that he shared other things besides school work: 'It (Instant Messaging) has changed how well I write poetry because it has given me many, many resources from which to get feedback about my poetry writing, which is awesome.'

Impact of Instant Messaging on writing processes

The student participants in the study did not initially see the impact of Instant Messaging on their writing processes. As one individual noted, 'When you're talking online, it's just a conversation. With writing a paper, you're focused on a topic or something.' However, throughout the conversations, the individuals described ways in which how they write academic papers is affected.

The study participants had differing views about what the term pre-writing meant. Many believed it was what the teacher made students do before they write. One of the students acknowledged that he usually does not pre-write by hand because 'it's always in my head ... I always have ideas and subtopics or back-up information.' Another study participant, who does not pre-write 'unless we're supposed to' (meaning it is required) usually 'think[s] about it for a little bit, and then I'll just ... start with it and see where it goes.' Some of the study participants recognised Instant Messaging's impact on prewriting. One individual recognised some impact, although small. Other study participants did not believe Instant Messaging influences pre-writing at all.

The students believed Instant Messaging may affect the drafting of their papers because the speed with which they write has greatly increased. One possible impact of Instant Messaging is how these individuals draft, and one individual noted she writes in spurts (much like writing Instant Messages). Students not only acknowledged going fast but recognised its impact as well. For example, going fast has caused some of the students to accidentally use abbreviations when they wrote papers for school: 'I used to never use abbreviations, and now I find that I use them just accidentally when I'm trying to go fast because that's what I'm used to when IMing.' Additionally, another individual knew that writing so fast is not necessarily a good thing: 'If I really want to put time and effort into it (writing a paper), I write it out (by hand) first.'

According to study participants, it does not appear that Instant Messaging helps the stage of revision at all. If anything, students spend more time editing, which may, in turn, cause them to spend fewer minutes revising their work. As one student noted, 'I don't revise it [my papers] very much. Just check it over.' Another study participant acknowledged that he has a difficult time focusing on revision: 'I do it right the first time. When I'm in that mode of thinking of the actual topic, it's a lot easier for me to think of words but when I'm revising, I just can't get into that mode ...'

The students tend to perceive the publishing stage of the writing process as handing in papers for a grade (or a final copy, in their words). Even though Instant Messaging deals with sharing all thoughts via the written word, some students still found this difficult when sharing papers they write for school. Students had mixed thoughts about this phenomenon. Most of the study participants did not think Instant Messaging had an impact. One individual noted that she does not find sharing papers any easier, while another seemed unsure on the topic. On the other hand, one study participant believed it had a positive effect: 'I think it's easier to share.'

Impact of Instant Messaging on writing products

Many of the study participants noted that Instant Messaging had an impact on their academic writing product. With respect to the writing product that is produced, students noted that Instant Messaging may help with original ideas. One individual believed that the details or elaboration of a topic suffers because sometimes smaller details are left out while others thought Instant Messaging had a positive impact on their academic papers considering ideas and content.

Considering organisation, the students disagreed about the impact of Instant Messaging. For example, one individual said that what they write is often in 'complete mayhem'. Another agreed, citing that many times things are out of order. Other concerns brought up by the students included Instant Messaging's impact on paragraphing and sentence fluency. One student noted that individuals tend not to care about paragraphing, and another agreed: 'Yeah, because I think you want to do like one big paragraph.' As one individual explained:
   On my papers, I tend to have really bad organization--my thoughts
   are all spread out or they're all in the same long paragraph. I
   guess IM is the same way because you just type bits at a time and
   you can totally get off subject and what you first started with.


Sentence fluency was also discussed by the participants. One individual noted the possible positive impact of Instant Messaging: 'I think it helps sentence fluency because you get more used to writing out your thoughts in a more fluent fashion ...' Additionally, she explained that 'it would be a lot of the same type of sentences, but it flows better'. Another student thought that the sentences constructed 'are probably more fluid because you just keep talking', but a detrimental impact occurs as well. He explained:
   I think it probably makes it [the academic paper] not flow because
   I'll have an idea and then I'll be like, 'Oh'--I'll put in
   something else, and then I'll forget where I was going with it and
   may have to start again.


During the focus group discussion, the group members agreed that Instant Messaging has often caused them to write unintentional sentence fragments. These unintentional fragments often ended up as run-on sentences.

Voice is a trait of writing that many of the study participants thought was enhanced by Instant Messaging. As one student noted, 'I used to have really bad voice in my papers. I haven't had a teacher ask for better voice anymore.' Other participants also agreed that Instant Message could help the aspect of voice.

With respect to word choice, the study participants believed this trait was hindered overall. As one student explained, 'Usually, I try to avoid big words while on AIM, so I'm pretty sure that has a negative effect (on academic papers) at least for me.' On the other hand, another participant disagreed, noting he usually pays more attention so he can do it right the first time: 'When I'm in that mode of thinking of the actual topic, it's a lot easier for me to think of words but when I'm revising, I just can't get into that mode.'

Overall, the students believed writing conventions were hindered because of the focus on ideas in their writing and the lack of capitalisation. One student agreed that conventions in many papers were 'horrible and awful.' Another explained:
   I think it hurts spelling, punctuation ... With spelling,
   especially. When I IM, I don't care about spelling. Because my
   friends--the ones I talk to--it's really funny the way we put--the
   way we spell.


Abbreviations make an unwanted appearance in academic papers at times. However, most of the participants in the focus group remarked they were able to catch these errors when creating a published copy for a grade. One student said that, in 'a rough draft, I know I do it [have abbreviations or clipped words slide in] ... But for a rough draft, I don't care.' Abbreviations do not appear in formal papers. The individuals in the focus group all agreed that typically these errors are caught before a published or final copy is turned in for a grade.

Multitasking

Time magazine (Cole et al. 2006, p. 48) recently named this current generation of teenagers as GenM or the Multitasking Generation. These study participants typified this, as they were not only Instant Messaging, but doing other things at the same time as well. All of the students noted they also do other things when writing academic papers at home. Some of these items include listening to music, eating, talking on the phone, watching television, downloading music, playing games, drawing, and writing emails. As one person explained, 'If I'm typing something, I might be eating, I might be on IM ... I just do everything.'

It is striking that all of the students also knew this hinders their writing (or other homework). In spite of this, they still did it: 'I think it's terrible for my writing because I just usually want to get it down and talk online.' When pressed on why multitasking is still done, he replied, 'It's easy. You get to talk to people while you're doing it. It's fun.' Occasionally the individual will write away from the computer by hand, or both, in order to focus on his writing. It is clear that he recognisses the impact on his writing:
   It affects the paper a ton. If I'm writing on the computer and
   talking to people, I tend not to care. And, they're not worrying
   about writing a paper [but are focused on talking].


The others all agreed, including this study participant:
   My homework isn't as good when I'm doing something else at the same
   time ... Well, I don't put as much thought into it, probably.
   Because I'm doing so many other things. My focus isn't just on it.


Note taking

One benefit of Instant Messaging was acknowledged by some of the study participants: the positive impact of Instant Messaging on note taking. Many of the students remarked that Instant Messaging greatly helps their note taking in class. As one individual explained: 'Abbreviations are really good for when you're doing notes.' In fact, she stated that she tends to use abbreviations more when taking notes than when Instant Messaging. Another study participant further explained by noting the speed at which he can take notes: 'I've become so much better ... I can take notes so much easier because I know so many more abbreviations.'

Discussion

Although the adolescent case participants had varying views, common themes emerged. All of the students had seen some consequences of Instant Messaging on writing, whether their own or another individual's. Among these findings, it is important to note how similar the students' online talks are to face-to-face conversations. Both discussion styles are fluid, quick, and adaptable to the audience. It is also striking that the case study participants are Instant Messaging while multitasking with a variety of other activities, all the while managing to adapt each conversation to the audience (considering topic, tone, abbreviations, detail, among other things). Additionally, these individuals were able to see a positive impact of these online writing practices and envision it as something they will always utilise, perhaps even find helpful, in the academic environment through the use of abbreviations in note taking.

Implications for the classroom

Since this current trend is not likely to dissipate in coming years--in fact, it may even be on the increase with text messaging practices on mobile devices--it seems that we must address this issue and its implications for the classroom. Instead of solely focusing on the appearance of abbreviations into academic writing (which was a common complaint by English teachers), it is suggested that English educators capitalise on the opportunities this situation presents in order to improve student writing in a variety of ways. As a result, the student perceptions from this study offer direct implications for writing instruction. Therefore, it is imperative to note that instead of focusing only on the negative aspects of how Instant Messaging may be impacting the classroom, it is advantageous to use it as an instructional advantage.

First of all, since the case participants in this study struggled with the concept of prewriting, perhaps the practice of Instant Messaging could be used to help students comprehend the process of generating ideas with academic papers by comparing it to the practice of coming up with topics for conversation. It also might work to have students brainstorm through instantaneous communication for pre-writing before beginning a writing assignment for school.

Secondly, spending time reviewing revision and the possibilities of enhancing the writing piece also seem important to note with all students, not just the ones who Instant Message. Some of the students seem to believe that editing is all that is required. Therefore, in order for the students to effectively revise, they first need to know what the term involves. Helping students recognise their writing's strengths and weaknesses can be done through reflection and self assessment. Then, teachers can help the students discover ways to revise. This can be done well through utilising mini lessons connected directly to writing in such topics as paragraphing, word choice, intentional sentence fragments, the elimination of unintentional fragments, an examination of sentence structures, sentence variety, and the like, as supported by Blasingame and Bushman (2005).

Another topic that seems imperative for teachers to realise related to this phenomenon is editing. Additional time for focusing on the editing practice may be needed if students are mentioning that this is taking them longer because of the need to eliminate surface level errors, some of which may be caused by the Instant Messaging practice. However, it could also be viewed that students need less time for this endeavour because they are becoming adept and are ridding the paper of these grammatical errors. It is also important to acknowledge that the rapid drafting speed of students may be an issue or that the practice of multitasking while writing can be problematic. If this is a trend that is noticed in the classroom, it would be important to incorporate a preventative measure into instruction.

It also seems clear that the online medium could be utilised to solicit feedback or to structure peer commentary for the revision stage. The students in this study were sharing class writing assignments in addition to personal poetry writings. It seems that this is a natural fit for them. As a result, extending opportunities to share writing within school walls through the online medium seems like an excellent way to include the medium in effective instruction in the writing process/es for students.

Lastly, it seems imperative to point out that the students truly worked on their academic papers if they cared about them. If the assignment was something they considered to be worthwhile, the individual would spend time editing, revising, and generally improving the piece. If the individual did not care about the piece, they would not even take time to read it through again to check for errors or abbreviations. One study participant even wrote by hand to slow himself down in order to produce a quality piece for what he deemed to be an important class assignment. It seems key, then, to state the obvious: teachers need to create writing assignments that hook a student's interest and will also allow them to truly become involved with the piece. This personal investment will allow the students to become strong thinkers and writers because they will care about the product they are producing.

Conclusion

It appears as if teachers may be more worried about the potential impact of Instant Messaging than their students are. However, the students certainly were the knowledgeable ones, and much data was obtained from them. Academia, parents, teachers, and community members may all continue to learn from students because students are sometimes the experts when it comes to technology use. Perhaps the more they are listened to concerning technology and its affect on their writing processes, the more may be learned by students as well as teachers.
APPENDIX A

Abbreviations/clipped words used by study participants

asl          age, sex, location
b4           before
bbl          be back later
bbs          be back soon
brb          be right back
comp         computer
cuz          because
g2g          got to go
haha         that's funny
hehe         laugh
idk          I don't know.
jk           just kidding
LOL or lol   laughing out loud
mmhmm        yeah
nm           not much
n2m          not too much
nmjc         not much, just chillin'
np           no problem
ppl          people
sry          sorry
sup          How are you? What's up?
ttyl         talk to you later
u            you
ur           you are
w/           with
w/e          whatever
ya           yeah
yup          yes


References

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Blasingame, J. & Bushman, J.H. (2005) Teaching Writing in Middle and Secondary Schools. Ohio: Prentice Hall.

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Landrum, C. (2003) 'Do u rite gr8? Some English teachers say no.' GreenvilleOnline.com: The Greenville News. Retrieved 14 November 2003, from http://www.greenvilleonline.com/news/ 2003/01/16/003011634542.htm

Lenhart, A., Madden, M. & Hitlin, P. (June 2006) 'Hi-tech teens.' The KLCC Bridge. Retrieved 4 July 2006 from http://ola.wkkf.org/klcc/klccnewsletter/2006/Apr/page3.htm

Lewis, C., & Fabos B. (1999) 'Chatting on-line: Uses of instant message communication among adolescent girls.' Presented 3 December 1999 at the National Reading Conference in Orlando, Florida.

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Noguchi, S. (13 June 2006) 'Teens turn away from e-mail .' Mercury News. Retrieved 4 July 2006 from http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/14807718.htm

Zucco, T. (2003, June 8) 'RU 2 OLD 4 THIS? Get used to it, it's how kids talk now.' St Petersburg Times, p. 1A.

Jill Adams | Metropolitan State College of Denver
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Publication:Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
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Date:Jun 1, 2007
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