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Teens & Tech: The Rise of Smart Phone and The Fall of Student Literacy

By Alison Zenisek 

When students in France returned to school in September, they had to leave one of their most precious possessions at home… their smartphone. The French government has banned the use of smartphones, tablets, and smart watches for students 15 and under during the school day, according to the Agence France-Presse. This includes breaks and mealtimes. The new law went into effect on August 5, 2018. The French government is concerned that these devices are creating dependency and distracting students from their studies. “Our main role is to protect children and adolescents. It is a fundamental role of education, and this law allows it,” says education minister Jean-Michael Blanquer. He hailed the legislation as “a law for the 21st century,” and said that it would improve discipline among France’s 12 million school children.

In Canada, the discussion among educators is often about the benefits and dangers of these ubiquitous devices and the ever consuming social media and games they provide. The question is how attachment and even dependence on these mobile devices contribute to the declining literacy among the young, most notably seen in their poor writing skills. Experts have pondered whether proper English grammar may be on the road to extinction in the brave new world of emoticons, texts, tweets, and short Facebook posts.

Some social media shortcuts, such as gr8 and lol, do find their way into essays in secondary and postsecondary settings, according to professors and high school educators. There is little research available to suggest that social media shorthand alone is seriously impacting the writing skills of students. Most young people know the difference between what happens on social media and what is expected in formal writing. Perhaps a serious examination of the reasons for the overall decline of youth literacy is required, because adequate knowledge of grammar and writing skills are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur.

For decades there have been complaints from professors about the poorly written essays handed in by students in their first year at university. A closer examination has shown that this lack of literacy in our youth can be traced to the confluence of at least three events: the rise of smartphones and social media, the creation of addictive video games, all of which have crowded out time spent in reading. The failure of the public schools to teach the basic rules of grammar and punctuation has also contributed to the problem. The confluence of these events has led to a crisis in literacy in Canada. And yet being literate is understood to be fundamental to all facets of life.

Writing in primary school has widely been taught through what is known as the “process method.” Students are asked to generate ideas, plan their writing, and then they engage in the act of writing. Feedback is sought by peers, but grammatical errors in this method are not initially addressed. Their work is then ‘published’ by making them into individual small books. This pedagogical style emphasized that the child’s authentic text could provide what was needed for comprehension. The method helps young learners gain self-confidence, but as students progress through the public education system they are often unequipped to understand and apply the rules of grammar. It inevitably impeded the development of their writing skills.

Many Canadian educators in primary and secondary school are hesitant to stress the rules of grammar and punctuation. This hesitancy can be traced to a pedagogical model that emerged in the 1980’s which discouraged an emphasis on grammar. The prevailing thought was that it undermined the creativity in students’ writing. Rather than diminish creativity, learning the skills (and rules) in other arenas of endeavour such as musical theory, sports, and chess actually heightens students’ engagement and creativity. Keeping students engaged when teaching grammar can help them learn. It’s more fun for a student to learn the rules of grammar in the context of a quote by Taylor Swift than from a textbook. Unfortunately, neglecting lessons in grammar has left many high school students unable able to make themselves clearly understood when asked to write a formal paper. A re-introduction of teaching the rules grammar in the primary grades concurrent with the process based writing instruction may be a solution.

The editors of the essay collection, Best Practices in Writing Instruction cite studies that reveal that “the writing of approximately two thirds of students in middle school and high school is below grade level proficiency. Moreover, one in five first year college students require a remedial writing class, and more than half of new college students are unable to write a paper relatively free of errors.” This negative outcome should be understood as empirical evidence of pedagogical failure. At Simon Frazer University, which Maclean’s ranks as Canada’s top comprehensive university, all students are mandated to take two courses that are designated as “writing intensive.” Many of their students have no idea why or how to use a colon, semi colon, apostrophe, or comma. Ontario’s Waterloo University is one of the few post-secondary institutions in Canada to require the students to pass an exam testing their English proficiency. Almost a third of those students are failing this entrance exam.

Student writing has been demonstrated again and again to have deteriorated since the rules of grammar were no longer emphasized and there has been little effort to reintroduce them. Today the average college graduate has spent less than 5,000 hours of their life reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games. Reading plays a vital role in literacy as it forms the templates of correct grammar and spelling in our minds. The quality of reading material matters. Social media certainly provides less than what students need to become proficient writers, yet much of their time is spent reading on the social media platforms. Ironically many of these “technology natives” will not be the leaders in this new age of innovation and artificial intelligence. The top jobs will go to the literate. France has made a good first move in addressing the distraction, negative reading habits, and time wasted by students on these technological devices. The misuse of punctuation or the overuse use emoticons can mean sudden death for a term paper or a career. There is no reason for these devices to eclipse so much of the school day. Changing pedagogical direction, after years of neglecting the rules of punctuation and grammar, will be a more challenging job. But it will be well worth it.

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