Can social networking boost literacy skills?

October 8, 2010
Alberta Teachers' Association

The findings of two ­recent literacy studies in Great Britain will come as no surprise to many ­parents and may also help to explain why students are reluctant to do homework. These studies reveal that most young people never pick up a book—at least not outside of school. In fact, about one in five reads blogs and magazines only. But these findings shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that young people don’t read. It’s just that students browse social ­networking sites, blogs, websites and magazines much more frequently than they read books.

Both of these studies on the reading and ­writing habits of students were undertaken by the ­National Literacy Trust. One study surveyed more than 2,000 students aged 7 to 15. The other involved more than 3,000 students aged 9 to 16. According to these studies, 20 per cent of students never read fiction or nonfiction books, but about 67 per cent surf websites weekly, 55 per cent read e-mails and 46 per cent read blogs.

Let’s explore these findings in more depth. Teenagers may not be reading books, but they are clearly interested in social networking. So the question becomes whether social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube are harming students or helping them. Social networking sites, which began as social communities, are becoming increasingly important. Barack Obama, for example, used such sites to great advantage during his successful campaign to become United States president.

But do social networking sites have any educational benefits? Aside from helping students to make new friends, do social networking sites facilitate learning? The answer seems to be that they do. The National Literacy Trust found that social networking sites and blogs help students to develop more positive attitudes toward writing and to become more confident in their writing abilities.

According to one of the studies, 49 per cent of young people believe that writing is “boring.” However, students who use technology-based texts such as blogs have more positive attitudes toward writing. Whereas 60 per cent of bloggers say that they enjoy writing, only 40 per cent of non-bloggers find writing enjoyable.

The study also showed that students who write blogs or maintain a profile on a social networking site tend to be more confident about their writing ability. More than 60 per cent of students who blog and 56 per cent of students who have a profile on a social networking site claim to be “good” or “very good” writers, compared with only 47 per cent of those who don’t use online formats. Having a blog also affects writing behaviour. Students who are active online are significantly more likely to keep a journal or write short stories, letters or song lyrics than those without a social networking presence.

According to the ­research, 13 per cent of students have their own website, 24 per cent write a blog and 56 per cent have a profile on a ­social networking site. Of the five kinds of writing that students engaged in most regularly, four were technology based: 82 per cent of students sent text messages (77 per cent of these messages were notes, answers to questions asked in class or remarks about homework assignments), 73 per cent used instant messaging, 67 per cent sent e-mails and 63 per cent wrote on social networking sites.

The study also explored why young people who lack confidence in their writing ability perceive themselves to be poor writers. Although the reasons varied with each age group, 20 per cent of the older students attributed their poor writing skills to the fact that they do not write much.

What can we conclude from research suggesting that blogging and using ­social networking sites such as Facebook may help to improve children’s writing skills and self-confidence? What is the significance of the finding that more than half of all students think writing is “boring” but that student bloggers enjoy writing more than their peers?

Dr. Spencer Jordan, a creative writing teacher in the School of Education at the University of Wales, notes that web ­technologies encourage young people to write confidently about things they enjoy. He notes, “When I was a kid, I used to write in exercise books kept in a drawer, but now that young people write on the web, there’s a whole ­community out there to read their work. It’s interactive, and that makes it more appealing to them.” Jordan believes that encouraging students to share their writing boosts their confidence in their writing abilities.

Perhaps text messaging, social networking sites and blogs are a new form of literature that will soon be studied in schools in the way that books, plays and poetry are now. In Scotland, new curriculum literacy guides specify that children should be familiarized with new media and taught modern communication methods so that they will be able to function in today’s workplace. The guides emphasize the importance of teaching ­students how and when to use particular communication methods. For example, students are taught to avoid using abbreviated text language in e-mails in which formal language might be more appropriate.

The jury is still out on whether studying Shakespeare will be replaced by reading Taylor Swift’s tweets. Parents who want their children to become more literate probably know what they want the answer to that question to be. Still, if your child is blogging or spending time on a social networking site, the news is not all bad. Research suggests that young people who blog are reading and are becoming more confident writers.

References

Clark, L. 2009. “Books Left on the Shelf: A Fifth of Pupils Only Read Blogs and Magazines.” Daily Mail ­(London, England), April 4.

MacLeod, F. 2008. “Texts, Blogs and Facebook: The New Literacy.” The Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), ­February 21.

Norman, K. 2009. “Facebook Can Help to Improve Writing Skills: Networking Boosts Ability and Confidence.” Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), December 1.

Set limits on screen time

In “The Politics of Personalization in the 21st Century” (ATA Magazine, Fall 2010), Phil McRae writes: “There is a growing call for studies on the physiological effect of digital technologies and new media on children’s brain development—a neuroscience of children and media (Anderson 2007). Based on this concern, we should consider the personal cost to 8–18 year olds who average 10 hours and 45 minutes a day per day exposed to media (Kaiser Foundation 2010) or the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recent policy recommendation of no screen time for children under two years of age and a maximum of two hours for children older than two (Canadian Paediatric Society 2009).”

References

Anderson, C.A. 2007. “A Neuroscience of Children and Media?” Journal of Children and Media 1, no. 1: 77–85.

Canadian Paediatric Society. 2009. Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Paediatric Society. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at www.cps.ca/english/statements/CP/pp03-01.htm#RECOMMENDATIONS

Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.