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Children and digital communication.

give an eighth-grader a Chromebook to compose an essay and u might find him doing some things he wouldn’t do if he were handwriting it—like, say, missing capitalizations, using “text speak” (see “u” as a substitute for “you”) and even inserting emoji substitutes :)

The reason? Schoolchildren have become accustomed to digital communication—think texting—but haven’t necessarily learned to switch off the habits formed in casual communication when using digital media for academic purposes.

“Today’s youth actually are writing much more frequently and for a variety of different purposes than youth in the past, and that’s a good thing,” said Royce Kimmons, a BYU assistant professor of instructional psychology and technology. “But we need to help our students develop the ability to think and write formally in certain contexts.”

For a study recently published in Computers and Composition, Kimmons and coauthors measured some of the differences in student essays that were handwritten versus typed on a Chromebook. And though the Chromebook essays did have higher rates of capitalization errors and text speak, they had fewer spelling errors and were generally written at a higher grade level than the handwritten essays.

Previous research on the benefits and drawbacks of digital composition for school-age children, Kimmons noted, is divided. Among the pros of using a computer are typing speed and the fact students are generally more willing to edit and revise their work. But that write/rewrite pendulum, say critics, can break down the writing process.

Regardless, use of technology in school writing is now a reality: as early as third grade, students are required to use computers for some standardized writing tests. So teachers need to best equip students to succeed with the technology, Kimmons said.

One surprising finding of this study was that handwritten essays were generally longer than Chromebook essays. And though they couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason why, researchers said one possibility was that students in this particular study may not have all been familiar or comfortable with the Chromebooks. “We can’t just take students who were writing by hand and put a laptop in front of them and expect them to do well, because it is a fundamentally different process,” Kimmons said.

At least technically. Academically, Kimmons added, the expectations for formal writing are the same whether an essay is handwritten or composed on a computer. So giving students laptops and “expecting good writing to just happen isn’t reasonable. The writing process is still an essential thing that needs to be taught.”

Ultimately, he noted, educators who embrace the reality of the technology and tailor their teaching accordingly will be giving students their best shot. “It’s here, our kids are using it and now we just have to take what they’re doing that’s good and make it into something better.”

Writer: Andrea Christensen

Photo Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU