November 12, 2006

Alarming decline in literacy among publicists and journalists

In a couple of earlier posts, I commented on the fuss in Britain and elsewhere created by the revelation that some exam-grading authorities give partial credit for correct answers that are wrongly spelled. This post gives some background, including a psycholinguistic backstory that also brings out some interesting things about the ecology of science journalism.

Now, the fact seems to be that no exam-grading policies have actually changed. To the extent that there was any news here at all, it was just that some new kinds of misspellings, following the new conventions of text messaging, are now found in what a spokesman for the Scottish Qualifications Board called a "very small" percentage of exam papers. These new types of misspelling are treated just as the old ones were: "pupils would still be given [partial] credit if expressing a valid idea".

Nevertheless, some writers proclaimed cultural Armageddon. Thus Katie Grant, "Our language is being murdered", The Sunday Times, 11/5/2006:

Those marking exams are no longer presented with neat, comprehensible scripts, but with pages and pages of C U l8r, heavily illustrated with emoticons, those smiley or gloomy faces so beloved of teenagers, who probably have no idea that emoticons were originally made up of punctuation marks. In Scotland today, children presenting such scripts go unpenalised.

Others called on lovers of liberty to rally to the cause of orthographic reformation. Thus Simon Jenkins, "A million fingers are tapping out a challenge to the tyranny of spelling", The Guardian, 11/3/2006:

Thank you, Scotland. First John Knox, then the Enlightenment and now the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In a direct challenge to the English at their most reactionary, the authority has declared that it will accept text-messaging short forms in school examinations. The dark riders of archaism will protest and the backwoods will howl. No spell is cast as dire as spellcheck. But the champions of reason are massing north of the border and need our support.

(By the way, is it only in the Anglosphere that discussions of orthography so readily tap a vein of apocalyptic imagery? Is this connected to the phenomenon of word rage, discussed here, here and here?)

One of the early reports about the SQA grading controversy found a lower-keyed defense of tolerance for texting in a recently-featured research report ("Exam board attacked for approving text message answers", The Guardian, 11/1/2006):

Exam chiefs in Scotland were branded "ridiculous" today after admitting that answers written in text message language will be acceptable in English tests as long as they are correct.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said the use of phrases like "2b r nt 2b" or "i luv u" in exam papers would be allowed as long as candidates showed that they understood the subject.

The admission follows research from Coventry University, released in September, which suggested that sending text messages - from the slang "wot" and "wanna", to the short cut "CU L8R"- may actually be improving, not damaging, young children's spelling skills.

So I thought I'd look into this research. The first thing I found was that there had been quite a few news reports about it: "Texts 'do not hinder literacy'", BBC News, 9/8/2006; Alexandra Smith, "Texting slang aiding children's language skills", The Guardian, 9/11/2006; Alexandra Frean, "Y txtng cn b v gd 4 improving linguistic ability of children", The Times, 9/9/2006;, etc.; And even a blog post or two, e.g. Helen Keegan at Musings of a Mobile Marketer, "textin iz gud 4 ur lang skilz", 9/11/2006.

But it turns out that the research was not exactly "released in September", in the sense that in September there was a paper to read, or even a preprint. The news reports came about because of a press release.

On Friday, September 8th, at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society's Developmental Section, held at the University of London, there was a poster-format presentation with the title "Cognitive Factors in Text Messaging and Literacy Links". The authors were Beverly Plester and Clare Wood, of Coventry University.

Unfortunately, the BPS does not put papers or even abstracts on line for its many conferences ("around 100 conferences and events each year"), but it has an active publicity department, who distribute press releases for particularly juicy items from these events, and the flacks chose the Plester and Wood poster as one of 16 things to tell the world's press about in the month of September. I believe that this was the only item that they chose from the program of 102 posters, 108 individual presentations, 16 symposium presentations and 4 keynote presentations at the Developmental Section's September meeting.

For obvious reasons, PR departments and scientific program committees have different ranking criteria for ranking research. In this case, the program committee put the Plester/Wood paper among the poster presentations, which is the lowest rank of acceptance at such a conference. The BPS's PR department chose it as the only one of the roughly 230 presentations at the conference to tell the world about. I'm not suggesting that either the program committee or the PR department made a mistake, nor that one set of criteria is intrinsically better than the other. I'm just observing that the program committee and the PR department clearly value different things.

For a sense of what the BPS PR department values, we can list some of its other titles from September: "Identity key to race relations"; "Do terrorist threats increase Islamophobia in Britain?"; "Sacked Rover workers can only find harmful 'bad' jobs"; "Larger mobs carry out more violence"; "People don't deal directly with threats to their way of life"; "Is sex at work the kiss of death for your career?"; "Young children think TV is real"; "Mobile phones: addictive, causes of stress"; "Exercise beats nicotine cravings"; "Young people reveal role of alcohol in their lives"; "Keep fitness fun to lose weight"; "Health risks of smoking ignored by women"; "Texts strengthen exercise plans"; "Hand tied and tongue tied"; etc. In other words, the usual things: sex, violence, race, fitness, smoking, drinking, and so on. Drugs, global warming and celebrities were left out due to sampling error, I guess.

I'm sure that the BPS PR department is doing its job well, in the sense that its operatives understand what the press is looking for, and act as an effective filter in picking out the items that will sell. Let's note in passing, though, that as a result, some fascinating-looking stuff from that same BPS Developmental conference went completely unreported, even in the world's most intellectual media. For example, there was an invited symposium with the title "State of the Art in Theory of Mind: old problems, new data", with Josef Pemer, Paul Harris and Michael Tomasello; and another one with the title "Workshop on methods for analysing children's interaction", convened by Margaret Harris.

A second problem with this system is that the PR operatives who write the press releases, focused as they are on getting the attention of reporters and editors, aren't always very careful to present the facts clearly. The BPS press release for the Plester and Wood poster came out under the title "Do U no wot Im Sayin?". Here it is -- do you know what it's saying?

Contrary to popular assumptions, the use of text messaging abbreviations is linked positively with literacy attainment, a study conducted with eleven-year old children has found.

Mrs Beverly Plester and Dr Clare Wood of Coventry University presented their research on Friday 8 September 2006, at the British Psychological Society’s Developmental Section Annual Conference being held at the Royal Holloway, University of London.

The study was designed to explore how the use of text abbreviations might be related to the skills children need in reading and writing, in response to concern from parents and teachers about whether texting might damage children’s ability to use standard English. The children were quizzed about their use of mobile phones and asked to translate messages between standard English and text language, as well as complete tasks to reveal their English writing, reading and spelling abilities.

It was found that children use their mobile phones more for sending text messages than for talking, the majority of which are sent to friends. Most text abbreviations were phonetically based, such as ‘wot’ for ‘what’ and rebus types, such as ‘C U L8r’. Many also used what the researchers describe as ‘youth code’, casual language such as ‘dat fing’, ‘gonna’ or ‘wanna’. Surprisingly, the children who were better at spelling and writing used the most ‘textisms’.

Mrs Plester said; "So far, our research has suggested that there is no evidence to link text messaging among children to a poorer ability in standard English and those children who were the best at using ‘textisms’ were also found to be the better spellers and writers."

"Texting could be used positively to increase phonetic awareness in less able children, and perhaps increase their language skills, in a fun yet educational way."

A couple of initial problems:

1. When I google the authors, I find that Coventry University lists Dr. Beverly Plester as "Senior Lecturer in Psychology", with a Ph.D. in psychology from Sheffield University -- exactly the same job title and level of academic qualifications as Dr. Clare Wood. So why does the press release describe the authors as "Mrs Beverly Plester and Dr Clare Wood"? Simple carelessness?

2. Were the children asked to compose and send text messages? The description of the study doesn't say so -- we're told that they "were quizzed about their use of mobile phones and asked to translate messages between standard English and text language, as well as complete tasks to reveal their English writing, reading and spelling abilities". But then how could they tell that "the children who were better at spelling and writing used the most ‘textisms’"? Is this just a misleading way of restating Dr. Plester's assertion that "those children who were the best at using ‘textisms’ were also found to be the better spellers and writers"? I suspect so, though I can't tell from this description.

A web search didn't turn up any published version of this study, nor any preprints, but it did turn up the abstract for a talk given two months earlier, at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, in Vancouver, July 6-8:

Beverly Plester (Coventry University ); Bell, Victoria; Wood, Clare - Exploring the Relationship between Text Messaging and Literacy Attainment
A pilot study revealed that although high levels of texting on mobile phones was linked to lower levels of literacy attainment in a sample of 12 year old children, their use of text abbreviations when messaging was positively associated with their literacy attainment at school. Ongoing research is attempting to understand the nature of the positive association between textism use and literacy attainment. In particular, the question of whether phonological awareness may be implicated in the apparent ability to use text abbreviations will be considered.

This is probably a report of the same research -- it seems unlikely that an additional study on the same topic could have been completed between July 8 and September 8. However, there are some worrying differences. The biggest one is that this abstract says that "high levels of texting on mobile phones was linked to lower levels of literacy attainment". I interpret this to mean that kids who reported that they did more texting when "quizzed about their use of mobile phones" scored lower on the tests given "to reveal their English writing, reading and spelling abilities" (using the phrases from the 9/8/2006 press release). But the this correlation was not mentioned in the BPS press release, nor in the popular-press articles based on it.

Instead, what was featured was Dr. Plester's observation that "those children who were the best at using ‘textisms’ were also found to be the better spellers and writers". I interpret this to mean that kids who performed better when "asked to translate messages between standard English and text language" also scored higher on the tests given "to reveal their English writing, reading and spelling abilities".

Now, there's no contradiction between these two results. It could be that kids who do more texting (or at least report doing more of it) score lower on tests of spelling and writing; and at the same time, kids who are more skillful at translating between texting and standard orthography also score higher on tests of spelling and writing. (In fact, it would be hard to measure skill at translating between texting and standard orthography in a way that did not automatically guarantee that kids who score higher are also better at using standard orthography...) Then again, it could also be true that the researchers did collect samples of the kids' texting, and found that kids who used more abbreviations when texting were also better spellers in tests of standard orthography.

The July 8 abstract says that the children in the study were were 12 years old. The 9/8/2006 press release doesn't mention the subjects' ages, but the 9/8/2006 BBC story, whose author interviewed Dr. Plester, talks about "[a] Coventry University study of 35 11-year-olds". So maybe there were two studies? Unfortunately, zero studies have been published, as far as I can tell, or even described clearly in an informal document. So all we can say, as usual, is that without knowing what the researchers actually did, it's hard to tell what the results actually mean.

My own image of a more perfect society is agnostic about the level of spelling skills. Instead of dreaming about a world of perfect spellers, I like to imagine a world where stories about scientific research provide (or link to) a clear and simple account of the researchers' methods and results, and where reporters and editors have the skills to make this happen. Since this fantasy of mine is pretty implausible, I admit, here's a goal that we might actually reach: how about a world where all organizers of conferences in science and engineering routinely require, and publish on the web, the sorts of four-page "extended abstracts" that many conferences already require? This would improve refereeing as well as communication within our disciplines. It would also make it possible for the interested public to go to the source, by-passing the (usually misleading) presentation in the mass media.

Despite this post's jokey title, I don't think that scientific literacy -- by which I really just mean common sense and clear thinking -- is any lower among publicists and journalists than in earlier times. But it's pretty low, and I think we'd all be better off if it were higher.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 12, 2006 10:40 AM