Text Messaging: Basically Addictive or Essentially Additive?


Home / Text Messaging: Basically Addictive or Essentially Additive?

US Teens send over 6 text messages per waking hour – Photo by Darkstream

Considering the popularity of text messaging, what role do textisms and textese play in the overall literacy or illiteracy of young people today?

Interested in texting, and its affects on literary skills, Clare Wood, Sally Meachem, and their research team investigated text messaging and spelling ability in children aged 8-12 years in 2011.

The team concluded from the results of their study that the use of ‘textisms,’ or text-message spellings, does affect spelling performance, but when strong phonological skills are present, spelling skills remain intact.

Text Messaging and Spelling Research

Over the last ten years, several researchers have studied the effect of text messaging extensively, coming to a variety of conclusions, some of which appear to support this most recent research.

  • Back in 2003, Dr. Crispin Thurlow, an expert in language and communication, described the language of text messaging to be ‘adaptive and additive rather than necessarily subtractive,’ meaning that texting can have positive linguistic advantages. However, Thurlow’s remarks were made almost a decade ago and research highlights substantial increases in young people’s use of computer-mediated communication (CMC)  and shows that text messaging is one of the most widespread digital practices.  A 2010 study clearly supports this by revealing that US teens alone send over 6 text messages per waking hour, and send and receive and average of 3,339 texts monthly.
  • In 2009, Beverly Plester and Clare Wood, taking interest in the question of the influence of texting on literacy, focused on the use of text messaging by pre-teen British children. In this study, the researchers paid specific attention to the abbreviations and characteristic language used within text messages, also known as ‘textese’ and ‘textisms.’ Their results did not conclusively support the negative reports surrounding cell phone use and texting. Quite the reverse, they discovered that textese and textisms assisted the development of literary skills.

Plester and Wood’s findings, in particular, appear surprising, since over the years, research has shown that the mental template of a written word, although supported by the sound system of a language, is established principally through exposure to whole word formats. A survey of research of over more than two decades supports this by revealing that producing, or being shown, misspelled words can adversely affect spelling skills.

Link Between Texting and Literary Skills Explained

Texting and literary – additive or subtractive? Photo by lipajr

Although unexpected, text messaging’s positive affect on literary skills seems plausible when you consider more deeply Wood and Meachem’s  claim that strong phonological skills may be one of the contributing factors of the of text message senders continued spelling accuracy in traditional written language exercises. This result lends support once again to the theory of the strong role of phonological awareness and perception in orthographic processing and spelling ability, and partially answers the question of how texting can improve literacy.

Texting Both Needs and Strengthens Phonological Skills

Conceivably, texting and phonological skills have a reciprocal relationship dependant primarily on highly-functioning phonological ability.
Textese and textisms  permit more linguistic information to be condensed into the 160 characters allowed per message than conventional spelling would allow. In order to create textisms, such as ‘l8r,’ ‘inorite,’ and ‘b4,’ text message creators and receivers need to be able to accomplish a number of language tasks.

  • Text composers must break words down into syllables, and understand  that words are a stream of compressed distinct language sounds.
  • Composers of a text message must identify graphemes which represent phonemes, isolate the individual phonemes, deconstruct words into individual phonemes, and. construct a word from a string of single phonemes.
  • Text message users must be familiar with the acceptable phoneme-grapheme mappings in written English, and must differentiate the sequence of the discrete language sounds or phonemes in a word.

Texting proves and improves phonemic awareness – Photo by hollywata

Texting – Essentially Phonemic Exercises

For decades, reading research has focused on phonological awareness and reading attainment. Researchers have shown repeatedly that children who receive explicit phonological awareness instruction eventually improve their literary skills.  More importantly, much textism depends upon senders and receivers having good linguistic abilities and some acquired linguistic skills for successful texting to take place. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, texting, through its text manipulations and creations, provides a platform for young people to create and practice phonemic activities that enhance phonemic awareness. This vital skill is eventually readily transferred to reading and writing acquisition, and furthers literacy development. So, texting is not necessarily detrimental and, in some cases, actually adds to the literary skills of those children whose innate phonological capabilities are functioning normally.


Nielsen Wire. U.S.TeenMobileReport: Calling Yesterday, Texting Today, Using Apps Tomorrow. (October 14, 2010). Accessed December 12, 2011.

Plester, B. & Wood, C. Exploring Relationships between Traditional and New Media Literacies: British Preteen Texters at School.  Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Volume 14, Issue 4, 1108–1129. (July 2009). Accessed December 12, 2011.

Thurlow, C.  Generation Txt? The sociolinguistics of young people’s text-messaging. Discourse Analysis Online, 1(1). (2003). Accessed December 12, 2011.

Wood, C., Meachem, S., et al. A Longitudinal Study of Children’s Text Messaging and Literacy Development. British Journal of Psychology. Aug;102 (3):431-42. (2011). Accessed December 12, 2011.


Brown, A. Encountering misspellings and spelling performance: Why wrong isn’t right. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4), (1998): 488-495. Accessed December 12, 2011.

Burt J.S. & Long J. Are word representations abstract or instance-based? Effects of spelling inconsistency in orthographic learning. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. Sep;65(3) (2011): 214-428. Accessed December 12, 2011.

Dixon, M. & Kaminska, Z. Is it Misspelled or is it Misspelled? The Influence of Fresh Orthographic Information on Spelling. Readingand Writing. An Interdisciplinary Journal. 9 (1997): 483-498.

Ehri, L. Reading by Sight and by Analogy in Beginning Readers. In C. Hulme & R.M. Joshi (Eds.),Readingand Spelling: Developmental and Disorders Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., (1998b):  87-112.

Ehri, L. Learning to Read and Learning to Spell: Two Sides of a Coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(3) (2000): 19-36.

Folk, J., Rapp, B., & Goldrick, M. The Interaction of Lexical and Sublexical Information in Spelling: What’s the Point? Cognitive Neuropsychology, 19 (7) (2002): 653-671. Accessed December 12, 2011.

Jacoby, L., & Hollingshead, A. Reading Student Essays may be Hazardous to your Spelling: Effects of Reading Incorrectly and Correctly Spelled words. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 44(3) (1990): 345-358.

Leave a Comment