No, I’m not talking about improper grammar or strange usage. I’m talking about extra spaces between words, or a space before — rather than after — a comma. Or quadruple spacing between paragraphs, or using an 18-point font. Or choosing not to capitalize “I.”
It’s all very strange, and sometimes, it makes me a little crazy. My colleagues think an incorrect there/their/they’re reference will set me off. Not really. But spacing likethis really makes me mad.
The past three years, I’ve noticed a huge rise in my students’ misunderstanding of text conventions. When I read an essay that doesn’t look like a conventional essay, it’s physically hard to read. There’s no chance for the reader to get at meaning if significant energy is spent decoding.
I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. Here are some of my theories:
1. Less reading = less understanding of text conventions. To know about text, you have to have significant experience with text. If you’ve read hundreds of books, you know that there’s a space after, not before, a comma. As reading scores have dropped at our school, so has understanding of text conventions.
2. Lack of keyboarding skills = less understanding of text conventions. Most schools don’t have keyboarding classes, so students learn to type on their own. I observe ninth graders hunting and pecking, spending all their energy looking at the keyboard rather than seeing what they’ve typed up on the screen. They seem lost, confused, and stressed. When it takes two hours to type a page, there’s less emphasis on making your formatting perfect.
3. Rise of SMS conventions = less understanding of text conventions. If you don’t capitalize “I” in a text, why should you in an essay? If computers don’t recognize the apostrophe in “don’t,” is it really necessary in an essay? It’s likely that students do far more reading of SMS messages than of regular print.
4. Lack of precision in general = less understanding of print conventions. One of my favorite things is when a student complains that it’s the computer’s fault because she can’t log in and then realizes, with my help, that she hasn’t spelled her username correctly. Sometimes I attribute my students’ weird conventions to laziness, but that’s only partly true; after all, they don’t always catch their errors unless I’m there with them. They’re way more precise on a peer’s essay than they are on their own.
5. Lack of seeing text conventions as important = less understanding of print conventions. Why does print have to look this way, anyway? Aren’t the rules arbitrary, and aren’t they made up by some random dead white guy? For many of my students, the problem isn’t learning something; rather, it’s learning why they should learn it, why it’s valuable. The conventions of print seem like yet another racist system designed to keep them out of power, and the notion of learning text conventions seems like unnecessarily adhering to dominant culture. To say, “This is important” or “You’re judged on this kind of stuff” doesn’t always resonate with my students. Rules, after all, are to be questioned.
There are probably other things going on, too, to explain why weird text conventions have sprung up over the past three years. My list of possible reasons, however, gets me thinking that I can’t approach this issue as an easy, fix-this-now problem. Rather than just telling my students that their text conventions are wrong, I need to teach them, from the ground up, what’s right.