- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla.

Middle school teacher Julia Austin is noticing a new generation of errors creeping into her pupils’ essays. Sure, they still commit the classic blunders — such as the commonly used “ain’t.”

But an increasing number of Miss Austin’s eighth-graders also submit classwork containing “b4,” “ur,” “2” and “wata” — words that may confuse adults but are part of the teens’ everyday lives.

This “instant messaging-speak,” or “IM-speak,” emerged more than a decade ago. Used in e-mails and cell-phone text messages, most teens are familiar with this tech talk and use it to flirt, plan dates and gossip.

But junior high and high school teachers nationwide say they see a troubling trend: The words have become so commonplace in children’s social lives that the techno spellings are finding their way into essays and other writing assignments.

“The IM-speak is so prevalent now,” said Miss Austin, a language-arts teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Orlando. “I’m always having to instruct my students against using it.”

Vicki A. Davis, a high school teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., said she finds the abbreviated words even in term papers.

“If students use it on their own time, then that’s fine,” Miss Davis said. “But I’m of the viewpoint that there has to be standards to communicate.”

Fourteen-year-old Brandi Concepcion, a pupil of Miss Austin’s, is a texter whose chitchat has slipped into her schoolwork.

Wit, da and dat — used in place of with, the and that — are examples of the IM-speak Brandi said she has used in her homework.

“I write like that in the rough draft, but I try to catch the mistakes before I turn in the final draft,” Brandi said.

One of Miss Davis’ students, 10th-grader Andrew Stargel, said he has even noticed the cyber-language spoken in face-to-face conversations.

“My friend’s little sister walked up at a school basketball game, and we asked her what she was up to,” Andrew said. “She said ‘NMH,’ for nothing much here.”

Andrew used the IM-speak himself a few years ago but said that it was just a phase.

“Everyone uses that language in junior high,” he said.

David Warlick, 54, an educator in Raleigh, N.C., sees the young burgeoning band of instant messengers as a phenomenon that should be celebrated.

Teachers should credit their students with inventing a new language that is perfect for communicating in a high-tech world, said Mr. Warlick, who has authored three books on technology in the classroom.

“I would encourage teachers to assign writing assignments that allow IM-speak,” he said. “We need to respect the language to the point that we sometimes allow it.”

Indeed, Miss Austin allows her class to use the cyber-shorthand in some assignments, such as writing a paragraph describing Christmas break.

“I want to see the students produce. I want to get them writing,” she said. “If they don’t put their own spin on their work, then it’s not theirs anymore.”

Most college students, however, avoid the spelling pitfalls of their younger counterparts, said Larry Beason, director of freshman composition at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Ala.

“Some of the same kids that I teach now were probably guilty of techno spellings in high school,” Mr. Beason said. “But most students realize that they need to put their adolescent spellings behind them by the time they get to college.”

Teachers agree that students should be clear about when IM-speak is acceptable.

“I’m Southern, but I wouldn’t use the sayings, ‘squeal like a pig’ or ‘kick the bucket’ in formal writing because some people may not understand,” Miss Davis said. “IM-speak should be treated the same way.”

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