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Writing Right

Spring 2011 | By William Meiners. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

You might think that an English professor, especially one who directs a renowned writing lab, would be outraged by students’ overuse of social network communication tools. The texts, tweets, emoticons, and other shorthand assaults on traditional style could drain any grammarian’s red pen. That’s not the case for Linda Bergmann.

Bergmann, an English professor and director of Purdue’s Writing Lab, believes that by playing to students’ tech-savvy strength, their reasoning, research, and writing skills can improve. A two-year, $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help Purdue test that theory in more than 20 U.S. school districts.

Working with the Center for Applied Special Technology in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and the Minority Student Achievement Network at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) will offer an independent, interactive site known as H-OWL that students can use not as courseware, but for writing. Through social networking and certain aspects of gaming, high school juniors and seniors can work toward national writing requirements and transition to college-level writing, says Bergmann.

But will teenagers adept at putting YouTube videos on the Web really use those fun aspects to achieve the core standards? It’s an uphill battle. The 2007 Nation’s Report Card on Writing reported that only 24 percent of 12th-graders wrote at proficient levels, and the Pew Research Center reported that only 39.6 percent of 18- to 24-year olds enrolled in college in 2008 perceived themselves as being as prepared as possible
for college-level writing.

“It’s a matter of channeling energies,” says Bergmann, who sees texting as a very creative endeavor. “It’s like they’ve invented their own language in which they’re highly literate and often quite witty. And because it’s not a ‘grownup’ language we tend to look at it as being bad English. It’s really not. It’s just their English.”
For folks in OWL, which fielded more than 160 million page requests last year, the interactive environment provides a perfect opportunity to help bridge the gap between informal and formal writing.

Now that’s something to tweet home about.

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