Research in K-12 schools, colleges and universities has prompted concern among advocates, educators and policy makers that many young Americans do not possess strong writing skills. Individuals with poor writing skills frequently face limited career options and lower earnings potential, and society as a whole pays a significant cost when growing numbers of students need additional writing remediation to succeed in the workforce.

Some of the concern about the writing skills of Americans focuses on university students and adults in the workplace. Up to two-thirds of salaried jobs at large American companies require writing of some kind, and a recent survey of American corporations and government entities found that good writing skills are vital to gaining a job and advancing in one’s place of employment.8 Yet despite the widely acknowledged importance of writing in the job market, a recent National Writing Commission survey of deans, administrators and writing counselors at four-year public colleges and universities uncovered widespread concern that students at these institutions are failing to produce good writing defined by “clarity, accuracy and logical thinking,” among other characteristics.9

However, in the case of school-aged children, the most recent (2007) National Assessment of Educational Progress writing assessment found some modest progress. The 2007 Nation’s Report Card on writing showed that while there has not been any change in the number of students writing at the higher “proficient” level between 2002 and 2007,10 a smaller number of youth were writing below basic levels of competence—13% of 8th graders, and 18% of 12th graders scored below a basic level of writing proficiency, down from the 15% of eighth graders and 26% of twelfth graders in 2002 writing below the basic level.11

Technology is also a major part of this picture. As previous Pew Internet Project research suggests, technology is an integral part of the lives of teens today. Nearly all (94%) American adolescents use the internet, and those who go online tend to do so multiple times throughout the day. Moreover, technology is increasingly found in the classroom, and teachers and schools often expect students to have access and prior exposure to technology in addition to the training they receive in school. Personal computers and writing are inextricably linked, and many teens spend hours a day locked in textual communication with friend on cell phones, laptops, desktops and other mobile devices. To understand the state of writing today among youth, we must also understand the technological sphere than teens inhabit and where writing and technology intersect.  To fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of writing instruction today, we must understand the role that technology plays in this realm.   

Beyond an assessment of the influence of technology, what is largely missing from this research assessing the state of writing in the United States is the voice of students themselves.12

To fill this gap, the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Writing Commission joined to explore young people’s experiences with writing and technology. This research was motivated by a desire to answer several questions, including:

  • How do teens define writing?
  • How does writing fit into their lives?
  • What role do electronic technologies such as computers and cell phones, or communication platforms such as email or online social networks, play in the writing process?
  • Do teens consider their electronic communications to be writing, or think that they have an impact on the quality of their writing overall?
  • What do teens find enjoyable about the writing they do for school and personal reasons outside of school?
  • What are teens’ experiences with writing instruction?
  • What suggestions do teens have for ways that schools could improve writing instruction and the experience of learning to write?

To answer these questions, we constructed a multi-part research project using qualitative and quantitative methods. First, we conducted a total of 8 focus groups in 4 cities (Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, West Coast) with boys and girls ages 12-17. Two of these groups were mixed sex and age, while the other six groups were single sex (either all boys or all girls) for each of the 7/8th grade, 9/10th grade, and 11/12th grade age ranges.  We used the focus group findings to inform the construction of the second part of our study, a national telephone survey administered by random digit dial to a representative cross-section of 700 parent/child pairs during September, October and November of 2007.

Conducting the focus groups revealed two particular challenges of this project. First, it is often hard to tease out what teens think about writing without imposing established definitions of writing upon the discussion. Second, it is also very difficult to talk with young adults about writing with technology because technology is often “invisible” to them in their daily lives. 

Despite these challenges, we were able to learn that teens’ experiences with writing are complicated, in part because the technologies available to them for writing have extended the range of writing genres in which they can participate on a daily basis.  We also learned that teens tend to uphold traditional definitions of writing such that the socially oriented writing they do using electronic devices is considered “communication” (and not “writing”) even though it is text-based.

In the report that follows, we share the findings of our national survey with quotes from the focus groups interspersed to provide context and insight into the way teens experience writing and technology in their lives.  The information is instructive. Writing today is not what it was yesterday. New technologies and new job tasks have changed the meaning of what it means to write and write well. Our educational institutions know they must review what constitutes effective instructional practice to ensure that writing curricula and instructional methods support writing excellence, incorporate technology, and engage and motivate students at all ages.