WASHINGTON – The state of writing among teens today is marked by an interesting paradox: While teens are heavily embedded in a tech-rich world and craft a significant amount of electronic text, they see a fundamental distinction between their electronic social communications and the more formal writing they do for school or for personal reasons.

  • 85% of youth ages 12-17 engage at least occasionally in some form of electronic personal communication, which includes text messaging, sending email or instant messages, or posting comments on social networking sites.
  • 60% of teens do not think of these electronic texts as “writing.”

Teens are utilitarian in their approach to technology and writing, using both computers and longhand depending on circumstances. Their use of computers for school and personal writing is often tied to the convenience of being able to edit easily. And while they do not think their use of computers or their text-based communications with friends influences their formal writing, many do admit that the informal styles that characterize their e-communications do occasionally bleed into their schoolwork.

  • 57% of teens say they revise and edit more when they write using a computer.
  • 63% of teens say using computers to write makes no difference in the quality of the writing they produce.
  • 73% of teens say their personal electronic communications (email, IM, text messaging) have no impact on the writing they do for school, and 77% said they have no impact on the writing they do for themselves.
  • 64% of teens admit that they incorporate, often accidentally, at least some informal writing styles used in personal electronic communication into their writing for school. (Some 25% have used emoticons in their school writing; 50% have used informal punctuation and grammar; 38% have used text shortcuts such as “LOL” meaning “laugh out loud.”)

All of this matters more than ever because teenagers and their parents uniformly believe that good writing is a bedrock for future success. Eight in ten parents believe that good writing skills are more important now than they were 20 years ago, and 86% of teens believe that good writing ability is an important component of guaranteeing success later in life.

Recognizing this, 82% of teens say they think their writing would improve if teachers had them spend more class time doing writing. Blacks and those from lower-income households are the most ardent believers in the importance of writing and in the likely payoff of more class time devoted to it.

These are among the key findings in a national phone survey of 700 youth ages 12-17 and their parents conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing. The survey was completed in mid-November and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. The report also contains findings from eight focus groups in four U.S. cities conducted in the summer of 2007.

“There is a raging national debate about the state of writing and how high-tech communication by teens might be affecting their ability to think and write,” noted Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at Pew who co-authored a report on the findings titled Writing, Technology and Teens. “Those on both sides of the issue will see supporting data here. There is clearly a big gap in the minds of teenagers between the ‘real’ writing they do for school and the texts they compose for their friends. Yet, it is also clear that writing holds a central place in the lives of teens and in their vision about the skills they need for the future.”

Adds Richard Sterling, chair of the advisory board for the National Commission on Writing, executive director emeritus of the National Writing Project and senior fellow at the College Board: “We think these findings point to a critical strategy question for all educators: How can we connect the enthusiasm of young people for informal, technology-based writing with classroom experiences that illuminate the power of well-organized, well-reasoned writing?”

This survey finds that, apart from their text-based electronic communications, teens write with some frequency inside and outside of the school environment. All teens do at least some writing for school, and 93% write for themselves outside of school at least on occasion.

Writing is a common activity within the school environment, as 50% of teens say that they write something for school every day. However, most writing assignments are short: 82% of teens say their typical writing assignment is a paragraph to one page in length.

Beyond using technology to facilitate their writing, teens also use the internet to research their school writing projects; 94% of teens use the internet at least occasionally to do research for their school assignments. Nearly half (48%) of teens say they use the internet to research something for school once a week or more often.

In our focus groups, teens outlined what motivates and inspires them to write. They appreciated the opportunity to choose topics relevant to their own lives and experiences, and the chance to write for teachers and other adults who challenge them. Teens feel encouraged by opportunities to write creatively, and spoke of the motivation of having an audience for their work.

“Today’s teens know that writing is important, and know that they need to learn the skills to write well to ensure a productive future for themselves,” said Sousan Arafeh, of Research Images, and head of the focus group project. “Teens understand that learning to write well is a growth process, even if sometimes it feels like the educational equivalent of ‘eating your vegetables.'”

About The Pew Internet Project: The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Pew Internet explores the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project’s Web site: https://legacy.pewresearch.org/internet

About the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges: In an effort to focus national attention on the teaching and learning of writing, the College Board established the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges in September 2002. The decision to create the Commission was animated in part by the Board’s plans to offer a writing assessment in 2005 as part of the new SAT®, but the larger motivation lay in the growing concern within the education, business, and policy-making communities that the level of writing in the United States is not what it should be.