Using Computer-mediated Communications 

to Teach Academic Language Acquisition 

   Proposal  |  Abstract 

Before the telephone became a common household item, people wrote letters by hand to communicate over long distances.  Since the invention of the telephone in the late 19th century, however, the convenience of the audio device tore countless people away from writing letters.  Similarly, the speed and convenience of the Internet is persuading users to return to a written form of communication via email and instant messaging.  In fact, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 75% of American teens regularly instant message (IM), and “32% of all American teens IM every single day” (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlen iii).  Obviously electronic communication is a growing trend in American culture—especially among young people, the same people who may be or become our students.

The youth movement toward written forms of communication is due in part to the flexibility in the user’s mode of interaction.  The Internet allows users to send and receive messages via electronic networks in synchronous or asynchronous settings.  Asynchronous communication, such as email, text messaging1, or bulletin boards, only accommodates one user at a time, which inhibits young adults’ social dexterity.  As noted in the 2005 Pew study, email use among young people is declining because they associate email with “old people” and institutions (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlen ii).  The growing trend shows that students are much more likely to use synchronous communication, such as instant messaging through Internet providers or in chat rooms.  Synchronous communications require the presence of two or more users, allowing teens to move adroitly between several conversations; synchronous communications have become a very powerful social tool.

As a social tool, however, synchronous communication endorses conversational tone and colloquial diction, which become more internally persuasive to the ideologically becoming student; inevitably, students resist academic discourse because it does not yet hold value for them.  Each time students communicate electronically, they read, write, and make meaning—all of these activities contribute to students ideological becoming.  Ideological becoming is a Bakhtinian concept of development: Each person develops a system of ideas and beliefs as they experience daily life.  Since students are already involved in and forming their ideological becoming, they will find a myriad of literacies and discourses internally persuasive.  Internally persuasive describes the ownership of a literacy or discourse.  If the student feels comfortable using a vernacular, then they find that language (and identity) internally persuasive, in a way, they ‘own’ it.  Similarly, many students find the speech-like vernacular of electronic communication more internally persuasive than academic discourse, the language valued and encouraged by educators.  Although educators strive to help students acquire and assimilate academic discourse, students may continue to resist such elitist prose because, as James Paul Gee suggests, until students recognize the value in acquiring academic language, they will continue to resist the stifling conventions of scholarly prose.  Educators can help students see the value in academic language and make it internally persuasive if they explicitly teach the electronic genre in the composition classroom. 

At this point, many educators would resist teaching CMC as a genre in their class because they only recognize negative attributes of CMC—and they have good reason to be frustrated—but that is precisely why they should embrace this rogue discourse.  There is little doubt that as a growing trend and a powerful social tool, electronic communications encourages students to use and incorporate “everyday,” or colloquial, diction and style in their academic writing assignments.  Furthermore, some educators claim that students write less structurally complex passages than students who studied 100 years ago.  In fact, some professors complain that even formal requests through email (such as a request to add or drop a class) contain spelling and punctuation errors and informal conversational properties.  The conversational elements of synchronous communication may perpetuate informal style or encourage students to relax the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, tone, and diction.  Moreover, educators must recognize that a shift in elements of discourse and style does not indicate a decline in students’ ability; educators who fail to recognize students’ abilities cannot create internally persuasive discourses for those students.  Appreciation for students’ extra-scholastic literacies is the first step to successfully bridging the gap between students’ everyday social communication and their academic, scholarly writing styles.  If educators embrace the conventions of electronic communication, they can explicitly teach students how and when to use both CMC and academic discourse.

While educators may decide to teach students about the conventions of electronic communication, they should also understand the positive effects of extra-scholastic CMC and the literacy skills that students acquire through CMC.  The main attribute of CMC is that students are returning to a written form of language—each time they (de)construct a message students build and strengthen their literacies.  As students continue to communicate through electronic media, they practice new literacy skills while reading and writing in an environment they find socially and culturally invigorating.  Electronic communication can increase students’ comfort and confidence in their personal writing.  Furthermore, the social environment can remove or ease the fear of strict grammar and punctuation rules that students may experience in an academic writing setting.  Students are free to express themselves without worrying over details.  It is important for students to feel uninhibited while honing their literacy skills and learning to communicate effectively through words; they can learn the rules of grammar after they learn to construct meaningful communication.  Moreover, just as avid readers become better writers because they notice details of vocabulary, genre, and style, avid CMC-users begin to recognize diction, tone, style, punctuation, and genre in CMC (Selfe, Jacobs).  Studies have shown that electronically dexterous students have the capacity to recognize genres in electronic communications and can choose genre-appropriate conventions (Jacobs 177).  Similarly, students who do not engage in or experience a wide range of electronic genres online may not easily recognize the differences between formal and informal genres.  It is apparent that students who practice a skill or participate in an activity will become proficient in that area.  Furthermore, students strengthen their communication ability and play with different ideas of self, which advances students’ capacity to think of themselves in a more adult role.  Educators should encourage students to stretch their identity and ideas of self; after school, there is no magical moment when students suddenly become more adult or more professional. 

                Because there is no ‘magical moment’ when students suddenly become professional, educators must teach students about the conventions of scholarly discourse, and part of teaching the conventions of academic discourse is understanding the genre of academic discourse.  Educators and professionals understand that once students leave the college classroom, they will be entering a world in which their communication skills, whether verbal, written, or electronic, are much more important than they realize; informal use of language will reflect poorly on the composer because, unfortunately, people judge individuals according to their communication skills.  However, communication does not solely rely on language or words; generic form also provides conduits of knowledge and communication.  In her article, “Generalizing About Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept,” Amy Devitt explains that genre is more than the simple idea of textual form:

Genre, thus, depends heavily on the intertextuality of discourse.  As Bakhtin points out in his important essay on speech genres, a speaker "is not, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe" (69).  The fact that others have responded to similar situations in the past in similar ways—the fact that genres exist-enables us to respond more easily and more appropriately ourselves.  Knowing the genre, therefore, means knowing such things as appropriate subject matter, level of detail, tone, and approach as well as the usual layout and organization.  Knowing the genre means knowing not only, or even most of all, how to conform to generic conventions but also how to respond appropriately to a given situation.  (576-7)

Devitt posits that knowledge of generic conventions supersedes knowledge of mere form.  When one knows the genre of the situation, one can easily and appropriately respond to that situation.  Genre is another way of allowing form, tone, diction, and discourse to move powerfully under the current of actual words.  While educators may not be able to convince students that the outside world judges everyone based on the communication skills they exhibit, teachers should give students the skills to recognize and imitate the conventions of electronic communications genres, so they will be able to choose the appropriate response to various academic and non-academic discourses.

However, genre is not the only significant factor in academic communication; students must gather and organize literacies.  According to New Literacy Studies (NLS), literacy is not just reading and writing; New Literacy scholars view literacy in the context of social, cultural, historical, political, and economic practices, which includes regular access to and availability of technology (Introduction 17).  These scholars have expanded the idea of literacy to consider sociocultural and historical contexts wherein literacy becomes a “social practice rather than a cognitive, technical skill” (Jacobs 177).  In this way, the regular use of electronic communication hones students’ traditional literacy skills—reading, writing, and making meaning—as it builds students’ abilities to navigate and assess the world of technology.  New Literacy Studies scholars assert that meaning making, reading, and writing develop and work within specific social practices and within specific discourses (Introduction 68).  These scholars view literacy in the context of social, cultural, historical, political, and economic practices, which includes regular access to and availability of technology (Introduction 17).  As a social practice, instant messaging is fertile ground for reading, writing, and meaning making, which naturally lends itself to building literacy skills under both the traditional and the NLS definitions.  In an increasingly technological world, students who regularly navigate technology and the Internet continue to build literacy skills, skills they will find invaluable in their futures. 

Furthermore, students who regularly experiment with self-representation online, practice the discourse of different identities, which becomes valuable as educators begin to ask students to write in different genres, including academic discourse, a discourse they must practice if they wish to assimilate it into their identity.  According to James Paul Gee, the change in students’ writing style is merely students’ attempt to explore and assert their social identity, and their identity will shift when teachers ask students to don the mask of a scholar.  Students continually struggle with making and remaking their social identities, and CMC is one of the many ways that students’ identities can manifest themselves.  Because email and instant messaging initially serve a social purpose, and many young adults strive to establish and build their social identities, the online world becomes an environment in which students can play with different social roles and test the parameters of language.  Electronic communication is an environment in which students “try on” different social roles and identities.  Similarly, when teachers first ask students to transcend their student identity to write academic discourse, they may not immediately see themselves as deserving of an elite academic voice; students must initially pretend to command a scholarly voice.  Eventually students will think of themselves as capable of academic writing, but until then, teachers and students must work on identifying and mimicking the conventions of scholarly prose. 

Before students accept academic language as their own, they must agree to participate in a new identity, an identity that may directly conflict with their current identities.  Due to the rigid and distancing nature of academic language, one cannot write such prose without losing the concreteness, genuine appreciation, dynamic processes, and “telos” of everyday language (New 282).  Students do not easily acquire language that distances them from their subject.  Furthermore, Gee reminds us that academic language acquisition is strongly tied to issues of identity (New 282).  The student must be willing to participate in a new and unfamiliar identity, an identity that is new to all, but easily attained only for some.  Students who grow up in middle-class families (that presumably value and practice academic literacy at home) will easily adjust to their academic identity.  Conversely, students from less advantaged situations generally have difficulty participating in an alternate identity because the new identity may directly conflict with their current identities2; the hostility a student may feel toward the new identity may be a product of historical perspectives.  For example, “some academic domains (e.g., psychology) have historically denigrated certain sorts of people such as people of color, women, and poor people” (New 282).  It is not difficult to understand the reasons that some students resist academic language acquisition, but educators must help students to see the value in academic discourse, so the student may knowledgeably chose or reject academic language.

Whether students resist or embrace the challenge of academic language acquisition, all are asked to participate in an academic identity; some must overcome greater hurdles than others, but it is these hurdles that foster ideological becoming.  Arnetha Ball and Sarah Warhauer Freedman present an understanding of Bakhtin’s concept of ideological becoming in their essay “Bakhtinian Perspectives on Literacy, Language, and Learning.”  Ideological becoming is the way we develop our view of the world, “our system of ideas” (5).  While ideological becoming does not have to be political (as it often is in American English), Ball and Freedman suggest that “politics are an inevitable consideration” when diverse populations come together to learn and acquire academic language.  They go on to assert:

Language use and literate abilities provide ways for people to establish a social place and ways for others to judge them...The choices learners make about what types of language to acquire and use are political just as the decisions teachers make about what types of language to promote and accept in the classroom are political.  Students make conscious and unconscious decisions about how much to identify with and acquire school language and school ways; they come to school with ways of talking that mark them as members of a particular socioeconomic class, and they decide whether to move away from those ways.  (5)

Ball and Freedman posit that ideological becoming, while not necessarily political, may involve political decisions because students must conform to or challenge their sociocultural backgrounds and discourse.  Students’ struggles promote ideological becoming, which will determine whether they choose to accept or reject academic language as part of their discourse. 

As students struggle to decide whether to conform to or challenge their backgrounds, they will experience tension in what Bakhtin calls the “zone of contact.”  In his essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin explains the “zone of contact” as a “struggle against various kinds and degrees of authority,” in which discourse becomes the mode of expression (345).  In the zone of contact, there are two categories of discourse:  authoritative and internally persuasive.  Authoritative discourse is “privileged language that approaches us from without…It has great power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned it immediately becomes a dead thing” (424).  Authoritative discourse is the discourse of parents, teachers, and academia among others.  Because those in authority push students to use academic discourse, it has power over them, not within them; students struggle against the language and resist the power it has over them.  Students who do not see the value in academic language understand it as a privileged and unavailable language.  Ball and Freedman explain further:

This is not to say that all people struggle against all authority or all authoritative discourses, but rather that there are times in our lives when what we think as an individual is not the same as some aspect of the official doctrine of our larger world.  It is at those moments of struggle that we develop our own ideologies.  (7)

In this explanation, it becomes clear that not everyone struggles against the same authorities, but that struggles do result in ideological becoming, a process that forms and shapes students as they form and shape the environment around them. 

As students continue to form throughout their ideological becoming, some will finally accept academic language; it is at this time that academic discourse becomes internally persuasive.  In order for students to find academic discourse internally persuasive, they must realize that their everyday language is valid in some situations, and they must recognize the value of academic language in other non-scholastic situations.  Gloria Jacobs’ 2006 study reveals that electronically sophisticated students may begin to realize the value of both everyday and academic discourse without formal instruction.  In her study, Jacobs examines CMC use among high school students; in the end, they recognized the value of formal English3.  In Jacobs’ study, she discovered three important characteristics of communication in frequent CMC users (176).  First, the young adults in her study understood that spelling and punctuation could aid, hinder, impress, or offend their reader; therefore, they used standardized spelling and correct punctuation accordingly.  Second, the young adults only used slang that made sense in context or among their group of friends, which is similar to a code word or an inside joke in the offline world.  Third, the young adults were aware of different levels of formality and respect in electronic communication.  Jacobs made a critical discovery when the older participants in her group explained that they matured within their electronic communications.  Thinking back to their middle-school years, the students described how they barely punctuated sentences but exploited emoticons4 and acronyms (brb = be right back, and pots = parents over the shoulder).  As they reflected in her study, however, the students revealed that they thought these practices were immature and unprofessional.  In other words, as middle-school students, they challenged formal conventions of correct spelling and punctuation; five years later, however, these same students realized that their desired peers (older peers who held the figurative key to their social success) no longer accepted or valued informal speech-like communication.  Only then did the students assimilate formal prose into their identity.  These students ultimately challenged their own early conceptions of speech-like writing and assimilated formal English into their written communication.  Jacobs study reveals two truths about young adults who use electronic communication: The social component of electronic communication is very powerful, and students who understand the differences in formality and genre throughout electronic communication are more likely to have the ability to alter their communication accordingly. 

Through their avid use of electronic communication, perceptive students acquire literacy and genre skills that less perceptive (or disadvantaged) students will need teachers to explicitly teach.  Teachers can help students assimilate academic discourse by explicitly teaching electronic communications as a genre.  If teachers explicitly teach electronic communications as a genre, students will begin to recognize the different elements and situations of informal and formal writing styles.  Once students recognize the conventions of various genres, they can begin to alter their communication accordingly. 

               Students must practice recognizing genre conventions and transforming language before they can see that academic discourse is valuable and available to them.  In his essay “’Government of da Peeps, for da Peeps, and by a Peeps’: Revisiting the Contact Zone,” Jeffrey Maxson successfully utilized a Bakhtinian approach to “unfriendly language…by combinations of assimilation and resistance” through “creative misuse,” the foregrounding of “material and discursive regimes, which both constrain and enable people’s speech and writing” (25).  Maxson asked his students to translate difficult prose into “the variety of slang most familiar to them” (27).  Students chose from a range of historical documents and literature including the “Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  When Maxson’s students used their own vernacular or slang to translate what is said in the epic and legendary literature they have struggled with throughout their schooling, he reinforced the value of the students’ own language as they began to recognize the conventions of their own vernacular or slang (28).  Maxson’s creative misuse of literature and language allows students to assert their identity in a piece of history; they can challenge the authoritative discourse of academia as they learn the conventions of it.  Students will begin to see that they not only have access to academic discourse, but that it may hold value for them; perhaps someday they will begin to use academic discourse to challenge its authority in our schools and universities.

            Some scholars resist the idea that electronic communication positively contributes to students’ literacy because students readily display many negative attributes of electronic communication—they cannot separate themselves from the everyday social language and conventions that they find internally persuasive.  Obviously, electronic communication is already affecting students’ literacy in both good and bad ways, but ignoring the issue will be detrimental to all students.  Teachers should exploit extra-scholastic literacy to further students’ academic literacy because when educators embrace the literacy that students acquire in their social interactions, teachers can refocus their attention to help students convert their conversational diction into academic discourse thus empowering students to join the academic conversation of their choosing.