Social media eroding skills?

Posted: April 06, 2013

At Downingtown East High School, teacher Amy Tordone has to compete with Twitter and Facebook for students' attention.

She also knows that her students must work on skills often missing from a world of 140-character tweets and minute-by-minute status updates.

So Tordone has changed her curriculum by reemphasizing basic concepts, ways of thinking, and note-taking in her Advanced Placement Government class.

She always has something for students to read, then follows it up with some form of social media.

Tordone, like many teachers in a digital age, realizes that social media can sometimes have an adverse effect on a student's ability to be grounded in grammar, style usage, and syntax.

In short, social media can hamper her students' ability to write effectively and become critical thinkers.

Consider this:

One hundred and fifty-four students from Downingtown East took a survey asking them what skills they felt they were lacking due to social media.

The survey found that all lacked one or more of the skills listed on the questionnaire. The five major areas students felt a deficiency in were concentration, cursive writing, spelling, reading a printed map, and grammar, respectively.

Tordone, who has supervised numerous SATs, has seen how students struggle writing the certifying statement in cursive.

"I am shocked at how long it takes people to write [the statement]," she said.

Critical thinking, a skill that only 8 percent checked, tying in with research, is definitely affected by social media, Tordone said.

"It is a link schools need to keep emphasizing," she said. Because so few checked "critical thinking" as a concern, she believes students may not know what it actually means.

All but eight said they were aware of the impact social media may have on them, but only 14 percent are worried about entering college without those skills.

English teacher Jacquelyn Rhoads believes social media have an impact on skills, but students don't seem to think so. "I don't think they really are aware of the full ramifications of it yet," she said.

Her students spend less time reading, especially the books she assigns. Reading, say educators, helps with vocabulary, grammar and writing.

"We have such a huge number of [people who] don't read at all," Rhoads said. "They would prefer their social media. That worries me."

Social networks do not ask much from their participants. A picture, a hashtag, a tweet, a word, a funny line is all a child, teen, or adult needs to be a part of the phenomenon.

None of the skills listed in the survey are required, nor are they used as the fingers quickly type the latest quip. Social networks give no penalty for misspelled words or incorrect grammar.

Compared to five or 10 years ago, Rhoads said, she has seen a decline in vocabulary, grammar, writing, and analysis. Students are used to writing in bursts with Twitter and Facebook, she said, and not sitting down and writing a thorough analysis.

"Their organization and content is good. It's the mechanics of writing they don't understand - grammar and punctuation," Rhoads noted. "Many resort to text-message writing because it's faster."

Only 43 students checked that they felt they lacked vocabulary. But many of her students, Rhoads said, are not able to express themselves since they do not have the words.

Senior Natalie Flacco checked vocabulary, cursive writing, reading a map, writing, concentration, and explaining yourself concisely on the survey.

She also said that she is worried about entering college without those skills. But would she give social media up to work on them?

"I would want to, but I don't think I ever could," she said. "Even though it has been presented in a bad light for multiple reasons, it has its useful functions. The good outweigh the bad effects of social media."

Senior Austin Vitelli checked handwriting and confidence when speaking out loud, but he is not worried about college. He said it would be challenging for anyone to give up social media completely even if it meant improving these skills.

He himself would not give up on social media.

"I think social media in general can do more good than bad," said Vitelli. "Some of these skills are strengthened by the use of social media in my opinion, such as writing. It forces us to write a lot more, which is always a good thing."

Even though social media have made it into the business field, future employees still must attain the fundamental skills to communicate, and communicate effectively and clearly.

Ellen Johnston, Director for the Pennsylvania State Council of Society for Human Resource Management, said she looks for the ability to communicate first and foremost when she interviews potential employees.

"Facebook, Twitter - these are tools," she said. "Regardless of where social media expands, you must always know how to speak and write in complete sentences."

Johnston said that even in a digital age where the rules of engagement are changing, college students should put basic communication skills before new media skills.

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