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When Netspeak Enters Formal Writing, Teachers Are Anything but LOL

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on Wordmaster: an example of how English teachers at one high school are trying to get students to keep the language of the Internet where it belongs.

Jodi Schenck teaches at Rothberg Comprehensive High School in the Israeli city of Ramat HaSharon.

JODI SCHENCK: "What we call netspeak in our English team is basically the habit that kids have of writing on formal exams and essays exactly as they write on the Internet -- the number four instead of the world f-o-r, the letter U instead of y-o-u. Phrases that they use, idioms like LOL, laugh out loud, and this kind of thing. And it's been very hard for us to train them not to do that.

"And of course they lose massive amounts of points on their matriculation exams and final exams when they write like this. And for them they don't understand why it's not acceptable, since they use it every day to write internationally."

AA: "Well, how do you try to break them of the habit?"

JODI SCHENCK: "Well, obviously, first of all, to make them aware of it. I mean, I give them a whole list of phrases from the Internet and I say, 'All of these things? No, you can't use them. They're not common usage. They are slang.'

"And I give them examples. The same way that they wouldn't use hip-hop speak when they're having an interview for IBM, or the same way they wouldn't go in sandals and a torn pair of jeans to an interview, they can't use this kind of English in their writing. That it's formal writing and they have to write formally. They have to have a different set of informational values."

AA: "So what advice do you have for other English teachers who are hearing this and maybe facing the same problem, what advice do you have for them?"

JODI SCHENCK: "This is a Sisyphean task, it's an uphill task, it is. I try to do it lightheartedly with them, I try to give them funny examples of why it doesn't work and why people don't understand. But I am stringent about it. After they've been warned and after we've discussed it, if I receive an essay with something like this on it, I will remove five points or ten points each time, until they get the idea that they simply can't do it. And it sounds very Draconian, but there's no choice for it."

AA: "Well, couldn't someone argue that, let's say they're writing an essay or a story, a made-up story, and they're using it to represent how kids speak today? Are there appropriate uses for netspeak in their writing?"

JODI SCHENCK: "When the kids write e-mails, and we allow them to write internationally to pen pals and stuff, I don't edit them. In that sense they're allowed to use it. If they're using it in character, like they're writing a fictional story, then like any character dialect it's in quotation mark and it's obvious that it's character dialect and not their own writing. That's fine. But in terms of writing a formal essay or some sort of answer to a question that's formal English, no."

AA: "Is it that they think it's acceptable? I mean, why are they doing it? Is it just to bother you?"

JODI SCHENCK: "No, no. I think it's because, I mean especially where I teach, in Israel, most of the kids learn English from the popular media. They learn it from the TV, from movies, from MTV and from the Internet -- in great part from the Internet because these are kids who from, practically from birth are on the Internet, chat rooms, e-mails. And this is what they've learned from the people they write to internationally, back and forth, and they think it's absolutely normal. They don't see it as something unusual.

"Most of my kids unfortunately don't read a lot, which is a worldwide problem. Paper is out and computer is in. And, as a result, they don't have the cultural background of reading the way I did when I was a kid, where I read full novels and stuff for fun. They don't do that. For fun, they go onto the Internet, and on the Internet this is acceptable."

AA: Jodi Schenck is an English teacher at Rothberg Comprehensive High School in Ramat HaSharon, Israel. She was recently in the United States at the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention in Seattle, where I spoke with her.

And that's it for Wordmaster this week. If you'd like to hear other interviews from the TESOL convention, go to And our e-mail address is I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "My Internet Girl"/Aaron Carter