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Footnotes

Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

Footnotes: How texting helps us learn to read and write

Two years ago I learned my mom was low-literate.

I'd always suspected it. She used to feign bad eyes when there was an important pamphlet in front of her, and hand it to me, her book-hungry son, to read. And whenever there was a wedding card for her to write I became her personal Dictaphone — on account of my "very nice writing," of course.

It was only when she got an iPhone that I learned the limits to her English. Not even autocorrect could take the fall for her illegible texts. Often, just calling her was less of a hassle than decoding her patois.

I'm not implying that talking to my mom is a chore. Quite the contrary. Since immigrating from Lebanon in 1980, she's become quite the social butterfly and been adventurous with English words even if she mispronounces them. She quickly lost her Lebanese accent, unlike my father who could pore over an insurance claim but still calls Pepsi "Bebzi."

Gregarious as she was, her secret began to unravel with the digital revolution.

January 29 is Family Literacy Day, and never have reading and writing disabilities been more relevant. Gone are the days of calling human resource about an employment opportunity or making birthday plans over the phone — at least not with the part you speak into. Email and Facebook have taken over, and the inability to use them is crippling and demoralizing.

But here's the good news: The things that isolate illiterate people are also making fewer of them.

Though many pooh-pooh the wanton spelling and grammar pervading online communications, there's evidence that it actually improves spelling and reading.

According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, nine and ten-year-olds who texted more spelled better, possibly because it exposed them to print that was more appealing than what was in their textbooks. That's gr8.

Even better, though, is how digital communications warmed them to the act of writing.

A 2009 survey by the U.K.'s National Literacy Trust found that children with a social media account, like Facebook, were significantly more confident writers than those who didn't.

I see this everyday on Facebook when the same person who 20 years ago hyperventilated as the reading circle neared them in class, is now spurting whole paragraphs about some awful customer service experience. It may be rife with errors and festering angst, but they're still writing every day — several times a day — when before they didn't at all.

These vilified technologies might be the biggest advancements to writing since the printing press.

We are all Gutenberg now. Including my mom, whose spelling has improved immensely, and who texted me to know, "I love being a grandma. Can't wait to be one to your kids."

I know you're reading this, Mom, so let me go on the record: Not anytime soon.

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