Middle school teacher Julia Austin is noticing a new generation of errors creeping into her pupils' essays.
Sure, they still commit the classic blunders — like the commonly used "ain't." But an increasing number of Austin's eighth-graders also submit classwork containing "b4," "ur," "2" and "wata" — words that may confuse adults but are part of the teens' everyday lives.
This "instant messaging-speak" or "IM-speak" emerged more than a decade ago. Used in e-mails and cell phone text messages, most teens are familiar with this tech talk and use it to flirt, plan dates and gossip.
But junior high and high school teachers nationwide say they see a troubling trend: The words have become so commonplace in children's social lives that the techno spellings are finding their way into essays and other writing assignments.
"The IM-speak is so prevalent now," said Austin, a language arts teacher at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Orlando. "I'm always having to instruct my students against using it."
Vicki A. Davis, a high school teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., said she even finds the abbreviated words in term papers.
"I'm Southern, but I wouldn't use the sayings, "squeal like a pig" or "kick the bucket," in formal writing (because) some people may not understand," Davis said. "IM-speak should be treated the same way."
Fourteen-year-old Brandi Concepcion, a pupil of Austin's, said wit, da and dat — used in place of with, the and that — sometimes creep into her homework.
"I write like that in the rough draft, but I try to catch the mistakes before I turn in the final draft," she said.
Some educators, like David Warlick, 54, of Raleigh, N.C., see the young burgeoning band of instant messengers as a phenomenon that should be celebrated. Teachers should credit their students with inventing a new language ideal for communicating in a high-tech world, said Warlick, who has authored three books on technology in the classroom.
And most avoid those pitfalls once they enter college, said Larry Beason, director of freshman composition at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Ala.
"Some of the same kids that I teach now were probably guilty of techno spellings in high school," Beason said. "But most students realize that they need to put their adolescent spellings behind them by the time they get to college."