Saturday, November 22, 2008

grammar technology cont'd

I'm using this weblog to write down my thoughts as I'm mulling over a lot of different things. There is no secret here; actually all of CESL has access to this weblog, can see it, change it or whatever; furthermore, most of what I write is not secret either. As far as I know, grammar-check was installed in every word program in every computer in CESL; although some programs have the new Word, some do not, but nevertheless all have grammar-check, and it's similar, as far as I know, on each; no one has ever mentioned disabling it, or giving us the choice whether we wanted it installed or not. It's like spell-check; it's part of the machine.

Now, it's not clear to me whether that's good or bad, but several things have become obvious. One, it's influence is not minor; it changes much of what they write, much of the time. This means that not only do we not see exactly what they know or don't, we also don't see what they've learned, or whether they've learned. We have another authority in our midst, and in whatever way, everyone has come to live with this.

Let's consider what happens. I give a writing assignment at the highest level; usually there is plenty of time to finish it. Some students use grammar-check as they write; I can see them consulting the computer advisor to tell them when to change something and how to change it. Some wait until they are done, and then go through it methodically, making choices for both spell-check and grammar-check, asking the computer if they want, what's the reason. Some, I am pretty sure, never consult the reason, but nevertheless make deals with the language until the green line goes away. And some ignore it altogether; either they don't know what the green line is, or they choose to ignore it, or they run out of time. Sometimes people are inconsistent; they clearly use spell-check on one day, and clearly don't on another. This could be because of time, or because of varying perceptions of the importance of the assignment, or how badly it is necessary to spell right, or use proper grammar. After all, in many cases, there is very little punishment for using wrong grammar; I have done this delilberately.

Yet, what they produce still manages to break legions of rules. It is abundantly clear that their natural grammar is much weaker than that of similar classes that came through the system years, or terms, ago. They are not putting together simple sentences well; they have no time on their verbs; they haven't bothered to learn simple grammatical tricks like making simple comparatives (more ___ than ____). My complaints go on and on; no reason to get me started here.

I'm inclined to write out the data so that I can see it better, and see what they do, how the machine changes it, why the machine would not change some of it, and why the machine changes some things systematically, both positive and negatively (from so-called "false positives", like passives, to actives, and correct changes, from singular-plural mismatches to other things). I'm curious exactly what it is doing, and what that means to us as teachers. But here I have another problem: I have not asked them if they minded being part of a grand experiment. It is, after all, a class; my job is to teach them, not to systematically grab what they write and publish with it.

Yet, there are all kinds of things happening. One is, they are publishing quite a bit of it, making it public, with only the grammar-check and not any other human intervention. Another- they are writing volumes of things, good and bad, about all nature of things; there is plenty of data. And finally, and I'm convinced of this: they are using grammar-check on almost all of it.

One way to get at what grammar-check is doing is to disable the machine, or to make them write things out in hand. That would certainly be a possibility. And it would be a possibility for all classes, all the time. In other words, teach them good grammar in isolation, regardless of what they can get a machine to point out for them. This would be good for my study, certainly, because I would get a better picture of what they are starting out with, which I think is a picture we sorely lack at this point, especially in the high levels. But as an overall teaching strategy, I'm not sure it's the answer, because it ignores the fact that, wherever they are going, they will probably have grammar-check with them. It would make more sense to teach them how to use it well, how to put it in perspective, how to make good grammar before they put it through GC.

What to do? Good question.


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