Sunday, November 15, 2009

Grammar-check theory

Leverett, T. (2009, Nov.) Grammar-check theory. Unpublished manuscript. Available

I have to admit that what I've been writing is somewhat rudimentary, but it has occurred to me that it's important to document my thinking here, because I think we're moving into a world where the grammar that a person produces is actually a complex result of several forces: the automatic functions of one's grammar-checker, with the responses to the grammar-checker layered on top of that; in addition, the grammar that any given learner carries around is a result of interplay with grammar-checkers; this exchange has basically provided some learning, if only by a rudimentary system of stimulus-response activity.

It started out with the spell-check, frankly, and spell-check is probably the best way to understand it. The student tries to spell "fate" as in "fate of the crocodile" but spells "fait" which the spell-check then corrects as "faith". The student not only believes that his word, fate, is now properly spelled, but also walks out of the situation a little closer to mistaking "fate" and "faith" as separate words. The spell-check thus simultaneously alters his production, and teaches him something wrong. This is not to say it can't be undone by a teacher or by other experience. It's to say that what is happening is real and has real effect, no matter how miniscule.

If the effect is to be understood in its entirety, it can explain more important behaviors in the esl/efl classroom. For example, students get quizzical looks when teachers explain the passive. This is because grammar-check has been ironing out passives for years now, or to be more specific, not allowing students to make them, without marking them with a green line. It is intended to remind the native writer that passive is to be avoided (as pedantic, or cold, stylistically outdated) if possible, but in effect implies to the student that it is wrong or to be avoided for more basic right/wrong reasons. The student with his/her quizzical look is in fact reflecting a combination of factors; he/she has been taught, perhaps, in several classrooms, that passive is acceptable; yet he/she has been slapped, so to speak, by a green line, whenever he/she has tried to create one. It occurs to him/her, perhaps only for a moment, that he/she doesn't know whom to believe.

The theory is recognition of simple fact: that the beliefs the student brings to the situation are a combination of factors, both classroom teaching and technological stimulus-response. In the same way, any given writing product is a similar combination. It may have no SCGC (spell-check grammar-check combination) applied to it whatsoever, because it is handwritten and spontaneous, or because those have been disabled on any given machine. Or it may have whatever is provided as a default (this would probably account for over 95% of papers done in our lab, given what I've observed); but, these could be divided in terms of their users' awareness of, and active interplay with, the programs that are there. Some students literally address every green line that they encounter; they address each one, one at a time, while writing, and struggle with it until it disappears. Others wait until a paper is done, but do the same, essentially. Still others struggle with it a little, but take a more proactive approach and decide for themselves, sometimes, to ignore it. My point is that there are degrees to which each student responds to what is there, and their final product, naturally, reflects this.

Finally, a small percentage, which I couldn't even venture to guess, reflects active intervention with the system that is there. Some students, aware of how they can change or alter the settings beneath their grammar-checker, actively change or alter them, at least at home, in the privacy of their own den. Others are aware of the programs that are available on the free market, and crunch what they write through them. Again, this may happen only at home, or may happen on any machine that has the web open and available for free exchange with a word program. It can be assumed that the student will believe that the teacher won't approve of this, until it is proved to him/her otherwise; in other words, if you, the teacher, have said nothing about grammar-check programs, don't expect students to volunteer to you that they use a better one than the one your computer now offers as a default. Assume that they do it when you aren't watching. Don't assume that all do it every time, but assume that you don't really know what happens when you aren't watching, unless you have successfully disabled everything. And even then, watch out for the pin drives!

Not that this is all bad. I still say that the teacher should be open with the students about it, in any case, because all of these innovations are part of the student's world and ultimately part of what will create everything that student will write. Why not at least be able to discuss what happens, and why? Even the teacher who disables every SCGC should at least be able to tell students why, what grammar-checkers do, and why disabling them is the best option. Teaching a person how to live without a car is entirely different from teaching how to drive- which better prepares a person to live in the modern world? I can't say that I know.

Having not taken a stand on the essential question in this debate, I can say with certainty, at least, that rapid improvement in the nature and quality of grammar-checkers will not totally alter the landscape, or the theory as I've laid it out. It will simply make it harder to figure out what we are seeing.


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