Monday, November 09, 2009

grammar checkers revisited

At first, I thought that there were basically two strategies for dealing with grammar checkers as part of the student writing environment: 1) develop the students' skills independent of the grammar checkers, either ignoring them, or treating them as an unnecessary complication, when what matters is what the student knows or can produce correctly without them; or 2) consider them part of the students' environment, in the lab, or wherever word is installed; help students to learn to handle and manage the programs themselves, and teach students how to use them to their advantage.

I have now come to see that even #2 is quite complicated. I was leaning toward #2 myself; they are, after all, an ubiquitous part of our world, along with spell-checker; they have gotten more sophisticated; students can be expected to know where they are, what they are, and how to use them to their full advantage, in any case. But, I can now divide #2 into several possible strategies:

1) deal only with the checker that is the default on whatever machine the student is using, in the lab; let them deal with the rest, at home, out of your site;
2) give students an overview of grammar-checkers with respect to maximizing their potential; show them the best that are free, on the web; teach them to find and use the best of the best, whenever they are available;
3) find out the extent that they have used them in the past, in order to be aware of the twisted view they now have of certain grammatical situations (i.e. passive); lecture them on what has happened to them and what they can expect if they continue their dependence.

This isn't all; I haven't quite thought it out yet. It seems obvious that we teachers are really concerned about the students themselves, their true skills, their success in the future. But there's only so much time in the world. Why should we beat ourselves over the head teaching -s if a machine will simply fix every single one? Should we then only be concerned about the exceptions, and teaching students to spot when the machine isn't covering their back? The world is now full of spell-check absurdities: people using what spell-check has provided, rather than what is right, thus showing off, inadvertantly, both their dependence on the machine, and their lack of real understanding of which word is appropriate. We teachers can thus spot the machine-free, the machine-dependent, and those who are in between. What do you do? Encourage the dependence, or wean them entirely? Teach to the middle, making them aware of the dependence and the problems it brings? I can't answer this question even for spell-check, let alone grammar-check, but I've come to some conclusions based on what I've learned.

One particularly instructive story involves the students who no longer capitalize "I" because "we're used to Word always doing it for us" - not because they don't know it's necessary. It's a matter of how you spend your time, and what you get used to; do you have that green line with you at every turn? Do you always respond to it? Do you keep struggling until it goes away?

Grammar checkers have automatic correction, which means that on many machines it is impossible to make i + 1, for example, because the machine will change the single i to capital, regardless of whether you intend it, until you learn how to disable the function, and the vast majority probably never learns how to disable this, or even alter it in any way.*

In the same way grammar checkers allow a variety of settings, including formal language, etc.; I have no idea (yet) what these do to their language, or whether that is ultimately good or bad for them; it's possible that the vast majority of students, like me, have and use word functions without thinking about it much, and don't alter such functions as a matter of course, and routine politeness to the majority of users of a machine. But a person who chooses to alter the functions of a grammar checker can just as easily undo what they did, if they know what they are doing, and have just a minute or two before and after writing. One problem: how can one predict whether or not one will have those minutes when finished?

Again, I'm talking strategy here. If we know the ideal machine, and feel confident that we can point our students to its correct and prudent use, will they have the luxury of using it in every experience? In the iBT? In the English department's comprehensive writing exam (here, I have no idea if we even have one)?

They will almost certainly have spell-check; every Word does, doesn't it? It would only be an extreme Luddite who would disable the entire program, wouldn't it?

In any case I can now say that the middle road: both teaching to the student and his/her skills, and being aware of the monkey and what it does, and teaching awareness of it, are necessary. There is no way to free oneself of the whole environment, and be completely immersed in either buying into the best of the machines, or rejecting them entirely.

*I have no proof of this, independent of watching my students. I can say that in general they don't even seem to try to alter the functions of the lab computers, but that may be because they long ago figured out, or told each other, that they couldn't; but I don't even know that for a fact. POrhaps they can, and don't. Or, never, in front of the teacher, if it can be avoided.


Post a Comment

<< Home