Thursday, January 07, 2010

grammar checkers- one more time

I am about to write a big piece, basically for my TESOL presentations (below)- and they will make these basic points:

1. Teachers must adjust to grammar-checkers as a force that has influenced our writers significantly and will continue to do so. Every writing product is a combination of natural skill and technological alteration, though in some cases students may be prevented from changing, unable or unwilling to change, what they write. Even if the teacher completely rejects or denies the use of technology, the student has been influenced by previous use of grammar-checkers and thus today's students have a different view of grammar than yesterday's students.

2. A teacher's primary choice is to teach to the inherent skill of the writer, rejecting the real forces of technology that that writer would have available in most cases, or to teach to the real situation, teaching students how to use grammar-checkers effectively and even pointing out the best ones that are available, or the best ways to set the ones that are already in the average word program. I don't know the answer to this question. Each option has benefits and drawbacks.

3. Grammar-checkers have clearly influenced what we see on our daily papers. In general, simple mistakes are gone: adding -s and matching subject/verb, for example, is now a non-question, most of the time, much as basic misspellings have disappeared. But while we no longer see non-words in our papers (of any students who use spell-check consistently), the mistakes we do see are harder to analyze; it's harder to get at what they intended, because the technology has removed them a step from the error-form that would have shown this to us.

In general, any learning process that takes incremental mistaken steps to master, become much larger problems with grammar technology, because the technology will highlight all mistaken forms and bring the learner back to GO. For example, a learner needs to try "I have lived in Carbondale for ten years" and starts by writing "I have live." This is actually a partial step toward construction of the right tense. But the grammar-check doesn't allow it, and instead instructs the student to return to "I live," which he does. Present perfect disappears. Even its emergence is delayed; no step can be taken until it is a complete step.

In general, there is some confusion about what is "grammatical" and what is not. Grammar-check irons out the passive for sylistic reasons, but doesn't tell the second-language student why; students aren't sophisticated enough to distinguish what is being changed for sylistic reasons, and what is being changed for grammatical reasons. We see less or no passives, and inappropriate actives. We assume that they haven't learned it, or aren't aware of it; in fact, they may be trying it, and they may be aware that their subject is the receiver of the action. It takes them much longer to figure this out, because the influences in their lives (the technology) are working against ordinary and productive incremental learning.

4. Some general laws and practices from the world of spell-check apply. First: it's ubiquitous; it was put on our computers before we realized it, and without our asking for it. Second, the better writers use it so sparingly that they are hardly aware of the huge influence it could have on the more mistake-prone writers; thus, teachers remain largely unaware of its huge influence; third, it has not so much eliminated poor spelling, as changed the nature of it, and in fact has made much of the native-speaking world worse spellers, in their natural state, because the technology so routinely changes their poor spelling that they don't feel it's necessary to bother actually learning every word.

5. The market for making and getting people to use new and better grammar-checkers is an aggressive one, so they are getting better and using more of the true power of computers (specifically, concordancing capabilities) to help them become better. My feeling is that this will lead to an incremental tightening of the world of grammatical and spelling errors; there will be fewer and fewer of these errors, but errors will be impossible to eliminate entirely, and people will become increasingly sensitive to the ones that remain. It will soon be possible to simply buy adequate grammar, and that will be good enough for a large number of people in most situations.

6. In the absence of any comment by the teacher, the student can be expected to feel that any of these programs, even the ones that appear naturally on their word program, are probably not approved of by the teacher, and thus must be used stealthily. Students of course prefer to write at home for other reasons as well. But the difference between writing with all the time to interpret grammar-check's suggestions, and writing with the impression, however mistaken, that one should not reveal one's dependence on the technology to the teacher, creates a wider and wider gap between what is produced at home and what is produced in limited time, in a lab where a teacher is watching. This difference, I have often attributed to wives, friends, girlfriends, etc. It may actually be that the technology is acting as one of these kibbitzers, one which often knows the right answer, but not always, and certainly can't give a reasonable, understandable explanation for why one alternative is better than the other. Nevertheless, it's a force that is at work on virtually every paper, so it's one we should pay closer attention to, and help the student manage his/her relationship with it, as we would with the student's relationship to a text.

more on grammar checkers

Daws, N. (2007, Nov. 19). New online spelling and grammar checker. Nick Daws' Writing Blog. Accessed 1-10.


Daws, N. (2007, Jan. 10). Review: WhiteSmoke Writing Software.
Nick Daws' Writing Blog. Accessed 1-10.

WhiteSmoke 2010, commercial software

EnglishSoftware free online grammar checker
(very slow loading)

Ginger Software - contextual spelling and grammar software

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

TESOL 2010

Internet Fair Classics
TH or FR 2-2:50, Electronic Village
Grammar Checkers: For better or worse

This presentation will have an overview of what grammar-checkers do to learning, both good and bad, and what improvements in them can be expected to do in the future; different teaching strategies are explored, from disabling and prohibiting them entirely to learning and teaching students to work with them, even recommending the best of them.

TESOL 2010

Internet Fair

Grammar technology for better or worse
2-3, Fri. Mar. 26

Writing teachers are used to the ubiquitous spell-check and the oocasional odd but inapproriate results of its consistent use. They are not prepared, however, to recognize the results of consistent grammar-check use, in two respects. First, grammar-check, even in its most primitive forms, altered the learning and perception of its esl/efl users. Second, dramatic improvements in recent years have changed what technology can do for writers, thus changing both the writer's and the teacher's challenges; for the teacher, the biggest problem is whether to teach to the student's own skills, or to accept the technology as a permanent part of the medium. This session looks at what is default on most computers, what is available and increasingly common on the market, what it does for and to students, and what exactly teachers can do about it.