Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Green line to the commons: Grammar technology takes esl/efl for a ride

These five essays originally appeared on the CESL web space but were removed in February 2010 and put here in March 2010. They are replaced exactly as they had appeared; I have tried to restore the dates accurately. Collectively they are known by the title above.

Leverett, T. (2009, Nov.) Noticing and the processes of learning. Moved from

Leverett, T. (2009, Nov.) Grammar-check theory.. Moved from

Leverett, T. (2008, Dec.) Still more questions. Moved from

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.) Voyage pf discovery: The questions. Moved from

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.) Green line to the commons: Grammar-check takes esl for a ride. Moved from

To be fair, the work on the subject also includes the following blog posts.

Leverett, T. (2010, Jan. 7). Grammar checkers - one more time. This is your brain weblog.

Leverett, T. (2010, Jan. 7). More on grammar checkers. This is your brain weblog.

Leverett, T. (2009, Nov.). Grammar-check theory. This is your brain weblog.

Leverett, T. (2009, Nov.). Grammar checkers revisited. This is your brain weblog.

The TESOL presentation that this work was done for is here:

Leverett, T. (2010, Mar.) Grammar technology for better or worse. Internet Fair, Electronic Village, TESOL 2010, Boston MA USA.

Green line to the commons: "Noticing" and the processes of learning

"Noticing" and the processes of learning

When we teachers see a typewritten word, we don't really know what students chose at any given time, or why they chose what they did. If they ask us how to spell a word, we don't know why they chose to ask us a question, as opposed to overriding the red line, using a bilingual dictionary or taking the first choice the spell-check offered them, or maybe the second choice. Much of the time, we don't even know the aids they had at their disposal as they wrote, and whether that included friends or husbands, electronic concordancer, or just the spell-check and grammar-check with default settings, as would probably be the case for most students. We can get clues about what they did, or we can ask them; we can also watch their process, standing directly over their shoulder, or we can make them write everything out by hand, thus ensuring complete lack of interference by any kind of technology medium.

As an experiment, I decided to type in their handwritten assignment, so that I could experience the technological effects (of SCGC, or spell-check grammar-check) through their eyes, as it were. I tried to put myself in their shoes to see what they would do or might think about what the computer suggested. We can assume that the red line and the green line look the same to them as to us: the red is much brighter, more immediate, and suggests that one should change something right away. The green is subtler and also harder to fix. It is entirely possible that someone deal with the reds immediately and the greens when the paper is over; I'm not sure if I've seen this live or not. As I have said, students have different systems; some deal with everything as they write; others do it only when finished; some never do it when the teacher is watching.

The typewriter by its nature forced them to make certain choices that they otherwise wouldn't have had to make. My Asian students make thought marks when they write; these are not like periods or commas in that they are not on the bottom line and they are spaced out from the final word of the sentence; they are also not like periods or commas in that they look like a cross between the two. The typewriter forces them to choose one or the other; the grammar-check insists that they put it in the right place and align the capitalization. My sense is that the grammar-check is generally good in this sense; it has taught them to pay attention and do it right, and generally, they have learned this. If it never occurs to them to punctuate, it may be a while before they figure out what the grammar-check means by "run-0n", but if they are actively punctuating, the grammar-check is aiding them in using it in the right place, and conforming sentence elements to it.

Some changes are automatic; they may be aware of them on some level, or not. It changes [alowed] -> [allowed] just as I type. Does this teach them to do it right, or that it doesn't matter which they choose? Here I'd take the latter. They become less conscious, less worried, and it takes them longer to learn it. This is the "I" rule: why capitalize, when it's taken care of?

Thus the grammar-check allows us to do an experiment on what the grammar theorists call "noticing"; they have said that it is necessary for students to "notice" an error before they can begin to produce the right forms; here, we have a systematic way of making them "notice" (or not making them bother to do so) which we can measure and play with. For example, if we could establish a little buzzer that went off whenever they forgot the -s ending, they would "notice" and so would their friends in the lab. They clearly notice when they see a "-1" written by the word, as some teachers have pointed out. But if we do nothing and the computer simply systematically corrects things, why should they notice? We have a system here already, though to my knowledge we've done nothing to make it aid the process of learning (in fact, some teachers actively encourage the use of all technological aids; others actively prohibit them). Behaviorism works; perhaps we should simply make sure it is always helping us, and doing so with the student's consent.

Spell-check is cruel to the dyslexic. One student was trying to type [interesting] but typed [instering] instead; this was redlined and his choices were inserting, interring, insetting, instating, interning, and unstaring. I am not sure how he would have gotten out of this dilemma. This is a case where he might have consulted his bilingual dictionary, his friend, or his teacher; or, he could have gone down the road to the "spell-check absurdism" of which we are well aware.

Later this same student was trying to write [environment] and instead wrote [enverment]; he was given as choices endearment, averment, interment, and endearments. These choices suggest that spell-check was trying to correct the maxim that "if you get the first letter wrong, you're dead." Still, it clearly has trouble when there are multiple problems with the word, involving both vowels and consonants. My question really is whether when, having concordance as weapon, it will return better choices. It failed to correct [the Carbondale's whether]; grammar check similarly failed to catch the [the].

An interesting question arises concerning their interpretation of grammar-check's advice. How do they read "Fragment (consider revising)"? To me that sounds tentative, as if their fragment is really ok. But in this case it was not. It involved one of those thought marks, which I had turned into a period. ['The biggest difference between my country and Carbondale . is environment.] I had turned the mark into a period, to see what happened; the grammar-check definitely noticed. I'm not sure if the student, when typing, would have done the same. In any case, the advice "Fragment" is of questionable value to the student. A similar problem comes up with the frequent "because" sentences. Do they read the advice? Do they respond to it in the way we would like? Do they "notice"?

Finally, in cases where learning is a process, grammar-check often halts that process, because the process involves intermediate or transitional forms that are flagged and reversed. The very first sentence was [There are many nature in Carbondale] which suggested to me that the student had an awareness that nature in this sense is non-count (however, he had failed to adjust the rest of the sentence to it). Grammar check changed [nature] -> [natures] in alignment with the rest of the sentence; how does it decide which nature is called for in this sentence? To the untrained eye it would look like the student simply had never learned about the non-count nature of nature.

I suspect this is what is happening with present perfect. There is a natural order of acquisition; intermediary forms are required (students must make mistakes in the course of learning the correct forms); grammar-check does not allow these intermediary forms; the process is therefore delayed until they can make the right forms every time, or eliminated. I now have a majority of high-level students who have no active use of the present perfect; the systems that they use on a daily basis don't allow them to take the first few steps of the learning process. They can continue using until now indefinitely, even though it is usually inappropriate. But for whatever reason, they are not naturally developing a present perfect that they can use when they need it.

Thus I see the SCGC playing an active role in their learning, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, when they use it. They use it in combination with other things: bilingual dictionary, advice of teacher, family or friend. They generally don't show the teacher they are using it, on the assumption that the teacher won't like it or doesn't need to know that they've used it. It has therefore interfered in the process leading to their final product, far more than we are aware. Its interference is, as I have said, both positive and negative. In some cases it makes students aware of errors as it corrects them, and this is good; they correct them, and even learn in the process. In some cases it corrects automatically, making it unnecessary for students to notice or worry. In some cases it disrupts natural learning. But in all cases, it alters both the path of their learning (which is most important), and the process by which they arrive at a final product; its diligent efforts at conforming all language don't go unnoticed. My suspicion is that the vast majority of computers are simply set on the default; whether the student is in the lab or at home, he/she is aware of the SCGC, but does nothing to alter its settings, unless told to do so. We have here an experimental laboratory, set up to run tests on the process of "noticing," and we haven't even noticed.

The above is a journey of discovery, written before I really knew what was happening in our class; written in order to help me lay out the process and figure out how these machines changed what people do, what they appear to know and what they actually know and produce. I am trying to put actual dates on these as I am in an active process of discovery, and expect some of this to be rendered inaccurate by what I learn. Bear with me. -TL


Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.). Grammar-check and the esl/efl student: Introduction. Forthcoming, part of TESOL presentation, Denver 2009.

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov. 4). Grammar technology. thomas leverett weblog.

This originally appeared at

Green line to the commons: Grammar-check theory

Grammar check theory: introduction

A is an international student in the computer lab who is fully aware of the grammar-checker on his computer; every sentence he makes is a compromise with the green line that reminds him when he has made too many spaces, or a comma instead of a period. He doesn't alter the settings of the grammar-checker because, like most students, he doesn't know that he can. But he follows its suggestions the best he can, even though he often doesn't understand them well.

B sits next to him, and knows a lot more about the grammar-checker, but is afraid that if the teacher sees her altering its settings, the teacher will be mad, or, she might get caught by the lab assistant. Nevertheless, at home, she goes into its settings and tries altering them, though she doesn't really understand what different settings do for her papers. She has noticed that they sometimes change things her teacher likes, into things the teacher doesn't, and vice-versa. She often uses an entire machine-translator to translate entire articles into her native language, and knows that they are jumbled messes grammatically, but doesn't care; it's often easier to understand the article using these jumbled sets of native-language words, than to wrestle with them in her new language, English. In short, she uses every kind of technology available to her, assumes that the teacher doesn't approve, and hopes that somehow it helps her, though she isn't always sure.

C uses the grammar-checker and spell-checker, but only after he has written a whole paper. He goes back through it and addresses everything the green and red lines point out. He likes to have time to check the words; for example, if the red line shows a misspelling, he has to choose the right option, and sometimes needs his dictionary. Sometimes, in class, he doesn't have the time, but he doesn't worry about it; the teacher doesn't worry that much about spelling anyway, and the grammar doesn't make that much sense to him; one wrong form is the same as another if you can't tell the difference. In other words, he is vaguely aware that the grammar-checker is misleading him at times, but he follows its suggestions or not, depending on how he feels.

D has no idea about the green and red lines. She has seen them, but in her native language they didn't have anything like that, so she never got in the habit of figuring out what they were or what they did. One day recently she saw her friend using a grammar-checker when she was watching her, idly, type a paper. She decided to look into it when she had time. She didn't want other students to have an advantage she didn't have.

This variety of students occupies a typical ESL/EFL writing class. It is possible that there are no real people with the motives I have ascribed to these people, but my guess is that there is a wide variety of both motives and experiences in any given classroom. Each student writes on essentially at least two computers; one at home, one favorite one in the writing-class lab, and possibly another one or two, somewhere on the college campus, or in a boyfriend/girlfriend's apartment. A student's experience is a combination of what he/she writes naturally, in addition to what any given spell-0heck/grammar-check combination (SCGC) does to alter it, in addition to what he/she decides to do about the suggestions it provides. It is possible, as in the case of D, that only the first and second are relevant, and this could also be true due to time constraints of any given assignment; the SCGC could routinely change certain capitals and spaces, but the student either lives with it, or consciously does nothing about it, assuming that these are changes for the better. The paper we teachers see frequently has no non-words; every redlined word has been changed into something, but not every one has been changed to a correct alternative. Some have been changed into what are recognizable as words, but are clearly the wrong word for the sentence they are in. We can see from these, the fact that the student is engaging with the lines in some way. We don't always know, unless we have watched, what process the student has used.

The student's decision to engage with the green line, or wait until he/she has finished the work, is crucial for several reasons. One, time sometimes runs out before the assignment is over, thus, and entire assignment can go unaltered, simply due to time constraints, for the one who waits. On the other hand, the constant engager (like A)- the one who is wrestling with the red and green lines with every step, has more trouble thinking of the holistic paragraph or assignment, without constantly being consumed in the details. This person may or may not be aware of the consequences of constantly wrestling with the machine, but nevertheless has chosen to work out grammar and spelling with every step. The consequences unfold as his/her writing career unfolds.

And this last result is possibly the bottom line. We as teachers now must deal with students who have come from any kind of past sets of habits; we could call them "dependences"; but, the problem is not that they can't change their habits (they in fact must change some things with every new computer that they sit down at), but rather, that the computers have altered their perception, to some degree, and we must now deal with another presence in the room, one that reminds them that there is no such word as the one they just used, or that they shouldn't use a passive construction, just on general principle. Where did this principle come from? It doesn't matter; it's a force to be reckoned with, and it has already taught them considerably more grammar, in some cases, than we have.

Now as a person who was attracted to the behaviorist/universalist split in the field of linguistics, I am now wondering about the kind of conditioning offered by these machines, and what they are doing to people, with their relentless red and green lines. If somebody slaps the cat every time it sits on their lap, it soon learns not to try, but is that happening to a student who perpetually spells "modern" as "morden"? Will she eventually get tired of addressing the red line and just spell it right? (this, of course, would be a positive development, one we teachers might appreciate) What I'm saying is that the study of grammar-checkers and their influence on student learning is a case study in whether there is really a behaviorist explanation for much of student behavior, even if that behavior is sometimes misguided or due to misinterpretation. It is my belief that there is an explanation for virtually every behavior, but that it's not always as we'd like it, or as we thought it should have developed, given what we wanted and/or what we put in front of the student.

For example, a student who has spent the vast majority of his time on Word programs with standard grammar-checkers has never had to capitalize "I" as it has always been done for him; now he finds that when writing, he never thinks about it, even when writing in a chat or blog environment where no grammar-checker will fix it for him. Knowing that it is necessary to capitalize the I in "I" is one thing; actually programming it into his own behavior is another problem entirely. Now, his performance doesn't reflect his knowledge, because he knows better, but types quickly, and skips it, based on past experience. Will his editing eye catch it, before he hands in the assignment? If not we will assume that he doesn't know the difference; how wrong we are!

For me, some interesting principles come out of the entire study. One, because of the vast variety in grammar-checkers in use, and variety of settings within each one, it is not immediately apparent what is happening in any given situation. I can watch over a student's shoulder for a few minutes and determine whether that student is a constant-engager, a use-when-finished or use-when-teacher-isn't-looking; or an oblivious. But I can't always determine whether the settings have been altered or even if they could be; I have no control over the machine they use at home, or what they do to those settings. Should I open the conversation? Make requirements? Not allow papers to leave the lab, where they are under my watchful eye?

Second, we have here a fertile area of study; each learner is a combination, now, of some amount of freely creative grammar, to start with, and whatever alteration a machine makes, or gets made in the process of writing. Are we paying attention to which is which? Are we prepared to tell the student whether it was wise to engage with the machines that were freely provided when Word was installed?

Third, I can guarantee that the relentless intervention provided by the red and green lines has changed some things for some learners, if not many things for many learners. Many of these are probably good, as the case with "morden". Many are probably bad, or just neutral. Many are bad by virtue of not pointing out what should have been pointed out; by implying that something was ok, when in fact it was not; by changing an errant word into a ridiculous alternative, when it would have been better left unchanged. I have no idea of the odds of good things happening, or even if they can be measured. My suspicion is that it's an unholy mess to sort out.

The above is a journey of discovery, written before I really knew what was happening in our class; written in order to help me lay out the process and figure out how these machines changed what people do, what they appear to know and what they actually know and produce. I am trying to put actual dates on these as I am in an active process of discovery, and expect some of this to be rendered inaccurate by what I learn. Bear with me. -TL

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.). Grammar-check and the esl/efl student: Introduction. Forthcoming, part of TESOL presentation, Denver 2009.

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov. 4). Grammar technology. thomas leverett weblog.

The above originally appeared at

Green line to the commons: Still more questions

Still more questions

I can't say that grammar-check has destroyed the natural grammars of the students of my class. Having just finished two stacks of papers, one of them research papers, I have a pretty good idea of what my students produce, and I'm pretty sure the decline has been gradual, and intermittent. In other words, this class's grammar is worse than that of classes a few years ago, but not uniformly so; about two thirds of the class is making good progress with their grammar; their grammar is at level or better than their other skills. Many other things could be responsible for their decline in grammar. It's not even certain that all or even most use grammar-check all the time; many do; some use it more or less constantly. At least one student uses it when he thinks of it, but judging from non-words appearing in his work, it's not every time. None that I know of are aware of MEA(1) or use it actively under my nose or otherwise; of course I could be wrong. Perhaps the jury is still out on that. But based on what I know, I can make some generalizations, based on what I see now.

First, I think all teachers should be aware of the technology our students are adding onto their systems, and of the effect it is having both on what they know, and don't, and what they appear to know and appear not to. The effect is wide-ranging and insidious in some ways. Grammar-check is another authority in their lives, telling them that passive is wrong, and that certain things must be changed. It's been pointed out to me that red and green by nature provoke active responses in people, and I've begun to be more aware of my own reaction to red lines at least as I sit here typing. Needless to say nobody comes through the experience unaffected. One responds to the red and green lines, one changes one's language, one learns by habit. Things happen, and they will only get stronger and more profound with time and improvement in technology.

Second, the obvious question of what we should do about this is one I'm not yet prepared to answer. Disable it in all writing classes, or for all midterms and finals, is an interesting option which has both benefits and disadvantages. If it will be part of their lives from now on, why should we not allow them to use it to their advantage, to actually teach them to do so, as we did spell-check? If, on the other hand, it is ruining their grammar, allowing them to get away with not learning things they used to have to learn, how do we respond to this? How will the next generation, that grows up on MEA (2), be different in that regard?

Third, to focus on what exactly is happening: virtually every computer has the red and green lines, naturally installed as part of Word; it was designed for native speakers and misses a good amount of their natural errors, but catches another large percentage of them; sometimes it changes right to wrong, as in the case of the ironed-out passives, but more often it changes wrong to right, or changes one wrong to another wrong. One can't be sure from the final product where it came from, unless one asks or watches over a student's shoulder, but there are telltale signs that some technology is being used even if one is unwilling to ask or intrude, or if a student has brought a paper in from home or from elsewhere.

Finally, there is always the possibility that a student has crunched his/her native language, or a native language product, through a computer translator, before using grammar-check, thus rendering a product that is much more difficult to decipher, I would guess, and which maintains some of the word order of the native language. I'm not quite sure I know this when I see it, every time, but I can say that this alone is another chapter, a separate problem from that of a student trying to create English from the top of the head and simply responding to the lines, either by asking the computer what the problem is, and taking one of the choices, or simply changing the language until the green line goes away.(3)

About a third of my present two upper-level classes is grammar-impaired. All of these students, like the others in class, are polite, respectful, pleasant, interesting young people. Some could be accused of laziness, judging by their other habits, but not all. Some are aggressive language learners, hard workers, yet relentlessly using the tools that are available to them without always questioning what those tools are doing or whether that is good for them.

The other day one young student, sitting near me, pushed her monitor over to where I could see it and pointed at a green line under an adverbial clause, which read something like "Because human activities pollute the earth." What's the problem with this, she wanted to know. It's not a sentence, I said, along with the reason, all the while wondering how she got to our highest level not knowing this. On the one hand I was pleased that grammar-check had caught it, hoping perhaps it would wipe this problem out among her classmates, though I still see many of these adverbial clauses standing as sentences in things they write. And it begs the question: did she not see the computer call it "fragment?" Did she not understand that? And, how did she get where she is, not knowing that? The incident points out a number of other trends.

First, the majority of students feel that, because it is part of Word and I have done nothing to discourage it, grammar-check is perfectly acceptable to use, and even to ask me about, somewhat like spell-check. I have received only a few of these questions, but expect more as time goes on, especially as I begin to freely mention it as an obvious player in the world we live in.

Second, they are probably aware of the differences between the old Word and the new Word (as I speak, December 2008, only about half the computers in a lab of about 15 computers have the new Word), and, aggrieved at having to use the old one (because of not being among the first seven people to come to class), they may be responding to a different set of cues from the computer each time they sit down at one. The variation I see among my papers may be caused not so much by variation in their desires or immediate actions, as variation in the kind of Word they are using or the kinds of choices offered to them when they ask; the problem becomes worse with any paper they bring from home. Yet as of now I know of no difference that I can prove; I am still only weeks into my own journey of discovery.

Finally, the presence of different authorities who have different grammatical explanations clearly is a problem for them; in this case, I agreed with the computer (Because + a sentence is not a sentence, I have always told them), but what of the cases where I didn't? What of the passives that the computer is incessantly ironing out? Clearly they feel a conflict when a teacher presents the passive as normal and correct, yet the computer constantly underlines it? The woman in front of me clearly did not have an active or correct interpretation of "fragment," if she had even referred to the grammar-check's use of the term. She may or may not have gone into the computer to ask what the problem with the sentence was, or, to change the computer's settings with regard to grammar-check; I make no requirement about that, I don't tell them to change it or not to change it. This problem of conflicting authorities, though, I would compare to having different teachers with different grammatical explanations; they are obviously left deciding whom to trust more. Does the computer win? Grammar-check will be there longer than I will, and it's there at night, when I'm not.

Other general trends I've noticed:

First is the passive false-positive problem. Students make sentences of this nature: We should concern about the environment. Clearly, if they started out with a passive, the computer got them to change it. But I have no idea what they started out with, or what the computer responded with; only that I get a few too many perfectly formed, active, timeless sentences, and almost no perfectly formed passives.

Second, the absolute lack of present perfect, even when lexical clues show me that they should have at least tried. Has grammar-check trained them out of trying? Is this just a natural part of acquisition? They are high-level students. They should at least be trying it by now; did they? Did grammar-check once again just level out a half-formed present perfect, and make it present? Did grammar-check iron it out often enough, so that they no longer even try? My question is, really, to what extent grammar-check is changing the course of their learning journey. It's a question all teachers should be asking, and I can assure you, from the silence out there, as far as I know, one that has thus far gone unanswered.


1. MEA= Microsoft's ESL Assistant, just coming out as I write.

2. To "grow up on MEA" in this sense is to begin using it as soon as possible, regardless of the consequences. As grammar-check has wormed its way into our computers, inevitable changes in technology will change the equations I am now discussing.

3. I first noticed the problem of machine translation in this post but have since developed it.

The above is a journey of discovery, written before I really knew what was happening in our class; written in order to help me lay out the process and figure out how these machines changed what people do, what they appear to know and what they actually know and produce. I am trying to put actual dates on these as I am in an active process of discovery, and expect some of this to be rendered inaccurate by what I learn. Bear with me. -TL

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.). Grammar-check and the esl/efl student: Introduction. Forthcoming, part of TESOL presentation, Denver 2009.

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov. 4). Grammar technology. thomas leverett weblog.

The above originally appeared at

Green line to the commons: Voyage of discovery

Voyage of discovery: The questions

I now have two classes of high-level writing students, from different nations and language backgrounds, sincere, pleasant and polite. Our curriculum has them writing research papers but also writing summary-responses, synthesis essays, and a large volume of fluency exercises; about half of these I line-edit (along with the essays), and about half don't; most of what they write goes onto the web, but some of it goes straight on there, without editing, while the essays and half of the fluency exercises are line-edited first. Due to the line-editing, their original mistakes are lost to us now, except on paper that they now hold, but, fortunately, the unedited journal entries provide a fairly good look at their natural grammar, which is, by and large, quite low, in my opinion.

As high-level students, they have managed to get where they are due mostly to hard work and pleasing a number of teachers, though some tested into the level with a high TOEFL score. A combination of factors may have allowed them to reach that highest level without quite the grammar fluency they should have, and I can't say that the entire class is uniformly low, but it is a general trend. Some blame it on our grammar book and the failure of our grammar program (we teach grammar 4 hours a week at lower and intermediate levels), but I tend to feel that going through the Azar book point by point wasn't ever teaching them the grammar, in isolation, anyway; even if all the tests for those classes have been snuck out and passed around, and they have been cheating their way through our grammar program, I'm not sure that alone would account for their bad grammar. Other distinct possibilities are that they have cheated their way through certain writing assignments on the way up, or that they have not had much in the way of disciplined writing, forcing them to correct or see errors in writing, which they would ordinarily rely on. I tend to lean more toward the other writing in their lives as the cause; either they aren't getting enough of it, or it's not disciplined in the sense that it's not forcing them to correct themselves or get better. And this is where I came to suspect Grammar-check. If, for whatever reason, they are allowed to have a machine fix their mistakes, they are then allowed the luxury of not learning certain things, and getting away with it. Thus grammar-check is actually slowing them down, since it makes it possible for them not to learn a systematic set of things.

The biggest example of this is the -s ending on present tense verbs such as he walks or he eats. We used to see a lot of he walk and he eat, but we don't anymore; grammar-check catches it all, or most of it, I believe. If this is the case, we have no idea how many of our students have actually acquired this little skill, as grammar-check covers it up if they haven't; they now have the luxury of not acquiring it, as long as they can get at a computer that has grammar-check, before they finish any writing assignment. I can assure you, however, that there is a lot that in general they are not acquiring. I can also assure you that quite a few of them are using grammar-check, for good or bad, whenever they can. And I am sure that, when Microsoft Research's ESL Assistant comes out, they will use that too. (1)

I should mention here that grammar-check shares certain systematic characteristics with spell-check, which is much better known and more pervasive, and used probably more often, by both native-speakers and non-native speakers. First, it snuck up on us; it appeared on computers, so people used it. It seemed that nobody ever questioned whether it helped us or hurt us, though I remember wondering (2). For the most part, people thought, if we can get computers to do this, it will make our lives easier. People were quick to point out homonym games that made spell-check look bad (3), but pretty soon most people were using it on virtually everything they typed. And this had a systematic effect on not only what we produce but also how we learn or in this case whether we learn. In my class of fifteen, fourteen had used spell-check even on journal exercises where it didn't matter; there was no punishment for bad spelling, but spell-check at least was responsible for the fact that only a single student had any non-words in his final products. How many used grammar-check on every document? I have no idea.

I can say that there is a process in each and every assignment, for each and every student. Students have to be aware that it is there; they have to be at a computer that has it, and they have to know what the green and red lines are and what they mean; after that, what happens becomes less clear. In the case of spell-check, they may or may not know the options the computer gives them, so they may choose the wrong one, or, they may look them up, which would in some cases take time which they may not have. Thus a wrong decision on which option to choose may not be laziness so much as just practical considerations. They may be short of time altogether, and do their assignment without the luxury of spell-check or grammar-check entirely, for time reasons only. In grammar-check, they may avail themselves of the computer's advice on how to fix an "errant" sentence, or they may not; they may just change a verb, for example, until the green line goes away, and be satisfied with anything that makes the green line go away, regardless of whether it is correct or appropriate. In other words, they may incorrectly assume that the green line will point out all their errors and may be disappointed to find out, ultimately, that it didn't. Or, again, they may be short of time and do nothing. I don't always know the process; in fact, usually I don't know the process. If they are writing at home, it's a longer process, more laborious, and may involve several cups of tea, an electronic dictionary, or perhaps even a wife, husband, or friend.

My point is that the technology has allowed them to put a sheen on whatever they write, an extra layer of attention to appearance, so that it will look better, and certain persistent errors are simply gone, among them non-words (removed by spell-check), and basic singular-plural matching problems, for example. We are now spared these persistent and annoying errors, yet in return, we realize that they have actually acquired quite a bit less than they appear to have acquired; and, in fact, their actual grammar lags behind the rest of their skills (at least this is true of my present students). My thesis is basically that these are related phenomena.

Spell-check has entered into our system with very little resistance; grammar-check is following behind it, yet we really have no idea how or whether these innovations influence learning at all (4), or to what degree they will change language as we presently know it. The world is full of poor spellers, people who are afraid that that one single typo will deprive them of a good job (5); spell-check has moved in on that market, and will undoubtedly continue to fill it (6). They are now built into our computers; they aren't going away; students will avail themselves of them, at home if not here; so, if we want our students to actually learn spelling or grammar, we may have to think of some other way to teach them, besides what used to work but is no longer necessary, or, what used to be obvious but no longer applies. For it is true that as long as they have access to these machines, given the time, they'll use what they can, and they won't really need to put an -s on third person singular verbs; ordinary principles of human behavior will ensure that they spend less time learning what a machine will fix for them, and more time learning something that will help them pass, but which the machine can't fix for them. So, their actual grammar will lag behind their other skills.

Spell-check and grammar-check are often the last things students apply to a document, before printing; often I see them using these as I pressure them to print so I can leave and go to another class or go home. They are using it under pressure; they may not be making calm, informed decisions. The time is a crucial variable, and they are not effective time managers, though they get better at it with experience, and if they really believe these programs will help, they will make the time to use both. Again, I have no idea how they feel; they are, essentially, trusting a machine, one that is in fact not always right; but, I can see with my own eyes that what we are dealing with is a systematic change to what they produce, based on the options that the computer gives them (sometimes); based on their beliefs related to those options; based basically on their natural desire to produce the best paper they possibly can. If grammar-check has had an effect on what they produce, wait until you see ESL Assistant; things are getting more complicated, not less. But better? We'll wait and see.

Preliminary questions

1. What percentage of esl/efl students are aware of grammar-check? How many use it regularly? How many respond directly to the green line, as opposed to asking the computer what the reason for the green line is? Do they ever change computers in order to get a better grammar-check? Do they ever disable grammar-check? Do they use grammar-check every time they use spell-check, or are those really independent?

2. Are students aware of the different programs that exist, and the differences between them, i.e. grammar-check for mac, grammar-check for PC, ESL Assistant, grammar-check for old Word, grammar-check for new word?

3. What exactly is the difference among these? How will the evolution of grammar-check and the new programs change what happens?

4. Grammar-check clearly changes what they write; does it ever change from right to wrong?

5. Does it ever, without exactly making ungrammatical forms, obfuscate their intention, so that the reader/teacher no longer knows what they originally intended?

6. Do they learn from its changes? Is the overall effect good or bad? Are they able to use it to successfully cover up grammar shortcomings; in other words, does grammar-check essentially allow them not to learn?

7. Does grammar-check in any way undermine their confidence, especially when they find out that it has not done a perfect job?

8. They clearly choose the wrong options sometimes, when given options by the computer. Do they misinterpret its advice? Do they assign their own meanings to its advice?


1. Now in its beta form. Watch out! Who knows what will happen?

2. Not only did I wonder, but I actively brought up the question of whether people wouldn't now forget how to spell. One person replied by saying, so, if machine will do it, why should they remember? Are we dumber because we no longer use our heads to finish complex multiplications and divisions that a calculator will do faster?

3. One quick example: "Eye halve a spelling check her, It came with my pea sea, It plainly marques four my revue, Miss steaks eye kin knot sea." Thanks to John Mark Ministries. Such rhymes are quite common, in fact far easier to find than any serious discussion of what spell- check does to us, our language, and our learning process.

4. The same Google search that yielded dozens of homonym rhymes in the first few pages failed to reveal a single entry about spell-check and learning, until the tenth page, and that one was by a writer who made a point about his own learning.

5. Indeed one typo will deprive you of a job, especially in ESL, but in other fields also, and I think people are aware of it. I am looking for the reference as we speak. As far as ESL/EFL goes, I speak entirely from experience.

6. Both spell-check and grammar-check have evolved and will undoubtedly keep evolving. One obvious question is whether grammar-check will ever be so comprehensive that an ESL grammar teacher, or high-level writing teacher, will have nothing left to teach, in terms of grammar. Will a program be able to just create perfect language? Good question; I leave it unanswered, for the moment.

The above is a journey of discovery, written before I really knew what was happening in our class; written in order to help me lay out the process and figure out how these machines changed what people do, what they appear to know and what they actually know and produce. I am trying to put actual dates on these as I am in an active process of discovery, and expect some of this to be rendered inaccurate by what I learn. Bear with me. -TL


Leverett, T. (2008, Nov.). Grammar-check and the esl/efl student: Introduction. Forthcoming, part of TESOL presentation, Denver 2009.

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov. 4). Grammar technology. thomas leverett weblog.

The above originally appeared at

Green line to the commons: Grammar-check takes esl for a ride

The following was written in preparation for a discussion at TESOL 2009, called "Technology as aid, crutch, and impediment. It will be held on Mar. 27, 2009 at 4:00 PM, in the Colorado Convention Center Rm. 712. It is a Discussion (#142376) for the Second Language Writing Interest Section. My partner for this discussion is Elisa Hunt. You are welcome to attend! This article is unfinished and will be updated as time permits, and actually published in March with the presentation.-Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale IL USA 62901-4518. It originally appeared at

Grammar-check and the esl/efl student: Introduction

I know my students pretty well, but that doesn't mean they tell me everything about how they write, how they think, or what they will use to produce a good paper. When I let them go home and write a paper at home, and bring it to me the following day, I always assume that they might have their wives or friends give them advice, and they might; what I might forget, however, is that the quickest, easiest advice they could get would probably be from their grammar checker, which works more easily on their pc at home than on the macs in our labs. I'm not sure the extent to which this is widely used; while several students have asked me to interpret a familiar green line under a word, they often are more circumspect about it, and either guess at the meaning of the green line, or find out how one gets the computer to tell you the problem, which is different on a mac than on a pc (where it is a simple right click). I myself don't even know how to get the computer to say "fragment!" or "agreement!" or whatever the computer tells them when they ask. I have no idea how they interpret this advice, either; it is probably not the same way we would suspect. I have even less conception whether the grammar-check occasionally sends them in a direction that they should not have gone (the Lost in the Woods principle, see below), to their detriment. I do know that as awareness of this little green line has steadily grown, and students have steadily shown their preference to work at computers where they can use it more effectively, it has subtly changed the art of grading writing, as it has changed what we see. We no longer see as many simple subject-verb matching errors, for example, though we see plenty of a larger kind, the kind that it is harder for grammar-check to catch. One question, really, is whether the program has given them the luxury of not even worrying about singular-plural for a much longer time, so that the larger kinds of singular-plural errors are much more prevalent, much longer; in other words, students are still making them, at much higher levels, for much longer, because they have not been forced to learn them earlier. I can't answer this question, but I suspect that it has changed the situation somehow.

So my research question is, really, this: to what extent has the prevalence of this little green line (and the right-clicked "explanation," and their interpretation of it, if they have indeed gone that far) changed the system by which they produce the majority of their work? To what extent has it changed the order or the speed by which they figure out what they have to do to consistently produce good, acceptable grammar? What happens when they are unexpectedly forced to produce English at a work station where they are not allowed to use grammar-check, or don't understand the mechanics of getting what they are used to, if they are in fact used to getting both the green line and the "explanation?"

The "Lost in the Woods" principle states that, in effect, we, as interpreters of esl/efl English, sometimes would be better off in trying to get at what our students intended, if they did not have access to their technology. I was reading a paper about eagles who made their nests in cafes today, and the computer in question had not only changed, through spell-check, some word (an errant version of cliffs, I originally assumed, but an errant version of caves might be a better guess) to cafes, but also had actually put the little accent on the e of cafe for the writer. The Lost in the Woods Principle says that I would have had a better shot at understanding what the student meant, if he/she had never changed the word at all, than I had when he/she had followed the computer's advice and changed what he/she had written to a more genuine word. The Lost in the Woods principle further states that the same thing could conceivably happen with grammar-check, but again, it's hard for us to figure out what our students intended, because the surface form, what we see, is perfectly formed in its own way, yet errant in such a twisted way that we fail to see the error, or fail to see the root of the error. Like the teacher who says, perhaps the eagle made his nest in the cafe- we look at the simple present tense and say, perhaps the student means every day, or, in general; or, perhaps the student wasn't particularly thinking about the time.

There are other principles in operation here. One says that, if a student finds an advantage that the computer can give him/her, as he/she types, he/she may share it with a friend, or, the friend may simply observe him/her using it, and in this way it spreads from student to student until a large number of students or perhaps even a majority are taking advantage of it. And this spread is somewhat inevitable; nobody who is aware of the new innovation will choose not to use it, because that would put him or her at a disadvantage; the long-range consequences in terms of learning are less important really than the short-term consequences of letting classmates have an advantage, or feeling one is at a disadvantage. Use of the program will become widespread slowly. Yet students will not be eager to tell their teachers about it; they do have the sense that if the teacher really knew what was happening, he/she wouldn't approve. So what we are seeing now is that, since for the first time perhaps most of our students are actually using part or all of this program, we have prevalent grammar patterns that are caused by the program, and that systematically change most students' writing on a regular basis. We could, of course, disable grammar-check, or force students to handwrite on paper, but often we don't (speaking just for myself here); why? Because of one more principle: that, (again, speaking for myself) because we teachers ourselves don't use grammar-check much, we don't really think of it as an active part of a student's writing process. We might be vaguely aware of it, but we don't really deal with it actively as a part of their system, because it's not an active part of ours.

This principle could be called the principle of projection: we believe that our students' writing process is basically similar to ours, though we recognize some fundamental differences. We know that they will use tools at their disposal, as they certainly use spell-check, and we may even encourage them or expect them to use these tools. Yet how many teachers today actively teach students to interpret grammar-check's "explanations" correctly, as if they are a routine part of the process? How many of us are even aware of what our students are seeing when they right-click, let alone how they are reading it? We hadn't even thought of it, I suspect, because, by and large, we weren't using them ourselves. And, when students were using them, it was usually out of our sight.

One more principle: students will rely on all kinds of life-lines, at all times. But they will usually rely on the ones that are easiest, most handy, that have no particular price or are free for the picking. Once they know it's there, it's hard for them not to use it. It's part of the landscape. If they knew it caused cancer, they might make an effort to avoid it; but, if they have no such evidence, of course they're going to use it. It's part of the computer; it's part of the word processing program, even. It's like trying to type and not quite knowing how to make italics. When you see another student do it, you watch. Sometimes you're watching even when that's not what you're looking for, but learning is natural, and we don't resist it.

Native speakers got mad at the first grammar-check programs because they systematically changed some things that people didn't want changed. I remember I got mad because I wanted to make some small i's and the computer systematically capitalized them; once this was in conjunction with writing about Krashen's theory, and I thought, how ironic, I'm talking about someone's level of English here, and the computer keeps changing small i to big I, thinking I surely must be talking about myself. Eventually grammar-check made a simple override that solved the problem, and the override became more nuanced, so that I could make a list of words, for example, without having to override each word to keep grammar-check from thinking it had to be capitalized since it was alone at the beginning of a line. In this way people like me made deals with grammar-check, either disabling it entirely for convenience, overriding it at times when it was more convenient, or even changing entire tests so that the distractors were A-B-C-D instead of a-b-c-d. In the same way surely our students make deals; they make up their own explanations of why grammar-check is doing what it's doing, and they respond accordingly: either they override it, or do what it asks, or, in the extreme case, ask someone what it means when it says "fragment." But how often are we involved in this decision-making, creative process? Speaking only for myself, again, I'll say rarely. I've occasionally been asked to interpret a green line. This was by students who undoubtedly assumed it was a ubiquitous part of all computers, that of course I knew about and didn't mind them using it. The rest of the time, I forget it's even there.

The reason I bring it up is this: What you see before you, when grading any given paper, is the final product of a system of choices, starting with the student's creative ability to say something and put it in some form on paper. That student may have started in his/her native language, crunched it through a computer translator, and then let grammar-check have at it. Or, more commonly, he/she may have started in his/her best English, and interpreted green lines, one by one, as they appeared, availing himself/herself of the "explanation" if possible, or if desirable (I could see how a student might consider and reject the possibility of receiving an "explanation," perhaps, and deciding just to wing it, or to make systematic corrections that are not necessarily what the grammar-check was suggesting, but nevertheless which solve the problem); and going from there in terms of interpretation or choosing one's way back to a green-line-free product. Whatever the system is, the technology is at the tips of their fingers, and they know it; it's part of the game. Whether it is playing the role of a monkey on their back (an addiction, impossible to shake, ruining their life) or a benevolent instructor (slowly teaching them to capitalize at the beginning of a sentence, for example), or a muse, taking them further still from where they were lost, I can't say. All I can say is, the sooner we figure out what is going on, the better we'll be able to recognize what we're looking at; the better we'll be able to figure out how much grammar they have actually learned, if that is in fact the most appropriate word to be using.


1. Voyage of discovery: Questions
2. Still more questions

Leverett, T. (2008, Nov. 4). Grammar technology. thomas leverett weblog.

Technology as aid, crutch and impediment to learning

The following was written in preparation for a discussion at TESOL 2009. It was held on Mar. 27, 2009 at 4:00 PM, in the Colorado Convention Center Rm. 712. It was a Discussion (#142376) for the Second Language Writing Interest Section. My partner for this discussion was Elisa Hunt, also here at Southern Illinois University. You are welcome to attend! This site is unfinished and will be updated as time permits. -Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale IL USA 62901-4518. It originally appeared at

Summary (50 words)

Instructors should be aware of the extent to which technology may influence a student's understanding of a text, or production of his or her classwork. This session explores unforeseen complications, brought on by technology, in the process of learning.

Session description (300 words)

Technology advances at a rate that often catches busy teachers unaware. Technological advances from spell-check and electronic dictionaries to cell phones and computer translators have all added a dimension of complexity to the processes of learning: to both students' understanding of what they read or encounter, and to teachers' understanding of what students are producing or trying to say. As the technology becomes more advanced, and methods of using it more discreet, teachers may ask how they can determine when or what technology has been used, what it has done, how this may be unraveled, if necessary, and what strategies can be used, by both student and teacher, to reach the ultimate goal: timely and efficient learning of a second language.
Handout for this presentation
Green line to the commons: Grammar-check takes ESL for a ride

[ CESL ][ Tom Leverett's weblog ]

Monday, March 22, 2010

Some student essays on Wikipedia

Should students be allowed to use Wikipedia?
Arthur, June 2009

Don't students become addicted to Wikipedia
(Anonymous), June 2009

Making sure they know from Wikipedia


Writing teachers can give high-level writers better awareness of the practical implications of using Wikipedia as a reference, with an exercise that highlights academics' reaction to it.


High-level writing students are often aware of the value of Wikipedia as a resource, and may even be in the habit of using it regularly, as many American students are. Like American students, however, they are often only vaguely aware of why academics might object to its use as a reference or trusted authority. In fact the whole problem of evaluating online sources looms as huge for students entering academic classes, and teachers must constantly find new ways to remind students of the disastrous consequences of failing to evaluate, or evaluating poorly, the sources they choose for their research. This writing exercise introduces and highlights this problem by making Wikipedia itself the topic of inquiry, encouraging students to see both sides of the debate over its value, and expecting them to take sides on the question, in the form of an essay that uses quotes about its merits and defects as a resource. When the exercise is over, students are better at not only documenting the sources they use, but also evaluating them before the process starts.

About the Teaching Tip
Wikipedia & Critical source evaluation Bibliography
Original practice final assignment
Wikipedia Bibliography:

Bosworth, A. (2004, Dec. 20). What is wikipedia...And how does it treat history? George Mason University's History News Network. Accessed 3-10.

Bryant, T. (2007, Aug. 21). Checking the reliability of Wikipedia. Academic Commons, blog. Accessed 3-10.

Fildes, J. (2007, August 15). Wikipedia 'shows CIA page edits'. BBC News. Accessed 3-10.

Frean, A. (2007, April 11). Wikipedia a force for good? Nonsense, says a co-founder. Timesonline. /news/tech_and_web/article1637535.ece. Accessed 3-10.

Hesse, M. (2008, April 27). Truth- Can you handle it?. Washington Post. Accessed 3-10.

Martin, N. (2007, Sept.) Wikipedia clamps down on 'unreliable' editors. Telegraph, UK. Accessed 3-10.

Meredith, L. (2010, Feb. 17). Information anarchy: Don't believe everything you read. LiveScience. Accessed 3-10.

Schiff, S. (2006, July 31). Know it all: Can Wikipedia conquer expertise? The New Yorker. Accessed 3-10.

Seelye, K. (2005, Dec. 4). Snared in the web of a Wikipedia liar. New York Times, Week in Review. Accessed 3-10.

Seigenthaler, J. (2005, Nov. 29). A false Wikipedia 'biography'. USA Today. opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm. Accessed 11-08.

Critical source evaluation

UC Berkeley Library (2010, Jan.). Evaluating web pages: Techniques to apply & questions to ask. Accessed 3-10.

Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries (2010). Evaluating information found on the internet. Accessed 3-10.

Ohio Univ. Dept. of Linguistics. (2008). Evaluating your source (links). Accessed 3-10.

Making sure they know from Wikipedia

This teaching tip is a writing assignment that should first be considered in the context in which it is given: we are an academic program, teaching argument essays among other things; we value accuracy in sources and proper citation, reference, etc. , but basically teach essay construction, thesis statement, topic sentences, use of source material, etc. The reference to “CAR” is counter-argument/refutation (paragraph), known by other names elsewhere, but basically a standard writing technique in argument essays. The assignment can be adjusted to different specifications or needs; in my class it was a practice final, but essays were published and can be seen at one of the url’s below.

The value of the assignment to me is that it kills two birds with one stone: it puts students in the middle of a genuine and important controversy, which they need to analyze and think carefully about; at the same time, it takes the problem of unreliability of source material and puts it at the center of their conscious awareness. The problem of teaching students to be critical about what they find on the web has become increasingly acute, and we often find ourselves in the position of explaining why a Wikipedia entry, or an article they have found with no date, may be accurate, but still may not really be desirable for our assignments or others. Keep in mind that unlike the older generation, many in the young generation have nothing to compare Wikipedia with: it has always been there, and has always been the most reliable source they know of.

Wikipedia presents the classic paradox for the ESL teacher: on one hand, it is the opposite of what academics consider received, acceptable wisdom; its sources could be anybody, and in many cases are anonymous. On the other, it is unquestionably one of the best sources for all kinds of information: it documents its changes; it includes both sides in most disputes; it allows information from so many sources that it rarely leaves out anyone’s perspective. It links to all manner of appropriate and useful other sources. In short, my response to the assignment is to teach them as much as possible about it, and teach why people react so virulently to it (and who is most likely to object most). I absolutely want them to know as much about Wikipedia as possible. I also want them to be very shrewd about evaluating the sources they use in their papers, and valuing the authenticity and quality of any given source; this is not only a History department value, but also one that should be instilled throughout an esl/efl curriculum.