Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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.

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