Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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

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