Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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.

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