Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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

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