Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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

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