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Checking the Checkers
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As teachers and writers, we know that spell checkers, grammar checkers, and style checkers have limitations. Students, on the other hand, sometimes succumb to the promise of accuracy and accept whatever these tools suggest. So how can we convince them to question the advice that they receive?
With my students, I introduce the topic with a discussion of an article that demonstrates the complications that checkers can introduce and a complementary article that discusses the value of accuracy. Here’s the prompt I use, which you are welcome to copy and customize for your classes:
We all rely on grammar and style checkers to help us find the small errors in our writing. Anyone who has had autocorrect go wrong, however, knows that grammar and spell checkers are not necessarily accurate. Sometimes (as in the case of the unicorn-riding police officer in the meme image on the right) these tools can change our messages to say things we never intended.
In the same way that you must double-check the changes that autocorrect suggests, you have to pay attention to the grammar and style tools that are available in your word processors. Read the Slate.com article Microsoft Word’s Grammar and Style Tools Will Make Your Writing Worse for examples of how Word can suggest changes that will confuse your readers.
Compare the Slate.com piece to the BBC’s article on The true importance of good spelling, which discusses why correctness and accuracy matter by considering how readers react to errors in texts.
Be prepared to discuss the following questions in class:
- Have you been in situations when you judged someone by their spelling or grammar OR when you were judged on your spelling or grammar? If you are comfortable with sharing, tell us what happened.
- Have you been a victim of autocorrect gone wrong or an incorrect correction from a spelling or grammar checker? What happened? How did readers react to the autocorrected text?
- How do your experiences and those that have been shared in class compare to the attitudes toward correctness and accuracy discussed in the BBC article?
- In what situations are grammar or spell checkers likely to give incorrect advice? Why do these situations lead to mistakes?
- What suggestions do you have to help people avoid taking bad advice from spell and grammar checkers? What can people do if they are unsure of the advice they are given?
To build on the discussion, follow up with “Mistakes Are a Fact of Life”: A National Comparative Study by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, which is mentioned in the BBC article. Either ask students to read the 2008 CCC article itself or to read some excerpts from the article that demonstrate ways that spell and grammar checkers lead writers to make errors. After reading, have students consider how the categories in the CCC article compare to the different situations they identified in which grammar or spell checkers are likely to give incorrect advice. Encourage students to consider how the categories from the article can help them identify inaccurate advice from spell and grammar checkers.
As students work on drafts for the course, I ask them to note times when they receive poor advice from their word processors. I invite them to share incorrect corrections in a discussion forum. They provide a screenshot of the correction and then explain why the advice is wrong. Ideally, they use the categories from the CCC article to indicate the kind of error that the advice would result in. The resulting examples help the whole class understand the importance of double-checking the advice that spell and grammar checkers provide.
How do you discuss spelling and grammar in class? What activities do you use to help students understand how to use spell and grammar check advice effectively? Please leave a comment below with the details. I’d love to hear from you.
Credits: Police Issue Unicorn from Autocorrect Fail. The Lunsford and Lunsford article is from CCC 59:4/June 2008, pp. 781–806.
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