Schooling Grammar Checkers

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Let's start with this. Machine response to writing is here to stay. It will not be undone. And because we cannot wish it away, it is important, as Carl Whithaus argues in "Always Already: Automated Essay Scoring and Grammar-Checkers in College Writing Courses," to acknowledge what machines do poorly, what they may do well, and what strategies instructors and students can apply to make the best of automated response to writing given both its ubiquity and limits.

Writing in 2012, Whithaus builds on advice that smart writing teachers recognized earlier in the use of software. For example, in On Composition and Commuters, published in 1987, Deborah H. Holdstein, writing of "prose analyzers, revision software, [and] spelling checkers," noted "Instructor guidance is essential to educate students in the appropriate role of a software program, to demonstrate the importance of integrating any 'lessons learned' into the writing process, and to emphasize the students' responsibility for the results of their labor" (21).

Like Holdstein and Whithaus and many, many others, I favor teaching how to use things, including teaching when not to use things. And because every student who writes a course paper with a computer will at some point use a word processor that includes a grammar checker, it helps to teach students specifically how to use the grammar checker wisely.

A good first principle is to teach students how a grammar checker's programming works, and what its current limits are. Faculty don't need to assign complicated research on natural language processing, artificial intelligence, context dependent analysis, and other details. Ask students to start with the Wikipedia entry for grammar checker for a quick overview. Les Perelman's more recent "Grammar Checkers Do Not Work" in the Writing Lab Newsletter offers useful insights that can help students understand the limits of the grammar checkers they are using now. For faculty, a useful piece for your own reading is Patricia Ericsson's and Tim McGee's 2002 "The politics of the program: ms word as the invisible grammarian"

Once your students have read a bit on how grammar checker's work, the following approaches can help them make better decisions about the advice their grammar checker's offer.

1. Talk to students about active and passive learning. Software such as Grammarly, an online grammar checker, complies for students an error log. But having students create their own logs, where they learn to find and compile sentence level errors on their own, is more powerful simply for being more active --- something they do instead of something software does for them. By making the logs on their own, students will better remember and better recognize the issues the logs record.

2. Require student judgment and responsibility by teaching them to question grammar checker advice. Given that grammar checkers are less than fully accurate, students need to learn to question what is flagged and to look for what isn't flagged. Ask students to write about their decisions on which grammar checker advice to follow, which to ignore in process notes.

3. Teach style, not just grammar. A good way to focus consideration on sentence level issues to talk about grammar in service of style and voice. In this view, a run-on sentence isn't automatically fixed by inserting a comma because the grammar checker recommends one. Instead, the flagging of a run-on becomes an occasion to think about the sentence and what might make it more effective rather than merely correct. Nora Bacon, Star Medzerian and Keith Rhodes presented some fascinating research on how this approach can really improve students understanding of grammar overall at conference in April 2016.

4. Show students how to turn off their grammar checker in early drafts. In early drafts, where you might be encouraging students to freewrite or speedwrite as a strategy for getting their thoughts down, the grammar checker's squiggles can intrude on the energy you'd like writers to enjoy. So show students how to turn the grammar checker off. If you discover that students do not turn off grammar checkers, find ways to assign early drafting in spaces that do not have grammar checkers built in. This might be an online space such as a discussion forum in your LMS, a wiki space, a blog tool where you can turn off the function, or just a fun place like 750words. But exposing students to writing without a grammar checker always shadowing them might be a new experience for them. Hint: writing with a pen and paper always works. Sometimes old school is best.

4. Show students how to use their grammar checker deliberately. This is not a new idea. Holdstein advocated it in her 1987 monograph. In 1994, Ed Kolonoski's “Using the Eyes of the PC to Teach Revision." appeared Computers and Composition. As this old handout of mine shows, students can learn how to turn Word's grammar checker features on and off.

5. Teach copy editing and proofreading techniques at the final stages of the writing process. I show students how to reconfigure their writing, converting it from an essay to a list sentences. Single sentences can be looked at one at time, in the same way that a grammar handbook or grammar exercise isolates a single issue and single sentence. This handout on that is in Word; feel free to edit to suit your purposes. Having students read aloud is still a wonderful way to help them break up normal reading and discover error.