Nick Carbone

Schooling Grammar Checkers

Blog Post created by Nick Carbone Employee on May 23, 2016

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 might do poorly, what they may do well, and what strategies instructors and students need to learn to make the best of them given their limits.


The issue has percolated for years. Earlier articles in the journal Computers and Composition, according to an analysis of its first twenty years by Charlie Moran (2003) in “Computers and Composition 1983–2002: What we have hoped for,” looked at grammar checkers in word processors (They weren't on the Web yet.), and other pieces speculated about what might come from full essay assessment by computers. Charlie's summary shows that some called for auto response to be shunned; some hoped it would get better and relieve the parts of writing response teachers (the authors' said) found drudgery; and some took the kind of position Carl established years later, recognizing that grammar checkers were present and the best thing to do was to teach students how to use them.


In 1987, Deborah H. Holdstein, in a look at "prose analyzers, revision software, [and] spelling checkers," wrote "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).


I favor teaching how to use things, including teaching when not to use things. But it's not enough to just teach students how to use a grammar checker (as in this outdated handout here), but it's important to also teach them some of how a grammar checker's programming works, and what's current limits are. And so pieces like Patricia Erricson's and Tim McGhee's 2002 "The politics of the program: ms word as the invisible grammarian," or Les Perelman's more recent "Grammar Checkers Do Not Work" in the Writing Lab Newsletter offer useful insights that can help students understand the limits of the grammar checkers they are using now.


If we don't teach students how to use grammar checkers, the logic of their code, and the assumptions their designers assume about writing and learning to write, then students are at their mercies.


And here's the thing -- the weaker the writing, the more novice a writer's skill or confidence, the greater the importance of their learning about a technology's limits becomes. It's not enough to tell students not to use a grammar checker or spell checker. So here are some things that can work.


1. Assign students to read a piece or two about how grammar checkers and spell checkers work. Les Perelman's piece is one I'd assign in heartbeat, but you can find others. Such an assignment establishes ground for discussion. It respects students as writers not by dissing their possible prior grammar checker habits, but by introducing them to a reason to find better ways of working with the technology. It reveals.


2. 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 see and find sentence level errors on their own, is more powerful simply for being active --- something they do instead of something software does for them.


3. Require student judgment and responsibility by teaching them to question grammar checker advice. Given that grammar checkers are about 68% accurate, they will need to question it. Ask them to write about in process notes, their final draft copyediting and proofing choices.


4. Teach style, not just grammar. A good way to get idea three to work is to talk about grammar in service of style and voice, choices not rules. In this view, a run-on sentence isn't automatically fixed by inserting a comma because the grammar checker recommends one, but the flagging of a run-on becomes an occasion to think about the sentence and what might make it more effective. Nora Bacon, Star Medzerian and Keith Rhodes presented some fascinating research on how this approach can really make a difference at CCCC2016 convention this past April. Teaching style gives students a more tangible reason for thinking about the feedback from grammar checkers. Style is about choice, and choice empowers.


5. Show students how to turn off their grammar checker in early drafts. 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 gets you to the same place. Sometimes old school is best.


6. Show students how to use their grammar checker deliberately. This is not a new idea. Holdstein advocated it in her 1987 (and now out of print) On Composition and Commuters. 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 Grammar checker features on and off.


7. Keep a communal grammar log/error log of grammar checker mistakes and wrong advice that you and your students discover. Track its errors and talk about how writers adjusted to that reality. Share strategies for making adjustments.


8. Teach copyediting and proofreading techniques at those 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.