Grammar technology: for better or worse

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2013: Grammar Technology: For better or worse

Every ESL/EFL teacher should be aware of the technological influences that affect the modern writer, changing the final product (what they actually hand in) and their process of learning about what they write. The news is mixed. The single biggest development in this field is the rise of Grammarly, a private company that has put thousands into public marketing to make itself the nation's biggest provider of grammatical advice for all writers, primarily native-speaking.. They offered me a free Kindle a while back if I would just endorse them, but I couldn't accept it in good conscience: I'd never used their service. Besides, I'm in the business of figuring out whether this kind of technology is good for my students; that's an entirely different question than whether it works well for native speaker writers.

Nevertheless, it would be impossible for international students not to know about Grammarly, or any of the other grammar programs, some free, on the web. Microsoft's own Grammar-check interferes with everything they write as they write it, and it's loaded onto virtually every computer that they use, most likely. And is this good? Well, it's eliminated subject-verb matching errors, in the same way Spell-check has almost eliminated non-words. But overall, I'd say it hasn't been good.

The biggest problem is that it undermines their confidence. Grammar machines shine at them virtually every character they type. Words are underlined in red, or green, and it keeps them from concentrating on the task of writing a single, complete sentence. Similarly, if technology offers them the escape into an electronic dictionary that is right at the tip of their fingers, then what's to stop them from going back into their native language, say, every ten seconds? Or five? There's nothing to stop them, and this also disrupts their ability to sustain thinking in their new language beyond a certain point. It's just too easy to go somewhere more comfortable.

So then, if you're a writing teacher, what should you do? Slap their hands, and take away their electronic devices, or better yet, force them to write entire papers without the help of any devices at all? Or, be realistic, and give them the environment that they will be using the rest of their life, with the technology, and teach them how to manage it?

I'd say both, and start with the first. Make sure they develop and have the confidence to make whole sentences without any help or diversion or instant translation or advice from the online advice-giver. Get them in the habit of not getting advice at all, at least until the sentence is done. Then, teach them how to accept the advice, deal with it if necessary, but make their own choices.

Grammarly, by the way, is genuinely interested in making their product more accessible to the international non-native writer. It has invested considerable resources into making itself the best grammatical correcting service of the modern day. At the same time, the flood of informal writing on Facebook, Twitter and other social media have not only inundated people with non-standard grammar but also heightened awareness of the value of grammar, so that grammar is suddenly and unexpectedly enjoying a moment in the sun, in the native-speaking community. This doesn't help our internationals, though. In general, they've been suffering from self-consciousness and insecurity from the start; they'd gladly pay someone like Grammarly or their writing tutor to fix the problem, but have trouble with even those routes. Many of the mangled sentences we writing teachers read are the products of good advice misunderstood, or bad advice inappropriately taken, or inappropriate but "basic" or "safe" grammatical structures that obscure their real meaning. In teaching them, we now have to look at the entire process, and rediscover what they wanted to say, and where, in the conversation with their grammar services, they got diverted. What you see these days is often the product of a conversation your student had with a grammar service, wherein they were convinced to hide, bury or obscure their original idea, or wherein they followed some wrong advice, a "suggestion," for reasons we can barely fathom.

I'm not disparaging Grammarly or Word check, in fact I admire their persistence, their steady improvement, and their willingness to reach out to the international community. If they could truly make every sentence grammatical AND make it say what our students wanted it to say, I'd say, more power to them, give them their money, and throw in a tip. While we wait for that beautiful day and the rainbow with its pot of gold, we'll be stuck in this kind of purgatory, where people who have more access to constant technology, easy translation, and instant connectivity, actually have more trouble with grammar, more trouble connecting English words in meaningful cohesive chunks. That's what preliminary findings seem to show. Do you have another take? I'd love to hear it.

Tom Leverett, 12-2012

2013 writing:

Leverett, T. (2013, Apr.). The vodka clouds your vision: Grammar technology and its allure. Google docs. sharing.

Leverett, T. (2013, Feb.). Grammar technology: For better or worse (2013). (this writing). Google docs. sharing.

blog posts:

The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten (part 2). 3-6-2013, thomas leverett weblog.

The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten, 3-4-2013, thomas leverett weblog,

As Google Translate matures, 3-4-2013, thisisyourbrain weblog.

Implications of innovations, 3-4-2013, thisisyourbrain weblog.

As falls spelling, so falls grammar. 2-16-2013, thisisyourbrain weblog. grammar.html.

Calculator wars and the skill of the general populace. 2-15-2013, thisisyourbrain weblog.

Grammar technology for better or worse, TESOL 2010

This presentation deals with the effects of grammar technology on both the writing that we see as ESL/EFL teachers, and the learning of those who crunch their ideas and words through it. The best way to approach this topic is to recognize first the most significant effects that result from it and to monitor closely the consequences of different ways of responding to it. One obvious approach is to outlaw technology altogether in all writing exercises, but this fails to deal with the fact that technological forces are a major part of virtually every writing experience our students will ever have. With this approach, however, it is least possible to learn more about what our students actually know and can produce without technology.

The following are rules, or rather arguments; I think many are debatable, but I consider them important propositions and would like to hear your opinion, if you feel they are misguided or inappropriate. One thing is certain: Grammar technology is here to stay, and the sooner we adjust to it, the better off our students will be.

Grammar technology is ubiquitous. Grammar-check is installed as default on word programs, and since most people use default settings most of the time, almost everyone has not only encountered it, but has also lived with it for quite some time. The first generation that grew up on it is now in our classrooms: is their grammar better or worse? You decide.

There are different kinds of grammar technology. Three major kinds are grammar-check, which provides a green line on your faulty grammar as you write (unless you disable it), and which provides an ongoing conversation about grammar, if you wish, in the same way spell-check provides a continual list of alternative spellings, to anyone who wishes to pursue the red lines. Second are the copy-paste checkers (such as ESL Assistant and Spellcheckplus), in which you put your sentences when you're ready; they "correct" them (alter them) in such a way that supposedly your grammar is improved; and finally, there are translators (such as Babelfish) which simply take chunks of other languages and turn them into translated versions of English.

Active use of concordance technology has brought a new generation of grammar-checkers. But this is not always good.

Each piece of writing is a product of human creation and technological alteration, except in the rare case where the teacher outlaws technology, the student doesn't know the meaning of the green line, or the environment prohibits it (i.e. taking messages, writing e-mails). It can be argued that people need grammar for those other situations, but most people's serious writing will be done in environments where it's available.

Each student has been influenced not only by what he/she has read, and who he/she has been taught by, but also what the technology has responded to what he/she has written. Students are unquestionably influenced by what the green line says about what they write. Fluent English speakers like the green line because it's rare and offers useful tips; grammar-check is designed for native speakers. But it doesn't distinguish bad grammar from bad style, so, for example, it implies to students that passive tense is wrong (when in fact it's often just poor style). Students who have extensive contact with Babelfish and the copy-paste checkers have similar misguided impressions of how their writing compares to what it should look like. The point is that we have to recognize technology as an influence in their learning as well as an influence in their writing.

When a student is told one thing by a teacher, and another by a grammar-checker, the end result is usually paralysis (this is natural, if you think about it). Students are slower to learn passive tense; grammar-check is ironing it out every time they try. They are slower to try new forms; any learning that must be incremental or have experimental forms is immediately ironed out. For example, if they try present perfect (I have eaten) and misspell eaten or use the wrong form, they will ultimately be returned to simple present tense, and we will see a lot of simple present tense, until the day they finally master the entire form and are able to get it entirely right every time. Thus their learning of complex forms is delayed or denied altogether. This is probably the most significant effect on their learning.

As with Spell-check, we see more correct forms, but they are often inappropriately used. For example, we see more simple present tense, and it all has subject-verb agreement, but it covers up the fact that present perfect would have been more appropriate under the circumstances, and it is more difficult for us to discern that. It's harder to know their true meaning, since we don't have clues about what they tried to create and were unable to create. Like spell-check, grammar-check has taken every form and made sure it has a correct appearance; it cannot, however, ensure that each construction says what the student meant.

As with Spell-check, it is often harder to discern the student's true meaning. This is because constructions have been altered, but not always altered in the right direction.

Grammar-check is gradually eliminating subject-verb errors. Those and article errors are the easiest for machines to catch; others are much harder. Technology can make a lot of routine editing corrections that save a lot of people a lot of trouble. Totally misspelled words are also entirely gone. A/an problems are almost gone.

Grammar-check technology may give people the impression that it's fixed their errors. In fact it misses many and makes incorrect or misleading statements about others.

Technology gives people the impression that they don't have to bother learning something anymore. This used to be called the "calculator effect" but in fact has been applied to everything from Google to the abacus, and even the printing press. In fact people do learn less when things are done for them, but the need for them to know it hasn't entirely gone away. It is still necessary for students to know how to manage and master the product of their creation plus technology.

As with Spell-check, it's easier to find clues that they're not using it than clues that they are. But, in a world where everyone has it, everyone is expected to use it; we eventually become surprised at those who DON'T.

Each of three teacher strategies to deal with it is flawed. First: Outlawing grammar technology in tests and papers. Second: Teaching the student to manage the technology. Third: Ignoring it altogether.

We can change all its parameters, and teach students to do the same; we could theoretically make it so it would benefit esl/efl learners. We could also use it to test behaviorist vs. universalist principles: for example, whether or to what degree repeated actions, or stimulus-response experiences of any kind, influence our behavior or learning.

Pretending that we are just teaching 'writing' in these circumstances is like driving in a demolition derby and pretending we're just 'driving.'
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