Sunday, April 10, 2016

TESOL Session report

Leverett, T. (2016, Apr.). For better or worse: Grammar technology and the ESL writer. Internet Fair Classics, TESOL International, Baltimore, MD, USA.

Frankly, I had trouble dealing with this PC they gave me, and I was a little nervous. It shouldn't be that hard to find this weblog, and find the Ginger teaser, and find the Grammarly teaser, but I found only one out of three, the second one, and had to wing it from there. I write it up to nerves, and to the fact that when I got there I found I was BYOD (bring your own device) and hadn't remembered being told that; I'd left my device at home. Perhaps it was true that they had told me I was BYOD, and I didn't even know what that meant. But the result was that, as I sat down to the computer, I was shaking a little, and having trouble finding what I wanted.

I typed things into the Ginger window and noticed, even as I was there, that it gave different responses sometimes, even to the same sentences. Grammarly wouldn't even offer me a free window, perhaps because they sensed I was in the TESOL EV. The surprising thing about this session was that a number of people had come specifically to hear me, and/or grab my handout, and so I had much more of a crowd than the people I'm ordinarily able to just draw in. And I had these bright purple handouts, so there was no question about who was hanging around listening to me, or trying to read the handouts. I have to admit, the purple nature of them made them hard to read (I had requested pink, and they were, in fact, a kind of pink)...but, this year, I left this weblog's url off of the handout (an imperfect situation), so I'm linking to it from a number of other places, and I hope that this weblog can remain as the center of my research and writing.

One thing that is happening is that Google docs is forcing me off of the leverett@siu.edu site; or rather, SIU is forcing me off of it. Perhaps people have been abusing the siu domain, I don't know, but for whatever reason, I need new sites for my google docs. That will be this month's project, a general reorganization. All my writing in this area is somewhat haphazard, I admit, and needs to be roped in and organized.

There is a general growing consensus in the world of writing that technology plays an increasing role in the production of student writing and the development of their learning. I found nobody who would dispute that it's increasingly important; that it influences both their writing and their learning; that it's difficult to find out what technology they've been using and how, exactly, they relate and respond to it; and that we owe it to our students to figure out where it has set them back so that we can respond accordingly. I found some people who pressed me until I admitted that in fact, there was no question that it was good in many ways, and that it taught them real stuff and saved us a lot of trouble. When they pressed me more, to find out if it was more trouble than it was worth, for example, I wouldn't commit. Who knows how many errors it has already corrected, so that we get the impression our students are fluent? Who knows what it has taught them successfully, so that they get it right every time, now? As I've pointed out, we are left looking at students who in many cases have had ongoing relationships with technology for years - so, if they have no confidence now, or are unable to place commas successfully, we might blame technology, sure. But is it so bad? People are still becoming fluent; they're just taking a different path.

I feel like I know more about Grammarly and Ginger now; I also know more about Word grammar-check. We investigate these and comment on them as forces of nature, that bend student writing one way or the other. It's a complicated world, and the grammar engines are putting their mark on the language. Feel free to comment.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

practice paragraph, including common errors

Everyday I wake up and read a news. Usually I read it on my phone. Anther hand, some times I use my computer. Recently I read about Donald Trump. Some times a newspaper discuses him. He is defiantly in the news alot. He has all ready won many election.

In my case, I don't like him. Reading about him, the stories let me mad. This morning I retrived four articles from one web site. That website had many opions. Another hand, some web side have only one opinions. Recently Facebook provides a variety of opinion. I like read every thing. Although I don't have time.

Grammarly reviews

You would think that I, who fashions myself as a critical reviewer of grammar software, would just shell out the $30/mo. that a company like Grammarly charges for its service, but I don't. I hate when companies simply get in the habit of taking money out of your account, even if I have let them; and besides, I don't really need it, though I'm sure you can tell from reading even this far that I could use a few pointers.

Instead, I read carefully all online reviews. I use their free service on the assumption that they'll put their best foot forward and show you how much they can do, right away (I'm not sure if this is necessarily true). And finally, I'm honest with my students, so that I know which ones use Grammarly all the time, and I critically review the papers they write (Grammarly didn't catch this?).

On the online review front, one of the biggest ones came out in 2011, by the Grammarist weblog. In fact I was unable to find an actual date of publication on the review (this is a bad sign, but quite common) but inferred from the comments that it was published around then. The Grammarist weblog was quite stinging, but because it was careful and accurate, and covered a wide variety of errors, I read it carefully. Most of the comments addressed Grammarly's bad business ethics: not announcing its terms before it collects your information, installing a free plugin that's worthless until you actually pay your money, taking payments without warning, etc. Personally, I doubt Grammarly has done much about these, and I also suspect that these people had nowhere else to complain, so they took the trouble to register with Grammarist, just in order to complain about bad business practices. But they were legion; there are lots of complaints about them.

Grammarist noticed that a wide range of contextual spelling errors (such as its/it's, there/their/they're, your/you're, all ready/already) went uncorrected. All passives were noticed and discouraged, even if they were necessary or advisable. Dangling modifiers, redundancies, etc. went unnoticed. They gave credit when Grammarly did well, but they disliked it and requested that they stop being able to advertise themselves on the Grammarist weblog. (As a sidebar, I'll point out the Grammarly is a very aggressive online advertiser - you type anything including the word "grammar" into Google, and Grammarly's paid ad will be there waiting for you. So it's no surprise that it tried to get a reputable grammar website to allow it to advertise itself, for a price, of course). 

Careful reading of the comments pointed out a few other things, though. One was that, within a year or two, Grammarly had read the review, and worked on many of the problems it had pointed out. This is one thing a huge budget can do for Grammarly. It has people scanning the reviews (hello!) and responding to the errors people point out. If it is at all possible to fix them, using the technology and programming skills that Grammarly has at hand, they'll do it. At least, with their budget, they are capable of doing it, because they had millions in startup funds, and were able to jump-start a business that at least tried to manage such things.

But to get back to the review's main point, Grammarly advertises itself as the most accurate in the market; as correcting your errors and offering helpful reasons why they're wrong; as picking out the contextual misspellings; and checking for plagiarism as well. And they felt that Grammarly had not done this properly, and was therefore guilty of fraudulent advertising.

The comments by and large agreed that it was fraudulent, but more in its business practices than its grammar practices. It's a given in this field that the consumers don't know grammar, and are thus at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating a grammar-checking service. And this applies double to international (ESL) students, who are not only unfamiliar with grammatical nuance, but also unfamiliar with shill online installation scams, or proper ways of getting revenge against such companies. The vast majority of complaints were by American writers, but some of them were quite serious consumers, submitting entire manuscripts, and as some pointed out, a service doesn't have to be right 100% of the time to be useful in at least getting you to check things that they consider could be reworded.

To our students, services like Grammarly have left the impression that passive voice is simply wrong (even when their advisors demand it); that when in doubt present tense is always best (in recent days, X become common, says one student who uses Grammarly); and that all other things the teacher points out must be simple harping, since it went under Grammarly's radar successfully. To be fair, I have no idea what they really think (why should they tell me everything?), but, I can tell you that there is still a fair amount of bad writing out there.

As for the plagiarism checking service, I'll say this: it's popular with students. They are scared to death of plagiarism, and they don't really know how to avoid it, and if something will offer them, with any accuracy at all, to point it out, they are more than grateful. Both Grammarist and the commenters pointed out that the Grammarly service was flawed, but if somebody can get a computer to take 3-6 words at a time, from every line, run each chunk through the computer database repeatedly, and simply report to the writer the times it comes up with a hit, that's more than I'm doing for them, and, presumably, it's catching at least the most egregious cases. This is an entirely separate issue from pointing out that disparate is different from desperate or affect is generally a verb, while effect is generally a noun (with a whole host of exceptions). And I believe that some think the entire service is worth its $30/month, in spite of any negative reviews.

One thing I yearn for is what many commenters have pointed out: what you want to do is line it up with other grammar software, and see which one wins. Ginger comes to mind; people like Ginger as the underdog in this matchup (not having millions in startup money) - which of these errors is Ginger catching that Grammarly is not? Are they on to each other's tricks, in terms of being able to program in some "catches" that the other has figured out? I know they are both watching Word grammar-check (the Ubiquitous, the King of all Grammar-checks) trying to do for their customers at least what Word can do. What I don't know is when they figured out how hard definately/defiantly was for people, and how to guess people's intentions by how close they got to it when they first typed it in. Our students, remember, are far more likely to get the vowels wrong, and have their first spelling be way off base, not even close to definitely. When these programs can get close to figuring out our students' intentions, I, like Grammarist, will be closer to actually recommending them.

 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Data at hand

This year I had a breakthrough in that I took a novel approach to my own class, and got unusual feedback. I had maintained for years that students used a variety of technologies in the process of writing; that they often misunderstood or misused feedback from those technologies; that they very rarely wanted to share what they'd learned with us, because of feelings that we, teachers, wouldn't approve the use of them; and, we were in a jam, to some degree, trying to figure out where their writing had "gone bad" with a lack of information about the processes that had misled them to such a degree.

So, this term, in the process of trying to get them to explore and use a concordance, I required them to write an essay about the technologies they use and their frustrations or successes with any particular one. The concordance was a chapter of its own, since it detected that fifteen of us were accessing it at once, and shut down demanding money; thus leaving me to say to the students, in effect, write about anything; if you have trouble accessing the concordance, you can write about that trouble, or write about any other technological aid that you use. One student actually wrote about, and recommended, Grammarly.

This was interesting to me because Grammarly is the biggest, and most prominent, of grammar-checker services that influence student writing (outside of Word itself, which is the god of technological grammatical intervention in student writing). Grammarly, by securing startup funding, got a wide enough user base to actually explore what works and what doesn't, and got a head start on other grammar checkers by simple virtue of being able to employ more full-time programmers. But its intervention, as is the case with most grammar-checkers, is not perfect.

From my own point of view, this development is ideal, because now I know for sure that certain grammatical patterns are a product of Grammarly's intervention; or, at least, that Grammarly was unable to correct or revise some of them. I would not criticize or admonish this student; I leave to them the choice of using what tools, when, and teach them, ultimately, to manage each, with the awareness that none of them are perfect. This is especially true of the Word software, which is speaking to the writer in green or in red, constantly, whether one asks for it or not, unless the writer is conscious, assertive and deliberate enough to gut the program and disable the service. One can never underestimate the subconscious effect of a red line that, in essence, tells you that you've spelled your own name wrong, but will also remind you of anything that doesn't match up well with its concept of what constitutes a "word." I start out with my students by telling them that you have to make friends with such a voice, and know when it's giving unhelpful advice, and know, if possible, why. They are tools, and like your hammer, they are not useful in every situation.

To unravel why student writing appears the way it does, one has to have a clear picture of the technological influences on it, and the reasons students choose what they do, in the process of negotiation with technological advice. I think it is possible to gather technological clues, so that, for example, I can say to a student: I suspect you use Grammarly; or, I suspect you responded to Spell-check in the process of coming up with this spelling. These clues will help us open the door. The goal is a clear and accurate picture of the influences that change their writing. Those influences are not always bad, but when they are bad, they are bad in such a way that often makes their writing harder to read, and ultimately does them a disservice. The proper management of these systems will help them make better writing, thus stalling until they make better writing naturally; that is the ultimate goal. One cannot simply ostrich oneself to the technological influences of the modern world, though I suppose, in principle, one could prohibit them, and then pretend that what is written, was actually created by the student himself/herself.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

defiantly true, continued

Two things have happened since my last post.

First, defiantly true is one of my favorite cupertinos, because very little can be defiantly true, unless it can be defiant, and at the same time, true. One poor woman in the writing lab had written it three times, and they were all in sentences such as That was defiantly a hard time for me, sentences in which it would be impossible for a time to be defiant, although it could of course be a hard time.

But this is what I figured out. Somebody claimed that you could adjust the Word grammar-check software to catch more contextual errors, cupertinos, times in which you needed there and wrote their for example. I didn't believe them, but I went looking for it, deep in the bowels of a Microsoft Word grammar-check at the computer station where I was working. What I found was a list of "change-to" words - such that any time you wrote cutsomer, it would change it to customer. They were clearly sensitive to words like that because they were trying to please the business world; if they had their finger on the pulse of the ESL world, they would have changed costumer to customer but in fact costumer is a word and that's why Word allows ESL students to get away with it.

Well in any event they added definately to this list and had it changed to definitely, and that's what accounts for the lower percentage of defiantly cupertinos that we are seeing these days. To American students, the biggest hazard was putting a single a in the word at the wrong time; but, the common error was fixed at some point, within Word. What remains are the other versions of the word, which cannot be interpreted as easily on the part of the computer, and thus remain in cupertino-land.

My poor American student either had an old version of Word, or, was typing something less typical. In any case, like most, she settled for defiantly, because it looked OK.

Whitesmoke malware

Someone told me to put "whitesmoke malware" into google and see what popped up. I haven't done it yet, but I will. Whitesmoke is a grammar program that has been around for a while. But the two biggest claims against it are fairly harsh. The first is that they give you a lifetime subscription, then come after you later for more money. Can this be true? Don't people have contracts?

But the second is, you can't uninstall it. It leaves pieces of itself in your hard-drive, making it very difficult to remove, and you feel like you have this foreign intruder in your computer, always, and it's kind of like having malaria, only maybe the PC version. This is insidious, and I'm glad I'm not in the business. It was apparently not the best grammar software anyway.

Concordance assignment

The results are in on my concordance assignment, and I would like to share them. I started with 14 high-level graduate writers and I introduced the concordance (Brigham Young's Corpus) in the computer lab; as part of that introduction, we were frozen out of BYU's concordance because too many computers were pinging their search from a single room. In a bad mood about being essentially locked out of a useful service, I encouraged them to write whatever they wanted about whether the concordance could be useful to them as a writer. If you have three reasons why you hate it, I told them, fine, just be clear, and write an organized essay from your own point of view, from your heart.

Many of them, knowing that I liked the concordance and wanted it to be useful to them, dutifully wrote about ways it was useful, and even mirrored back to me the ways I'd said that it could be useful. They told me how they used it to distinguish insist/persist, in the contrary/on the contrary, etc. One maintained that it was good for discovering how idioms were used (i. e. raining cats and dogs). They said it was good for finding prepositions (interested in vs. interested by), finding synonyms, etc. By far the majority of points they made were positive; it was useful, it could be used for various problems that the writer had, etc. Whether they were saying this to please me or not, that's what they said.

However, some were more adventurous, and pointed out either other tools they used, or pointed out why they would prefer not to mess with BYU's corpus. One was a usability expert and pointed out that it wasn't very usable. Several admitted to being confused by its layout and admitted to being unable to figure out how to get what they wanted. Many were put off by the way it shut us down in class, or the way it kept hocking them for donations.

One interesting paragraph was written by a woman who had a simple job; she'd been told by a graduate assistant to look up "rose up" as in "I rose up my hand." Presumably she would find that rose was intransitive; thus you would raise your hand, whereas the sun rose, or other things rose, though perhaps they didn't rise up. In any case she claimed she got lots of sentences, but nothing helpful. It occurred to me that she wasn't really looking at it grammatically; in other words, she never really said, wait, it's never followed by a verb. She saw sentences, formless, meaningless, cut off from everything; it didn't speak to her.

She was one of the people who pointed out other tools that could be used. There were many - ranging from Google, to Grammarly, to a Chinese vocabulary site - and they talked freely about them.

The ironic thing is that the concordance was not developed as an ESL tool. It's simply a tool, used by lots of people for lots of things, and it delivers the facts, in other words, the occurrences of any given word or structure. That's what I like about it; it's distinctly non-commercial, not directed at ESL; it's just a machine that has the facts. I'm kind of new to the concordance-based learning game, but it's very interesting, and it seems to me that if you like the facts, and are used to the facts, and drive your life toward scientific accuracy, you'd want this with your words as well as, say, your health. You would find the facts useful, and you'd figure out how to use them to your advantage. I'll see how many of my students can actually do this.