Later today, a guest blog that I wrote for ELT Research Bites will come online. In that posting, I discuss how the Global Masters in Social Work (gMSW) program at NYU Shanghai decided to make a premium version of Grammarly available to our students free-of-charge, and I summarize a recent study that looked at student attitudes towards automated writing evaluators (AWEs) like Grammarly. In today’s blog post on Applied Linguistics (Re)Coded, I’m going to reflect a little more on AWEs and their (possible) role in L2 writing.
First, allow me to say that I was entirely in support of the gMSW program’s decision to roll out Grammarly to its students—L1 and L2 English users alike. I should also note, that I am an adjunct lecturer at the Silver School of Social Work in the gMSW program. However, I was also vocal in stating that we had to properly train students on how to integrate the AWE into their writing practice in a critical way. Far too often, students view AWEs as mere checking tools (see Cavaleri & Dianati, 2016; Reis & Huijser, 2016). Also, students have been known just to click, click, click through the suggested changes, to accept them with little thought as to how the recommended alterations might impact meaning and stylistics in their texts (ibid). Both of these practices drastically reduce the potential efficacies of AWEs—first, as learning tools; and second, as writing improvement tools. So, there are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind when scaffolding students’ use of AWEs.
For L1 and L2 writers alike, there is the need to highlight the fact that many advanced AWEs such as Grammarly, PaperRater, or After the Deadline, aren’t just checking tools; they are also great learning tools. One of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Grammarly is because I can hover over a suggestion to learn more about why the AWE flagged it as a potential error. I can then see examples of other sentences with similar mistakes; and then, I can reflect on what I’ve written to decide whether or not it’s actually an error that needs to be addressed. Also, every week Grammarly sends me an email that lists my top-five errors (e.g., faulty parallelism, improper article use, etc.), which I can then use to identify a pattern of errors in my writing. After identifying the pattern, I can then begin actively to hunt them down in future writing. Both of these features are great tools for learning and not just for checking.
The second issue, however, is a much harder one to deal with. Novice writers tend to see AWEs as a silver bullet to fix their writing. I tell my students the same thing I tell early-service educators and researchers, “There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, so quit wasting your time.” The only way to improve our writing, our practice, or our research is to invest the time in it that it needs to be nurtured. This means critically reflecting on what we’re doing, the tools we’re using, and the successes and failures we’re encountering. Students must be taught to use AWEs critically. AWEs are, despite how advanced they’ve become, pretty stupid things that can only check for what they’ve been programmed to monitor for. And, even then, they’re only as good as the code that makes them run and the databases and corpora that serve as their foundations. So, you must look into all the suggestions that they make to inform your revision decisions. There are some cases where an AWE will make recommendations that actually change the intended meaning of a sentence, or that will introduce new error into the text. Likewise, there are somethings that the checker simply will not catch. So, it’ll never replace an additional set of human eyes.
I’ve been using the premium version of Grammarly for about a year, and will likely fork over the 140$ for another year. Since I’ve started using it, I’ve become more confident in my writing, and I’ve added an additional—and necessary—level of revision to my work. I actually got a compliment on my writing and style from an editor for an article that I submitted to their journal (an article that was also my first “accept with minor revisions”). But, that’ doesn’t mean that error doesn’t still creep into the writing. Clicking through the AWE doesn’t solve all the problems. It helps, for sure. But, you must always go through multiple rounds of revision and review. And, you can never replace a second set of eyes.
This post has been edited with the help of Grammarly, and I’m sure you still might find a floating error here or there that I missed because I was in a hurry to run downstairs for another cup of Starbucks.
Cavaleri, M., & Dianati, S. (2016). You want me to check your grammar again? The usefulness of an online grammar checker as perceived by students. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1), 223-236.
Reis, C., & Huijser, H. (2016). Correcting tool or learning tool? Student perceptions of an online essay writing support tool at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Show Me the Learning. Adelaide, AU: ASCILITE.