Thursday, December 27, 2012

Good Pedagogy and Time-Savings through Automated Feedback

ESL Teachers, the Workhorses of the Academic World

Chichilov's Teacher,
by Pyotr Boklevsky [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
If you teach ESL, you may have encountered any number of disparaging remarks from students and teachers alike about language instruction. For example, when I challenged my students a couple of weeks ago to spend a little more time on their English homework, one of my college students said to me, "No offence, but it is ONLY English."

I countered, "Isn't English the most important language in the world for business, travel and research?"

"Yes," came the reply, "but I live in St-Jerome." There was some nodding and general agreement that followed. Apparently, in St-Jerome, Quebec, English does not seem to be a pressing need for some eighteen year-old Francophones.

Years earlier, in South Korea, during a department meeting about adding a writing component to our Freshman English Program, a colleague declared with a grin, "What's the point? They don't learn anything away." There was some nodding and general agreement that followed that remark, also. Apparently, adding writing correction to the list of ESL teachers' duties does not always seem like a particularly effective use of time in all contexts.

Obviously, motivation can ebb and flow on both sides of the teacher's desk. Learning, for example, when to use the  Present Perfect Progressive can seem like more trouble than it is worth. Also, correcting the same error in a student's writing multiple times can be disheartening to even the most patient of teachers. Such problems! Are ESL teachers doomed forevermore to be the workhorses of the academic world?

Solutions

Computers can provide solutions to some of the problems one encounters in ESL. If you think English is irrelevant to your day-to-day life, YouTube and Facebook might persuade you otherwise. If you are starting to feel that correcting quizzes and writing assignments is getting tedious, Moodle and Virtual Writing Tutor can help.

Lately, I have been using Bokomaru Publications' Moodle-Assisted English Language Learning site called Labo d'anglais. I do almost all of my testing online with automatically graded quizzes and peer-reviewed writing assignments. As a result, students get scores quicker than they did when I did all correction by hand, and I notice a significant reduction in the amount of tedium in my job. To provide my students with faster corrective feedback on writing errors, I use Virtual Writing Tutor.

When my colleagues complain that they spent the weekend giving corrective feedback on student essays, I sympathize, a little. I think back to the years when my weekends were gobbled up by stacks of writing corrections, and then I smile at how the most repetitive and tedious aspects of providing corrective feedback are now handled by a machine.

Correction, Correction, and more Correction without Tears

Step 1

To illustrate one way that my job has gotten easier without sacrificing good pedagogy in the process, I would like to share a little about my approach to teaching Francophone College students the Present Perfect Progressive. In week one of a fifteen week semester, I ask my students to find and correct the errors in a short introduction forum post written by a former student. This is the text:

my name is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval.
i live at Montreal. i have 17 years.
i study in sciences humans since 2 years.
Me, i like to do party with my friends.
My best friend make me smile.
This text contains some pretty common errors made by Francophones writing in English.  In French, you are born somewhere. In English, you were born somewhere. In French, you live at a city. In English, you live in a city.  In French, you have so many years. In English, you are so many years old.  In French, you study in a program since so many years. In English, you have been studying a subject area for so many years, and so on. Back to my method...

Step 2

Then, I ask students to introduce themselves to the class using an online forum. Of course, despite having done the correction exercise, they still make many of the same kinds of errors, so I  ask them to check their own introduction for errors using the Virtual Writing Tutor. They get the same amount of corrective feedback (or more) on errors as they would get from me if I were to collect the paragraphs on paper, bring them home and return them the next week covered in red ink, but they get the feedback in in less than a second from the machine. Here is what you get when you submit the above text into the Virtual Writing Tutor:


  1. You wrote: my name is sophie Gagnon. i am born in lav...

    Feedback: This sentence does not start with an uppercase letter



  2. You wrote: my name is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval. i live at M...

    Feedback: Proper names, days of the week, months, cities, provinces, countries, languages, and nationalities all begin with a capital letter. For this reason, the word 'sophie' should probably be uppercase: 'Sophie'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  3. You wrote: my name is sophie Gagnon. am born in laval. i live at Montreal. i...

    Feedback: This sentence does not start with an uppercase letter



  4. You wrote: my name is sophie Gagnon. am born in laval. i live at Montreal. i...

    Feedback: This should be written in uppercase: 'I'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  5. You wrote: my name is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i...

    Feedback: Proper names, days of the week, months, cities, provinces, countries, languages, and nationalities all begin with a capital letter. For this reason, the word 'laval' should probably be uppercase: 'Laval'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  6. You wrote: ...e is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval. live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i st...

    Feedback: This sentence does not start with an uppercase letter



  7. You wrote: ...e is sophie Gagnon. i am born in laval. live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i st...

    Feedback: This should be written in uppercase: 'I'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  8. You wrote: ...phie Gagnon. i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i study in sciences h...

    Feedback: The usual preposition used before town, city and region names is 'in'. Did you mean 'in Montreal' ?

    Link: Preposition error-correction practice activity


  9. You wrote: ...i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. have 17 years. i study in sciences huma...

    Feedback: This sentence does not start with an uppercase letter



  10. You wrote: ...i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. have 17 years. i study in sciences huma...

    Feedback: Three successive sentences begin with the same word. Reword the sentence or use a thesaurus to find a synonym.



  11. You wrote: ...i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i study in sciences humans since 2 year...

    Feedback: Did you mean 'I am 17 years old'?



  12. You wrote: ...i am born in laval. i live at Montreal. have 17 years. i study in sciences huma...

    Feedback: This should be written in uppercase: 'I'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  13. You wrote: ...l. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. study in sciences humans since 2 years....

    Feedback: This sentence does not start with an uppercase letter



  14. You wrote: ...l. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. study in sciences humans since 2 years....

    Feedback: Three successive sentences begin with the same word. Reword the sentence or use a thesaurus to find a synonym.



  15. You wrote: ...l. i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. study in sciences humans since 2 years....

    Feedback: This should be written in uppercase: 'I'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


  16. You wrote: ... i live at Montreal. i have 17 years. i study in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, i...

    Feedback: Use the Present Perfect to express durations of time that include the present. Did you mean 'i have been studying Social Sciences for 2 years'?



  17. You wrote: ...t Montreal. i have 17 years. i study in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, i like to do party w...

    Feedback: In English, plural nouns do not require plural adjectives. Adjectives and noun modifiers must remain singular. Did you mean ''?



  18. You wrote: ...t Montreal. i have 17 years. i study in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, i like to do party w...

    Feedback: You have used the French name of college program. You wrote 'sciences humans', but in English it is 'Social Sciences'.

    Link: Program name translation activity


  19. You wrote: ...ve 17 years. i study in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, i like to do party with my friends...

    Feedback: Use 'for' not 'since' for a duration of time. Did you mean 'for' 2 years?

    Link: Preposition error-correction practice activity


  20. You wrote: ...study in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, i like to do party with my friends. My be...

    Feedback: Please choose either 'me' or 'I' not both. It's awkward.

    Link: Pronoun error-correction practice activity


  21. You wrote: ...y in sciences humans since 2 years. Me, like to do party with my friends. My be...

    Feedback: This should be written in uppercase: 'I'.

    Link: Capitalization error-correction practice activity


Step 3

Later in the course, I ask my students to create an unusual character and write an introduction for that character using the first person. Again, I ask them to share it online and then check it for errors using the Virtual Writing Tutor.

Step 4

On the final exam, one of the six sections of the exam asks them to write a paragraph where they introduce themselves. This time, it is me who uses the Virtual Writing Tutor to check for errors. By the end of a semester with me, most of my students will write a paragraph containing a correct instance of the Present Perfect Progressive in response to the following writing prompt:
Introduce yourself. Say where you are from, where you live, how long you have been living there, the name of your program, how long you have been in the program. Also, describe your usual weekly routine, your job, and how long you have been doing it. 

The Virtual Writing Tutor Makes Good Pedagogy Possible

All in all, the students get much more corrective feedback on errors than I would be willing to give without the help of a machine. The goal is to throw so much negative evidence at an error that the interlanguage rule in students heads that produces the error will begin to destabilize. Once that happens, they might then be able to resist the urge to map English words on the French structures, and finally introduce themselves in Standard Written English. To provide that much feedback by hand might negatively affect my motivation as a teacher.

The Virtual Writing Tutor Saves Teachers Time

Just consider how long it would take you to provide the same amount of corrective feedback as the Virtual Writing Tutor can provide on 125 students' paragraphs. Assuming you are a well-rested teacher with a two day weekend ahead of you and assuming you could correct one error every 15 seconds, and assuming each text has 21 errors like the one above, it would take you only about 5 minutes per student. Not so bad. Assuming a you had five groups of 25 students (my groups have between 27 and 29 students this semester) and spent five minutes on each text without any interruptions, meals, or breaks, it would take you 625 minutes, or 10 and a half hours to correct them all.

Your weekend is gone, and your kids are now complaining to their mother/your wife that you never make time to play with them. Your motivation to provide corrective feedback might start to wain by week two of the semester. Now, times that 10 and a half hours by three. I have learned, as I hope you will too, that the Virtual Writing Tutor saves ESL teachers time.

How much time do you spend on providing corrective feedback on ESL students' writing? Leave a comment. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How to choose an English Grammar Checker

English Grammar Checkers Online

By Joel from Davis, CA, United States 
[CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
via Wikimedia Commons
There are a number of free online grammar checkers to choose from these days. Go ahead. Do a Google search using the search terms "English grammar checker" and you will see.

Some grammar checkers are free, some are pay-for-use, and some are just plain useless. If you teach English writing, you may be wondering which is the  right grammar checker for your learners.

To help you make the right choice, I put two English grammar checkers to the test to illustrate how each was designed with a different learner population in mind.

Wordiness and L1 Writing

Most grammar checkers have been designed to help first language (L1) writers detect and correct inadvertent mistakes and style errors. College-age writers struggling for the first time with the rigours of an academic style tend to fill their essays with redundant phrases, perhaps in an effort to achieve the minimum assigned word count. The sentence below is a great example of the kind of wordiness that abounds in L1 student writing. It seems to want to say something significant, but it contains far too many useless words. They obscure the idea that the sentence hopes to convey.
Due to the fact that access to internet resources are actually at the present time very easy to access in many places, the vast majority of users seek to have those kinds of devices that are most easy to carry around with them wherever they go.

I found this particular example in Dr. Kim Blank's wordiness list. The good doctor offers the following sentence as a worthy (less wordy) alternative:
 Because the Internet is available most places, users often prefer portable devices.
A good First Language (L1) grammar checker should help writers eliminate wordiness errors from their writing, In this regard, Grammark is a good L1 grammar checker. Plug the the first example into Grammark, and it  catches four wordiness errors. With its database of 973 wordy phrases, it is bound to help writers to excise much of the clutter from their writing. The Grammark grammar checker will not rewrite the sentence for you minus the errors. That you have to do yourself. As far as I know, no machine can rewrite your paper for you.  Rather,  grammar checkers like Grammark attempt to alert the writer to common errors inexperienced writers make in order to promote self-correction.

Grammar Checkers as Pedagogical Power Tools

Alerting a writer to errors achieves two important goals: 1) it helps the writer to eliminate errors from the draft he or she is writing at the moment, and 2) it helps the learner to eliminate those same errors from all future drafts by teaching the writer to recognize them in his or her writing. In other words, a grammar checker can help the learner both to revise bad writing and to learn the standards of good writing. As such, grammar checkers are power tools for teachers. Like other power tools, they don't replace master craftsmen, but they speed up the work.

Homophone Errors and L2 Writing

Catching homophone mix-ups is altogether a different problem for grammar checkers. You know them. They are everywhere in the comment sections of blogs and Youtube videos.  It's or its? Affect or effect? Your or you're?  Too, to, or two? There, they're, or their? We all confuse these homophones for each other on occasion, and so it is always best to have a second pair of eyes to proofread our writing whenever possible. It saves us from embarrassment. Consider these three (contrived) sentences.
Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.
Grammark, while undeniably helpful for first language writers of academic term papers and essays, is less of a champ at detecting homophone errors. It catches one (Their are → There are), but it misses the other four. Excellent in its own right, Grammark is not designed to catch grammatical errors of this kind. From what I can gather, it seems to be using a string matching technique, a method better suited for word choice or phrase choice errors. 

A Second Language Grammar Checker 

This is where a different kind of grammar checker really comes in handy. Less useful at detecting wordiness errors, the Virtual Writing Tutor sets its sights on overt grammar errors, the type of errors found in abundance in Second Language (L2) writing. Created to serve a different learner population, the Virtual Writing Tutor excels at catching homophone errors. Feed the same text into the Virtual Writing Tutor's text box, hit "Check grammar," the system returns five warnings, correctly identifying all the homophone errors. Here is what it says:


  1. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting...

    Feedback: Did you mean 'you're crazy' or 'you are crazy'? 'Your' is a possessive adjective like 'his' or 'her'.



  2. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mo...

    Feedback: It looks as though you have confused 'their' and 'there'. Did you mean 'there'?



  3. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: Remember that 'to' is a preposition and 'too' is an adverb meaning 'excessively'. Did you mean 'too many', as in 'excessively many'?



  4. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: You probably meant 'It's' not 'its'. The word 'its' is a possessive adjective like 'his' and 'her', but 'it's' is a contraction of the pronoun 'it' and the verb 'is'.



  5. You wrote: ...ur crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: You probably meant 'It's affecting my...'. The verb 'to effect' means to bring about a change. The verb 'to affect' means to have an effect on something.

Take-home Message

The take-home message here is simple. Grammar checkers specialize in catching certain errors because they are aimed at different learner populations. The Virtual Writing Tutor is great at catching homophone errors because it is primarily a Second Language grammar checker. It specializes in catching the kinds of errors that writers of English as a Second Language tend to make, a learner population that is typically under-served by systems designed to catch first language writing errors.

Thoughts, comments, reflections? Leave a comment.

Grammar Checker Forum

Grammar Checker Forum The Virtual Writing Tutor has added a community forum to its free grammar checker . Post your text, tell the community...