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Grammar Checkers for Teachers

Conscientious teachers still mark up and comment on student essays. Despite recent trends toward holistic grading and the views of some kind-hearted souls who believe that “red marking” student writing irreparably crushes self-esteem, the vast majority of teachers do respond to student writing. Of this majority, some comment on writing content; some on essay structure; some on the quality and relevance of evidence; some on the proper use of citations; some on grammar and usage; some on mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc.); and some attend to matters of writing style. Rarely does a teacher do it all.

It’s exhausting and time-consuming. So, naturally, teachers look for short-cuts that will save energy and time, but ones which will still give students what they need as developing writers. Enter spell checker and grammar checker software. Whereas spelling checkers, either as a stand-alone software or as a tool embedded in word processing programs such as Microsoft Word®, do a reasonable job of finding spelling errors (other than troublesome homonyms), grammar checkers simply cannot replicate that effectiveness. But there are some helpful resources to lighten the teacher’s load…

Wikipedia has a nice article, Grammar Checker, which explains the programming limitations of grammar checkers, but suffice it to say for non-techies: grammar checking software is a whole lot harder to program than is spelling. My take is that we should encourage students to spell check and revise accordingly, but skip the grammar check and proofread instead. Geoffrey K. Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, agrees with greater reservations:

“For the most part, accepting the advice of a computer grammar checker on your prose will make it much worse, sometimes hilariously incoherent. If you want an amusing way to whiling away a rainy afternoon, take a piece of literary prose you consider sublimely masterful and run the Microsoft Word™ grammar checker on it, accepting all the suggested changes.” (Monkeys Will Check Your Grammar, 2007)

The popular website Top Ten Reviews does a nice job reviewing the four most popular grammar checkers, although their top choice, Grammarly, did happen to advertise rather prominently on their site. In the review site’s testing, Grammarly caught 10 of 14 “grammar” errors. Now, to put on my English teacher’s hat, these were not all grammatical errors, but I nitpick. Of course, I had to try my own writing submission with the Grammarly software:

To pee, or to pee not: that is not the question. When in the path of alien invasions, it becomes necessary for the rights of the governed to outweigh the rights of the graham crackers, it is the right of the fig newton to abolish that nonsense speak.

The results? I could break down all of the issues, but you get the idea.

So, are there any computer short-cuts for essay response and grading that do help the conscientious teacher in providing quality essay response throughout the writing process? Yes there are, but these must remain where they belong: in the control of the teacher. At present, computer-scored essays remain a pipe dream.

However, a comfortable balance can be struck between technological efficiency and teacher judgment. Using the computer to grade paper and online essays can achieve both purposes. For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual (included in the Common Core aligned Teaching Essay Strategies, also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing.

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