Spelling and grammar checkers are not always simple tools for students to use

Image from examiner.com

Image from examiner.com

How many times have you read a student’s (typed) essay and been really frustrated by their poor spelling, not to mention all the commas either missing or in the wrong places? How many of you, in that situation, have thought ‘why do they ignore the red and green squiggles? Why don’t they just use the spelling and grammar checkers?’ I confess, I have thought that. And in workshops in recent years I have urged students to learn how to use these tools to their advantage as student-writers. However, recently I had a conversation with a student that made me wonder just how helpful these tools are, especially to students for whom English is not a mother-tongue or first language, or prior language of learning and teaching.

This student, in response to my querying whether they were comfortable using MSWord, and whether they knew how to make best use of the spelling and grammar checkers, commented that she knew what they were, but that often they left her feeling confused, and she made choices to change spelling and grammar without always knowing what she was doing. Often, she said, she could not make a grammar correction because the ‘help’ was not helpful. For example, when the grammar checker advises you that you have a ‘Fragment’ and should (consider revising). Or when it helpfully suggests that you are writing in the ‘Passive voice’ and should also (consider revising). If you do not know how to consistently write in full English sentences, you will not find the first suggestion of ‘help’ useful. It will confuse and even worry you. In South African universities, and in some disciplines like many of the natural sciences and also History and English, the passive voice tends to be preferred over a more active voice, also leading some students into confusing territory. There are also many other pieces of advice that the grammar checker suggests that would actually make your sentences nonsensical if you followed them, usually concerning subject and verb agreement. When it underlines your work in green squiggles, MSWord is telling you that your writing is not correct, but it also is not always helping you to make  the right revisions or explaining why you need them. So, a simple and flippant ‘just use the grammar checker’ is perhaps not always the most useful thing to say to an undergraduate student, even one who has been taught previously in English or has it as a first or home language.

Furthermore, spelling checkers are, in my opinion, only really usable in an educated way if you already have a sense of how the word should be spelled. If you have no idea, then being presented with options may not be helpful. Often, the spell checker is more useful in picking up errors in spelling caused by typing clumsiness  rather than actual errors in spelling, and in these cases students can often work out from the options given which word they intended to type and choose from the list. However, where they have genuinely misspelled the word because they do not know how to spell it at all, they may just choose the first option, and that may not be the right one in the context of the sentence. When I was teaching academic writing courses I could always tell when a student had blindly followed the spelling and grammar checkers’ advice because their work bore the marks of the confusion and missteps that the checkers prompted them to take. I wish I could recall actual examples, but I think many who have marked these kinds of essays will have their own to relate this to.

Many students in South Africa are fairly new to computers when they come to university, and many still, even if they are very familiar with this technology seem to trust that computer knows what the answer is, because, after all, it is programmed to have the answers. Google always does, so why not MSWord? As I always tell students in workshops now, while acknowledging the challenges of using these tools and their shortcomings, is that the computer does not have an active, thinking brain, It is only doing what it is programmed to do. You have an active, thinking brain that has a seemingly endless capacity to learn, including how to spell words correctly, and how to write clearly. It’s not easy for many students, but with time, practice and help, I think it is possible to improve your writing and become better at being your own spelling and grammar checker; at least so that you can tell the PC when you are going to ‘Ignore’ its suggestions with greater confidence!

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Why I enjoy blogging, and why students could too

I started this blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

Why we should still be writing academic essays at university

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I had the sense that I needed to do a bit more by way of research in order to write it well, and have thus been putting it off. I always seem to have too many other Things To Do, like write my PhD draft. Which is, itself, like a very long essay. It has an introduction,  it is developing an argument using research, data and other kinds of evidence and my own critical thinking about that evidence and my own argument, and it will finish with a conclusion that will (hopefully) pull it all together. Granted, it is about 78000 words longer than the average undergraduate student’s essay, but the basic idea behind the structure, and I would argue, the intent, is the same. The point is to teach me, as the student, to produce a well-research, sustained and academic piece of writing and thinking that will enable me to move forward in my own ability to think critically and to do research that contributes to knowledge in my field. It will also enable me to more confidently join, and also contribute to and extend relevant conversations and debates in my field. I am learning how to think outside of my own narrower conceptions of the world and even my field, and I am learning to think in ways that allow me to more ably join what Wheelahan (2010) calls ‘society’s conversation about itself’.

This is, ideally, what the university essay is aiming to teach undergraduate students. In many of the essay writing guides I could find online, the first paragraph was an introduction to why students are asked to write essays at university. They mention things like ‘learning to think critically’; ‘producing a sustained piece of thinking and writing’ on a particular topic; learning to write in the forms required of the discipline, and so on. Undergraduate essays generally focus on getting students to read a range of sources on a particular topic, and respond to a question that asks them to take a stance and make an argument, using those sources to support the claims they make. They are responding to the specific, but learning to move to the general to explain it. They are learning to think about, read about, and join conversations that take them beyond their own narrow ways of thinking about the world, and help them to see, appreciate and also challenge other world views, as well as defend their own. These are useful skills to have in the world of work. All work requires workers to be able to apply knowledge and skills in a range of ways to different situations. We can’t always predict what these situations will be. Thus, we need to learn how to navigate between what we know and think now and what is yet to be thought, to borrow from Basil Bernstein (2000). We need a bridge between the specific contexts in which we are working and the general or abstract world of theory and knowledge that we know and also that we don’t yet know, and in the complex process that goes into producing academic essays we can learn how to do this, and in different ways as we become more proficient and confident readers, writers and thinkers.

While there are many other forms of written work that are useful for students to be writing, like reports, portfolios and narratives, and while changes to the way we find, use and think about knowledge and learning may have led some in and outside of universities to wonder whether students should still be writing essays over other more ‘relevant’ kinds of writing, I think the university essay will endure. Not because of what students write about in these pieces of work, but because of what these extended exercises in reading, thinking and writing are training students to do in terms of developing their capacity to join and contribute to, and also to extend, society’s conversations about itself.

Keeping calm and freaking out: more on the writing process

keep calm and write on2

Image from cafepress.ca

My name is Sherran and I am a PhD student. This post is part personal confession and part semi-academic musing on writing. I am swinging between keeping calm, writing on and trusting the process, and freaking out and believing the small voice in my head that says this thesis will never be done on time (although it will eventually, surely, be finished). It’s got me thinking a bit more about this thing we call ‘the writing process’ and how perhaps, while we acknowledge that it is iterative and non-linear and tough when we talk to students about it, we tend to maybe describe or present it as this ‘thing’ that can be cracked and that if you just crack it, writing will be easier and less painful and difficult. This is obviously not true, or helpful.

I have written about drafting and revising, and writing being an iterative rather than linear process here. It’s a messy business, for sure, whether you are writing something short or something long, like this mammoth of a Thesis that is currently weighing me down like many tons of heavy bricks. I have read ‘self-help’ thesis writing books, although admittedly only two of them because they made me cross and also made me feel a bit thick because I couldn’t really recognise my own muddled process in those texts. I felt, reading those books at the start of my PhD journey, like I had not cracked ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ was and therefore should perhaps not be registered for my PhD until I was ready (which clearly I was not, yet). Perhaps I would have found a more helpful book had I kept looking. (Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s Pedagogies for Doctoral Supervision is quite excellent, but I only found this very recently).

I am not trying to cast scorn on the writers of these ‘How to write your Thesis and not go mad’ type books – there is value in having guides and advice because academic writing is difficult, and writers need help – but I am wondering how helpful they really are for doctoral students, especially those who are starting out or at quite an early point in their studies. Theresa Lillis argued a few years ago that ‘how to write an essay’ guides are actually only helpful to students who already know how write essays, and from my own limited experience I think the same is true of ‘how to write a PhD thesis’ guides. They are only really insightful and make proper sense, I suspect, when you are finished, or very close to being so, so that you can recognise some of yourself and your journey in what these guides are advising you to do. So where does that leave people who are not yet finished, and are finding their own process quite difficult?

Sadly, as with all kinds of different writing processes and journeys , and all kinds of different things that one can write, I do not think there are easy answers or compact and neat ways of presenting a ‘guide’ to writers that will make the process less… well, process-y; complicated, iterative, frustrating, at times enjoyable and at times maddening. A lot of emotional energy goes into all the reading and thinking and writing and rewriting and this amount is different for everyone. I think any notion of a process that can swing you from being a calm, focused writing machine to being a panicked and freaked out mess and back again needs to be cognisant of the different ways in which the process could progress and also end. We need to aim, in our work with student writers at every level, for a way of allowing them to muddle their way through their own particular writing journeys, and have, at the rights points along the way, spaces and places where they can talk about where they are and get help and advice that makes sense. The challenge is finding more spaces and places in higher education that can fulfill this weighty brief. In the meantime, I shall take my own advice, keep calm, and write on :-).