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!