Sunday, 10 February 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Every Error You Make, Every Step You Take, I'll Be Watching You

As an English teacher, I'm always keenly interested in anything which promises to improve student spelling, punctuation and grammar. My current technique for marking runs roughly as follows: I grade out of 20, and for every four errors you make, you lose 1 mark. This generally works well and results in an accurate grade for the student (assuming you follow my school's scale, which states that anything between 10 and 13 counts as satisfactory, 14 and 15 count as good, 16 and 17 count as very good, and that anything scored at 18 or over counts as excellent). For dyslexic students, I don't take away a point until they reach 8 mistakes. However, even with this system in place, adjustments sometimes still need to be made, with me giving a grade roughly corresponding to the system above (if I think it's good in terms of structure or content, for example, I'll give a 14 or 15). Why do such adjustments need to be made? Because if I followed that system to the letter every single time, I would find that some students make so many errors that their grade would actually be in minus numbers.

My interest was naturally piqued, then, when I heard about this: a new grammar pen that vibrates with every error you make, in real time, as you write. There are plenty of perks: the pen's Orthography setting would encourage students to self-correct and eventually to avoid making the mistakes altogether. It's also not as expensive as a tutor or voice-activated software, and continues to encourage the art of handwriting. This is reinforced by the pen's Calligraphy mode, which is designed to help students improve legibility and form when they write. This would all be done thanks to the pen's built-in sensors, which are supposed to detect variations in letter formation and subsequently alert users to errors with a light vibration.

All of this seems to be a logical next step given the current tools available, such as autocorrect within word-processing programmes. But could this lead to an over-reliance on technology for a generation for whom this is already becoming a serious problem? I agree that no one piece of technology could trigger such complacency, but it does all build up to a culture of using one's brain less. It's already bad enough when students rely on autocorrect to fix their mistakes: the work comes in, and there are still errors because they haven't gone through the process of having a human proofread it (whether that's the student themselves, or somebody else, such as a peer or family member).

The pen would also run into the same problems as machine translation: the pen is not an encyclopaedia, and so would be limited by a lack of human knowledge and context. 'Bear' and 'bare' are both perfectly correctly-spelled words, but only the human knows that we 'grin and bear it' and yet 'bare all'. Ultimately, the human still needs to reread their work - the pen may reduce the number of mistakes, but it needs to be supported by human critical thinking.

Other criticisms have also been mentioned by those who have heard about this idea. In relation to the above, some quite rightly point out that the pen would seem too scolding or critical in a way that a human reader or teacher may not: the pen tells you that you've made a mistake, but doesn't tell you why it's wrong or how to fix it. More jocularly, some commenters joke that their poor spelling would make the pen go up in smoke within a paragraph, leading me to question how the pen would be powered (no functional prototype currently exists). The pen may not go up in smoke thanks to repeated errors, but if battery-powered, it could prove costly to run, meaning that the makers of the pen, Lernstift, may wish to consider a mains-powered mechanism. However, the amount of money that Lernstift will have available to spend on working this out is dependent on public support: the company hopes to source crowdfunding of up to €1.5 million for the purpose.

So, in the face of all this, how can people improve their standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar?

My answer as an education professional would always be to read, read, and read some more, whether it's comic books, newspapers, magazines, books, or even blogs like this one. Reading widens vocabulary and cements knowledge, meaning that with luck, if you see commonly-mistaken words enough times, you will eventually become familiar with their spelling. This also works for punctuation and grammar: if you read enough, you will notice patterns of punctuation use (particularly concerning the demon semi-colon, whose patterns of usage seem to trouble many), know when and how to use English's rare subjunctives (we know mainly from reading that it's "Long live the Queen", not "Long lives the Queen"), and know how to make subject and verb agree in complex sentences. Reading also provides that much-valued context - so that you know when to use 'deign' and not 'Dane' - and encourages you to challenge yourself and broaden your interests (eventually, when your favourite author is no longer writing books or you begin to tire of your currently favourite genre, you will begin to look elsewhere).

Equally, the classic spelling lesson technique of 'look - cover - say - write - check', while more laborious, works for the trickier words. In addition, I would advocate speaking clearly. This doesn't mean speaking like the Queen of England, but just being sure to enunciate: of course you will always write 'tetnus' instead of 'tetanus' if you never pronounce the 'a'. Finally, playing with words is also helpful: try crosswords, making words from the letters on car registration plates, and playing Word Mole on your Blackberry (did I mention I'm a bit addicted to this game at the moment).

While technology is certainly not useless in allowing people to improve - as evidenced by my game recommendation above, and by the fact that so many people read on the go these days thanks to the exhaustive storage capacities of Kindles and iPads - it's important to harness the power of our brains in conjunction with it. We need to stay conscious, rather than being in thrall to machines, and to be aware of what they cannot do for us, as well as being aware of what they can do. And in the meantime, I should probably pick up that pile of marking that's still in my work bag from Friday, so that I can tell myself I didn't bring it home in vain - and hope wholeheartedly that my Grade 11 didn't make too many spelling mistakes.

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