Friday, February 27, 2015

Why Grammar Check Programs Frighten Me

When spell checkers first became available (yes, I remember that far back), I cringed. Spell checkers are convenient, but (as I feared) they have created a society of non-spellers. Who needs to worry about spelling when the spell checker will make corrections for you?

Now we are being bombarded by an advanced species of spell check—the grammar checker. Yes, my word document program has made grammar suggestions to me for years (well, until I turned off that annoying feature), but these new grammar checkers go way beyond what my document software can do.

And I don’t like it. At all.

My goal as a writing teacher is to teach students to think like writers—to make good rhetorical choices, to edit their work, to word their writing in a way that promotes effective communication. It has always been a challenge to convince students to care about such goals rather than to throw words on paper and be done with it.

And it just got harder.

One grammar checker I can purchase online claims it will make me a better writer. Really? By doing my work for me? This grammar checker might make me look like I’m a better writer, but it’s really just making me dependent on its services. 

Sound scary? It is. 

Proofreading programs fly in the face of what language arts teachers struggle every day to do: create writers who understand the art of writing--writers who think for themselves.

One available grammar checker has good intentions. It will explain errors to users in an effort to help them understand the errors and avoid making them again in the future. 

Yeah, most students are going to pay attention to that feature instead of just clicking “next.”

I showed a 15-year-old what a certain grammar checker can do. She said, “That would be great for proofreading, but it wouldn’t make me a better writer. It would make me lazy. I wouldn’t care about editing. I’d just slap something down and let the program do my work for me.”

That’s the attitude I want to engender in my classroom.

A 13-year-old said, “Isn’t that cheating?” Is it? If he runs a school essay through an advanced grammar check program, will his teacher grade him on his own merits or on those of the grammar checker?

The goal of the grammar checker is what? To create a society less able to check our own work? To exploit our weaknesses for monetary gain? To help us take the easy way out? Most students don’t seem to need help with that one.

Is there a place for these advanced grammar checkers? Maybe. I hate seeing published grammatical errors as much as anyone else does (okay, probably more). And I see plenty of them every day. So perhaps proofreading programs are beneficial in the world of business and publishing, where writers have already learned the rules (I hope) and just need a little back-up. 

But in the world of education, they are downright dangerous.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Connecting Grammar and Writing: Parallel Structure

In this post, we are continuing our series on strategies for helping students connect grammar and writing. This week's focus is parallel structure.

In order for students to understand parallel structure, it's important for them to see the parallel parts of a sentence. 

Start by compiling a list of non-parallel sentences from student essays and providing each student with a copy.  (Sentences from parallel structure worksheets will work also, but student-generated sentences are more authentic and usually more complex.) 

Give students the following list of “parallel structure signal words”:
  • signal words for coordinate ideas: and, but, or, neither, nor
  • signal words for comparison and contrast: than, as well as, as much as
  • signal words for correlative constructions: neither/nor, either/or, not only/but also
 Have students circle or highlight these signal words in their sentences.  Then ask them to underline the elements that are being compared or connected.  (Color-coding helps, too.) Example:

Not Parallel: Creon is a hypocritical character who is more concerned with his reputation and power than making the right decision. 
Parallel: Creon is a hypocritical character who is more concerned with his reputation and power than with making the right decision.

Making these marks will help students to see the parts that are supposed to be parallel.  As a class, correct the sentences to make them parallel.  Point out that with correlative constructions, sentences can often be corrected simply by moving one of the signal word pairs.  Example:

Not Parallel: This symbolism not only shows the care Karla has for the relationship but also for its broken fragments. 
Parallel: This symbolism shows the care Karla has not only for the relationship but also for its broken fragments.

As an added challenge, you can ask students to diagram one of the “not parallel” sentences and its corresponding “parallel” sentence to help them visualize the structure.

Finally, have students look through their drafts of a current writing assignment and focus on parallel structure. They should follow the same process as in the practice exercise above so that they can correct problems with parallel structure or provide evidence that they don’t have such errors. This type of annotation will show you without question which students understand and which ones still need more practice.

Tune in next time for another specific strategy for connecting grammar and writing in your classroom!

(This strategy comes from Burnette Writing Process, available from DGP Publishing, Inc.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GA DOE Statement on Grammar Warm-ups--What Do You Think?

I recently received the following email from a teacher in Georgia (and have posted it here with her permission). I'd love to hear your thoughts on either side!

Ms. Burnette,

I'm writing you today to share an e-mail I recently sent the GA DOE concerning its recent ELA Newsletter, which lambasted DGP and other daily grammar warm-ups as being out-of-date and old-fashioned. I've used DGP for years, and I've never found (in my teaching experience) anything that works better. See my e-mail below:

Ms. Waters,

I was very disappointed to see in the latest ELA newsletter the following lines:

"For example, the use of Daily Oral Language (DOL) or Daily Grammar Practice (DGP) does not support the CCGPS language standards. Grammar out of context is a thing of the past."

Students must have a basis for understanding grammar, its rules and language, before a teacher can assist with grammar within the context of writing. For example, it would be difficult for me to teach my high school students about the comma splices I see in their Beowulf essays if they couldn't identify an independent clause. Daily Oral Language, M.U.G. Shots, and Daily Grammar Practice give students a short, daily exposure to grammar that takes up less than five minutes of class time, while making sure they are versant in the basic concepts of grammar.  This they will need in order to understand the more intricate rules of our language and improve their writing.

My use of DGP does not indicate that I will bombard my students with grammar worksheets, nor will I spend two weeks covering the parts of speech, then two weeks on sentence parts--I recognize THIS style of grammar instruction to be outdated and out of context. However, a short, daily exposure to grammar basics (as DGP, MUG, and DOL offer) is a necessity for students to be able to apply more complicated concepts. As Mrs. Burnette states in her work,

"Daily Grammar Practice is a unique, highly successful, research-based approach to helping students understand, apply, and actually remember grammar concepts. The program is thorough and effective, yet surprisingly simple to implement. Daily Grammar Practice is not "fluffy," and it's not a "quick fix." It is a simple, logical process that actually moves grammar concepts to long-term memory so that students can apply the concepts to their writing."

Although the CCGPS does not support "grammar out of context," it does not explicitly deny teachers any one tool in their toolboxes for achieving the goal of grammar-in-context, either. As Ms. Burnette states in her introduction to DGP, such daily grammar warmups actually AID students in writing improvement.

I will continue to use DGP in my classroom, and I hope that the writers of the ELA Newsletter will keep in mind that ANY tool can be effective in the hands of a good teacher who knows how to use it to meet her students' needs.


Micki Byrnes

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Simple Secret to Keeping Small Groups on Task

I am a huge fan of small group discussions. Small groups provide an opportunity for every student to contribute, and you can group the students according to your specific, differentiated goals for them.

I use small groups for discussing literature, for editing and other writing tasks, and for working on special projects. Small groups are valuable on so many levels--but only if the students are all on task!

Over the years, I have relied on one simple--yet amazingly effective--trick for keeping students focused while I'm working the room and visiting other groups.

Hand-held tape recorders.

Yep. Accountability in a little machine.

I have a set of hand-held tape recorders. Mine happen to use the old-fashioned, regulation-sized cassette tapes. You could also use small digital recording devices if you're more technologically inclined.

When it's time for the small group to start their task, they set the recorder in the middle of their group and push the "record" button. There are four simple rules:

1. The group may not stop the recording at any point during the discussion. (I know how much time was allotted, so their recording had better be that long. Do I actually time them all? No, but I can, and they know that.)

2. Each student must say his or her name into the recorder at the beginning. (This step helps me keep up with which voice is which if I go back and listen.)

3. I should hear a specific group only on that group's tape, not on any other group's tape. (This rule keeps them from getting too loud.)

4. Students may not discuss how wonderful their teacher is in an effort to garner extra credit. (I had to add that rule after the first taped discussions. You can figure out why.)

You can listen to the tapes on your daily commute (if you take a hand-held in the car with you or drive a really old car with a cassette deck), or while you're straightening up your classroom, or (my favorite) while you're standing at the copy machine. Talk about multi-tasking!

Sometimes I listen to all the tapes in their entirety. Sometimes I listen to a specific group's discussion. (You know which groups you need to check up on more carefully.) Sometimes I just listen to bits and pieces of different tapes.

Sometimes, I confess, I don't listen at all. But as long as the tape is running, my students know I CAN listen, and that's powerful.

Different types of group discussions have different purposes, but sometimes I need to assess the students on their participation. For example, let's say I offer five different novels for students to read. I then group the students based on the novels they have chosen (allowing us to discuss the reading even though different students are reading different books). But I want to be sure they're all keeping up with the reading and contributing to the discussion in a meaningful way. So, I listen to the tapes and grade the students accordingly.

Each of my tapes is numbered and lettered. For first period, I have 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. For second period, I have 2A, 2B, etc. Then I simply make a list of which students are in group 1A, 1B, etc. for a particular discussion. For the next discussion, we just record over the old ones. A-plus for recycling.

Big Brother is watching. Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is watching. And I'm watching thanks to my little hand-held tape recorders.