Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TESOL report

Leverett, T. (2011). Grammar technology: for better or worse. Internet Fair Classics, TESOL 2011, New Orleans LA USA, March.

I only had one presentation at TESOL this year, and it was repeated from last year, but improved a little, and I learned a lot. I left in a hurry, unable to have talked to my own colleagues, who actually teach more writing than I do these days, and was surprised, when I did finally talk to them (at the convention) that a group of them were seriously considering giving up the computer lab altogether (we can teach writing without the computers: if the distraction of the computer interferes so totally with the writing process, why should we tolerate it?)....the essence of their complaint is that students get caught up in individual words and sentences, often going from the computer they are working on to their phone and back, or to Google translate, translating from native language words, then chunks, then whatever will fit into a machine; they then lose sight of more global issues like development, essay structure, etc. The students' idea is that high quality involves grammatical perfection and if this must be sought constantly, then so be it; they will do what it takes.

My colleagues on the tech side of the equation were equally adamant: writing with computer gives us more writing, more revising, better writing, better revising; the research has been clear over the years. Furthermore writing with pen or pencil puts other issues such as handwriting in our laps which we don't really want, and finally, the obvious observation that since all writing is done by computers these days, it is silly to set up what is essentially a false or unrealistic writing environment in which their product will be unlike any other thing they will ever write.

But by far the most interesting observation is that whatever distractions computers provide, computers can also remove the distractions, or at the very least minimize them, so that if you want to concentrate on paragraph-level or essay-level production, you simply remove the ability to go back and forth (clicking on words, checking the internet, using a cell phone or PDA, etc.). For example, alphasmart.com makes keyboard drafting tools, common in elementary school and places where online access is limited but many keyboards are necessary anyway; they can be bought cheaply and even restored easily (this colleague does this regularly); and, students can then, with a simple keyboard, write first, upload later.

I hadn't really thought of this, having been more caught up in the grammatical aspect of what students do with the technology. My main questions: How does the technology affect their writing? How does it affect their learning? and How does it affect the language?? - I got some interesting responses to. Many had opinions about Word's grammar-check - one said that Word 2010 was worse than Word 2003 (I would like to know how, but that's a question for later...), and there was plenty of support for my main suppositions: that grammar technology snuck up on us, like Spell-check; that it was designed for native speakers and thus not always doing exactly what our students need; that students' using it at every level has its consequences that teachers must be aware of and deal with; that knowing what will be more difficult for our students (as a result of technology's influence), and what will be easier, or no longer as important, will be crucial for the future of our profession.

On that note I pointed out to several people that I was surprised that writing teachers weren't beating down my door trying to better manage the technology they are already seeing people use constantly. In fact some people did go quite a ways out of their way to find me and get my advice (my handouts are available at the link above) and in general it was a productive session, well worth an eight-hour drive down through the bootheel, and the entire state of Mississippi.

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