Section 7

Pedagogical justifications for using interactive drill software to teach grammar

Teachers of writing courses, particularly in the first year of university, sometimes do see themselves as gatekeepers or "guardians" of the language (to use Finegan's term), though most of us are usagists and not purists who believe the language can effectively be safeguarded.  As gatekeepers, we are often called on to preserve standards and to inculcate correctness and other embedded social values involved in the teaching of grammar.  Indeed, the process is not that different from teaching etiquette, and often leaves us feeling like Sisyphus, rolling a rock up a hill.


George Hillocks in Research on Written Composition in 1986 was responsible for dismissing the study of grammar as having no benefit on the composing process.  This finding had an enormously powerful effect on the direction of research in writing in the years since.  If Hillocks’ declaration is true, then what justifications can be made for drill software?


  1. the students like using it -- it puts the tool and the pacing in their hands, and is thus empowering


85% of my students completed it; 83% would recommend it to another student; and 75% felt they learned better with it than from a textbook


  1. the software doesn't pontificate about grammar, and a "light" tone is maintained throughout


Some students felt this might be improved by the addition of graphics or other "entertainment value"; most, however, felt that the ability to work at their own pace, without social embarrassment, and with immediate feedback made the software worth it for them


  1. the software teaches the kind of recognition of small errors that we want our students, as editors, to have


While I cannot claim that students became better writers as a result of using the CD, over 80% reported that their grammar improved as a result.  The fact that less time was actually spent on grammar in lecture and tutorial is advantageous too.  Students spent more time working on particular paragraphs and essays


  1. while this kind of drill doesn't directly affect the teaching of the process of composing, it does help us think about language


Judging from the results of a small quiz I gave at the end of the year, more students came away from the software with a better grounding in grammar terminology than I usually find is the case.  Asked to define terms, 78% of students got a grade of B or better.


Rei Noguchi's Grammar and the Teaching of Writing, argues exactly this point.  And Constance Weaver argues "it may be desirable or even necessary to use some grammatical concepts and terminology in helping students become more effective language users" (90).


  1. students need to learn terminology for talking about language, particularly those who will go on to teach


I believe that an acquaintance with the CD made better editors of my students, though it may not have made them better writers.  I observed that students who came to me to discuss papers had a better awareness of what their problems in writing -- both mechanical and otherwise -- were. The software and our use of it to let students teach themselves and each other how to approach editing problems made them more aware of the need to develop a language for discussing their writing, and that process in turn made them more competent editors.


  1. students still need to know the conventions that prevail in the academy and in the business world, and about the rhetorical choices that satisfy these demands


Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford argue that there are many misconceptions about what constitutes serious error, but they also open up the way to discuss the place these misconceptions have in determining the relation between grammatical usage and social class.


I welcomed the opportunity to "separate" such learning from the higher level planning and writing instruction that went on in tutorials.  Students chose for themselves what areas they felt needed more coverage, with the added incentive of a final exam.  The conventional things are there too, in deference to students' needs to write grammatical language in cover letters and on graduate entrance exams.


  1. students do feel social embarrassment about their errors and a sense of the impediments of class structure when they cannot express something grammatically


I repeatedly witnessed students' sense of shame and chagrin at being unable to produce work that would be accepted in terms of grammar and style.  Students used the CD to brush up on these elements without feeling "called up" as they might in class or in the kinds of mechanical error-spotting feedback that is part (a small part) of the grading process.  As Maxine Hairston's work testifies, there is a hierarchy of errors in students' and instructors' minds, and this method of "private" self-paced instruction goes some distance towards reducing grammar anxiety.


  1. use of the software eases the burden of error correction, still a reasonably large part of grading papers (this may be the worst offender in the grammar/writing controversy anyhow)


I used the CD as a slightly friendlier reference tool than the textbook, and thus obviated the need for long (and usually unread) explanations on the margins of papers.


  1. the software allows students to focus their attention on what they need to know, rather than the whole body of language use


Teaching Multimedia students in an introductory writing course, I felt like the rough equivalent of a schoolmarm in the old west.  This way, I felt that I could legislate less, and leave it to individual students to decide what they needed to concentrate on.  The CD itself "covers" much the same turf as a printed composition text would do, but students are not encouraged to read through the CD in the same way, but rather to spend some practice sessions with it, according to their own needs and inclinations.  This way I include some focus on errors in the conventional way, but I don’t need to approach the errors according to any hierarchy of their supposed seriousness.


  1. the software enables teachers to talk about issues of usage and convention that are fundamentals of educated readers and writers


While software has limitations in its treatment of language, I was able to write exercises that dealt with obvious matters of usage, like bias in language, for example.  Here the discussion is descriptive and leads to good classroom analysis of what constitutes clear usage, rather than prescriptive and rigidly established.


  1. the software help to close a gap between reading and writing; since most of us believe that good readers make good writers


While the software is not a good medium for long models of writing, good sentences and good paragraphs, taken from good writers, are an option, and usually add a touch of humor.  Here, of course, it is difficult to make the case for transference of knowledge from what is read to what is later produced by the students.  But, as Noguchi says, "if the problem of transfer is a general one, and not restricted to grammar alone, it seems unfair to castigate, not to mention, banish, one realm of knowledge [grammar] and not the others" (8).


  1. the software keeps an academic focus, in contrast to the kinds of language that electronic discussion lists encourage, so that the balance is maintained.


The CD emphasizes the kind of writing that students are expected to read, different from the discussion lists they engage in that emphasize how they speak to each other.


Computer programs, particularly the stuff that drill software is made of, are by their very nature rigid.  This did not seem a bad thing to set against the freewheeling kind of discussion that students engaged in on the discussion list.  While the goal is amorphous sometimes -- teaching students to write better from whatever point they started out -- students themselves demand benchmarks such as scoring mechanisms, paced lessons, and other concrete markers of progress.  Grammar then becomes "a tool for writing improvement", as Noguchi argues, rather than an end in itself (17).


Meanwhile we hope to encourage computer software that can help students with the multitude of decisions that are made in the course of planning and writing large documents, but need to keep in mind that there is not one writing process, but many different approaches to the problem.  At least electronic media give students better (and more) opportunities to communicate with their peers, at the present time.


As Hobson argues, "an even more intriguing role for the computer lies in its potential for interacting directly with the learner in the act of producing language, in addition to its ability to respond specifically to learners' input and thus to shape their subsequent utterances" (41).


Computer software, as we shape it to become more and more human, will become more and more flexible, rather than rigid in its approaches to problems.  That, at any rate, is the aim.  My pet peeve in the meantime is that students are currently less likely to question the authority of the computer than are to question the authority of the teacher, even though the computer is far more rigid in its expectations of right and wrong.

Section 6

Works Cited