Defending Grammarcheck and Other Writing Tools
To the Editor:
While I am in complete agreement with J. Martin Rochester's Commentary condemning the new English standards on the grounds of vagueness, lack of attention to "rigor," and overemphasis on political correctness ("The Decline of Literacy," May 15, 1996), I take issue with his disparagement of age-appropriate literature, peer editing, and the valuable word processor tools for checking spelling and grammar.
Many of us, like Mr. Rochester, were extraordinarily fortunate that we survived "drill and kill" writing curricula and the exposure to "classic" literature that was developmentally inappropriate. In the best circumstances, we learned to love reading and writing and perhaps went on to become teachers and professors. However, too many children shut down in the educational system for a variety of reasons, even the "bright" and "gifted" students. I continually hear the voice of a close friend who went through independent school with me in the 1960s; she takes no pleasure in reading as an adult because our curriculum of classics taught too early completely turned her off. In our increasingly visual and technologically driven society, we cannot afford alienating our kids from the pleasures of a book.
Mr. Rochester writes: "Inventive spelling presumes that kids' egos are so fragile and their creative juices so constipated that the mere correction of spelling errors by a teacher in early grades will ... produce instant "shutdown" and scar the poor child for life." Many elementary and middle school English teachers have been teaching "process writing" (based on the Writing Workshop models of Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, and Lucy Calkins, among others) for the past 10 to 15 years. The purpose is to help children see writing as a process of discrete, recursive steps. Most of us encourage inventive spelling in the drafting stage only, so that the child can focus first on getting her ideas onto paper or the word processor. The teacher then comments on content only, and the child revises, adding, deleting, and/or clarifying content.
The child then moves into the editing stage: He self-edits, looking for punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors, often in successive stages. The child first runs spellcheck, circles incorrectly spelled words that he cannot correct, and then uses the dictionary or asks the teacher.
Although all of my English students have been exposed to years of instruction in spelling rules as well as lists of words to memorize for weekly tests, many still cannot spell with the degree of automaticity that we would hope for in the 7th grade. The reason is not lack of instruction, nor an unwillingness to learn, nor laziness; rather, some of these children cannot spell. For them, spellcheck is an extraordinary tool to use during the editing stage of their writing. Many of them learn to recognize correct spelling when viewing options in a list.
Similarly, I believe that grammarcheck increases kids' awareness of the fine points in grammar. I would not generally discuss in my grammar and punctuation curriculum the use of active vs. passive voice. However, when a student receives the message by running grammarcheck that he is writing heavily in the passive voice, I am delighted to discuss this fine point in a personal editing conference. By running grammarcheck, this student advanced his knowledge of grammar and became a better writer.
Many teachers also teach and model "peer editing," which Mr. Rochester characterizes as "the blind leading the blind." Based on numerous observations of middle school students, I strongly disagree. Many children can block out the content of a peer's work, as opposed to their own writing, and concentrate solely on editing. In addition, peer editing increases kids' collaborative skills and teaches them that help is available from a variety of sources, not only the teacher. Peer editing is a valuable supplement to, not a replacement of, teacher input. By the final draft, the child's piece of writing is free of spelling errors; and in many classes, the child's weekly spelling words are compiled from those misspelled in his or her own writing.
English teachers are implementing essential standards when we teach children to love expressing themselves through the written word, to develop their writing through successive stages, to use all the tools of editing, and to take pleasure in reading books that are developmentally appropriate and raise crucial ethical questions. Certainly "literacy still counts," as Mr. Rochester concludes, but we cannot expect to arrive at it without careful consideration of the many paths and processes that lead to that goal.
As for his comment that "a truly literate person should not have to rely on the crutch of spellcheck or grammarcheck," most writers welcome any tool that makes their writing easier. Or does Mr. Rochester use a quill pen on parchment?
Pamela Miller Ness
The Dalton School
New York, N.Y.