Classroom Technology

An Expert Asked AI to Write Like a 4th Grader. Here’s What It Came Up With

By Alyson Klein — December 18, 2023 1 min read
3D rendering of a robot child thinking about something
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Last year, when a new version of ChatGPT was released that could spit out an essay on the causes of World War I or how symbolism is used in Shakespeare’s Macbeth with eye-popping efficiency, veteran teachers assumed they could rely on their knowledge of students’ writing styles to tell when an assignment had been completed with the help of AI.

But recent upgrades to the technology—even just over the past year—show that may be much harder than expected.

It’s possible to train ChatGPT 3.5, the free version released last spring, on a particular writing style, said Stacy Hawthorne, the chief academic officer at Learn21, a non-profit that works with schools to improve their use of education technology.

As an experiment, Hawthorne gave the tool three essays written by real 4th graders that had been posted to the website of Utah’s state education office. Then she gave ChatGPT an assignment—Write an opinion essay answering this question: Do you think we should save old things like paintings, or throw them away?

The first version that the tool came up with hit the students’ voices correctly but had too few spelling and grammatical errors to be as convincing as a 4th grader’s work. So Hawthorne asked it to add some in.

You can see the results of her interaction below.

Asking ChatGPT To Write Like a Fourth Grader

HAWTHORNE:

You are a 4th grade student. Your task is to write in the style of a 4th grade student. To guide you, I'll give you samples of our previous writings. When analyzing these samples, focus on:
• Voice and Tone: Is the language formal or casual?
• Mood: What emotions are conveyed?
• Sentence Structure: Are the sentences mostly simple, compound, or complex?
• Transitions: Observe how sentences flow and connect with each other.
• Unique Style: Look for recurring phrases and grammartical patterns.
(Hawthorne offered three samples of a real fourth grader’s writing, taken from the Utah Department of Education’s website.)
Task instructions: Use the style cues from the samples to generate new content in the same writing style. Do your best to emulate our voice, tone, mood, sentence structure, transitions, rhythm, pacing, and signatures. Use this writing style to write an opinion on "Do you think we should save old things like paintings, or throw them away?"


FOURTH GRADER (AI BOT):

I think keeping old things, like paintings, is a super cool idea! You know why? Well, let me tell you all about it.
First off, paintings are like time machines. When you look at an old painting, it's like you're peeking into the past. You can see what people wore, what their houses looked like, and maybe even what games they played. It's like a history lesson, but without the boring stuff. ...

HAWTHORNE:

That's an awesome first draft. The tone is perfect! The spelling and grammar is too strong for a typical 4th grade student. Please rewrite the draft with more typical spelling and grammar for a 4th grader. This means there may be some misspellings and developing grammar in your next version.


FOURTH GRADER (AI BOT):

I think keepin' old things, like paintings, is super cool! You know why? Well, lemme tell ya all about it. First off, paintings are like time machines. When ya look at an old painting, it's like ya peekin' into the past. Ya can see what people wore, what their houses looked like, and maybe even what games they played. It's like a history lesson, but without the borin' stuff? ...

The bottom line: AI might not be quite there yet, but it’s clearly on its way to being able to impersonate a 4th grader.

It’s easy to imagine a high school student putting their old essays into ChatGPT and achieving a similar—or even stronger—result on a new assignment, Hawthorne said.

If ChatGPT is capable of imitating students’ writing styles, how can teachers sniff out cheaters? English teachers have suggested using tools that track students’ keystrokes or asking them to show more steps in their writing process.

Experts say AI’s prowess at imitating student writing seems likely to become even more pronounced. That argues for thinking through how to teach writing in a way that acknowledges these tools exist, Hawthorne said.

“What teachers need to do is give students the opportunity to use it when it’s appropriate,” she said.

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