Improving Student Writing Using a Web-Based Targeted Approach to Grammar System (TAGS)

Article excerpt

Introduction

The need to teach basic grammar never has been greater as journalism programs expand their focus to match the workforce skills needed in this era of modern media.

Today's journalism graduates may be expected to know how to edit stories, photographs, audio and video, as well as lay out pages by computer and output stories for the World Wide Web or for a Personal Digital Assistant. They may need to know how to write different versions of a story for print, broadcast or the Web. Journalism schools are adjusting their course offerings to match these and other diverse demands. Is good grammar a casualty in this shift?

Seamon cited five studies decrying error-filled reporting - including grammar -and its negative effect on media credibility:

It's not that J-schools haven't been looking at ways to improve curricula. They have, but much of the discussion and debate has centered on multicultural awareness, minority or race issues, balancing graduate and undergraduate students, and keeping up with the technology of new media. These are valid concerns, but in the rush to engage new issues, J-schools may be neglecting a much older objective - grammatical precision.1

Hanson cited three surveys where employers were disappointed about the lack of basic grammar, punctuation, and writing skills.2 She said that "journalism and mass communication schools must find a way to help students improve their skills without reducing the time students and faculty members have available for other instruction." She then argues that computer-assisted instruction offers a possible solution.

Reviewing studies of grammar checkers, which are a form of computer-assisted writing, Alex Vernon noted the checkers are imperfect, but he called for a renewed interest in using them for instruction:

I suggest that we revisit the pedagogical possibilities of grammar checkers not because they are any more accurate, but because they are more functional and - with their incorporation into wordprocessing programs - they are as ubiquitous as any software program can hope to be.3

While grammar checkers are seamlessly integrated into word processors, the surveys of employers and the public suggest that grammar checkers either are being misused or are not being used at all. The pedagogical possibilities of grammar checkers should be revisited. But the usefulness of grammar checkers in their current, mature form also should be reconsidered. They may have grown too bulky and, correctly or incorrectly, may highlight too many possible problems to be useful or to be used at all. A more focused option for grammar checkers, one that parallels the way instructors teach by targeting common errors, might be more useful for teaching and learning.

A Targeted Approach to Grammar System (TAGS), one that uses a World Wide Web submission form to instantly tag student writing with comments and/or questions about the twenty most common grammar errors, is a development and research effort in this direction.

A review of computer-- assisted writing literature

Computers have successfully assisted writers in ways beyond simple word processing for more than thirty years. Grammar checkers have been integrated into word processors for a decade.

Computer analysis of student writing can be broken into three parts: text analyzers, which provide feedback about readability, sentence length, and other quantitative dimensions; prewriting computer programs, which question the writer about the topic and subject matter in an attempt to assist with organization of the writing; and grammar checkers, which offer information about grammar and punctuation usage.

Richard Atkinson described three modes of computer-assisted instruction.4 They are "drill and practice" software, where students are presented with a linear set of lessons, followed immediately by tests of the concept, "but no real-time decisions are made for modifying the flow of instructional material as a function of the student's response history. …