Why Grammar Check Programs Frighten Me

Posted by Rod Burnette on

When spell checkers first became available (yes, I remember that far back), I cringed. Spell checkers are convenient, but (as I feared) they have created a society of non-spellers. Who needs to worry about spelling when the spell checker will make corrections for you?

Now we are being bombarded by an advanced species of spell check—the grammar checker. Yes, my word document program has made grammar suggestions to me for years (well, until I turned off that annoying feature), but these new grammar checkers go way beyond what my document software can do.

And I don’t like it. At all.

My goal as a writing teacher is to teach students to think like writers—to make good rhetorical choices, to edit their work, to word their writing in a way that promotes effective communication. It has always been a challenge to convince students to care about such goals rather than to throw words on paper and be done with it.

And it just got harder.

One grammar checker I can purchase online claims it will make me a better writer. Really? By doing my work for me? This grammar checker might make me look like I’m a better writer, but it’s really just making me dependent on its services.

Sound scary? It is.

Proofreading programs fly in the face of what language arts teachers struggle every day to do: create writers who understand the art of writing--writers who think for themselves.

One available grammar checker has good intentions. It will explainerrors to users in an effort to help them understand the errors and avoid making them again in the future.

Yeah, most students are going to pay attention to that feature instead of just clicking “next.”

I showed a 15-year-old what a certain grammar checker can do. She said, “That would be great for proofreading, but it wouldn’t make me a better writer. It would make me lazy. I wouldn’t care about editing. I’d just slap something down and let the program do my work for me.”

That’s the attitude I want to engender in my classroom.

A 13-year-old said, “Isn’t that cheating?” Is it? If he runs a school essay through an advanced grammar check program, will his teacher grade him on his own merits or on those of the grammar checker?

The goal of the grammar checker is what? To create a society less able to check our own work? To exploit our weaknesses for monetary gain? To help us take the easy way out? Most students don’t seem to need help with that one.

Is there a place for these advanced grammar checkers? Maybe. I hate seeing published grammatical errors as much as anyone else does (okay, probably more). And I see plenty of them every day. So perhaps proofreading programs are beneficial in the world of business and publishing, where writers have already learned the rules (I hope) and just need a little back-up.

But in the world of education, they are downright dangerous.


Post by Dawn Burnette.

Dawn is a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught middle and high school English since 1990. In addition to English, she is also certified in gifted education for grades K-12. She is the author of Daily Grammar Practice as well as numerous other publications for teaching language arts. She received the NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence Award for 2005 and was a 2007 finalist for Georgia Teacher of the Year. Dawn teaches professional development courses and has presented at countless conferences.


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