Computer Grading and Grammar Checks

Girl at Computer, (c) 2013 Jupiterimages

Photo: (c) 2013 Jupiterimages

Fact: Computer grading and grammar checks are here to stay.  Automated scoring or, more accurately, AI (Artificial Intelligence) is and continues to turn language processes into algorithms. How well they do this is still a matter of debate.

Fact: Assessment is here to stay, and we seem to want better, quicker ways to assess everything, including writing.

As just one example of machine scoring, here is a recent experience with Grammarly where the slogan is “The Best Grammar Checker.” The excerpt below is taken from the Lingua Franca blog. The entry is These Cards Lie! By Ben Yagoda. He inserted a chapter from his upcoming book on writing.

Here’s one paragraph from my text, with the bracketed numbers keyed to Grammarly’s criticisms, listed below, and the bracketed comments inserted by Grammarly. (My previous sentence referred to the fact that grammatical standards and “rules” change over time.)

On that idea [1] of “accepted practice” changing, I recognize—as how could anyone not? [2] [not, note, nota] —that [3] standards [4] [Standards] evolve over time. There was a time when it was verboten to end a sentence with a preposition, start one with a conjunction, write “an e-mail” instead of “an e-mail message,” use “hopefully” to mean “I hope that,” and so on. Now all those things are okay. Going back even farther[5], it used to be that the first-person future tense of to go was “I shall go.”[5] If you [6] said that today, you would get some seriously strange looks. “Awful” used to refer to the quality of filling one with, [7] you [8] got it, awe; now it means really bad. [9] [10]

  1. Comma-mark missing where expected.
  2. Spelling
  3. Missing Final Punctuation
  4. Review this sentence for capital letters.
  5. Dependent phrase may not properly modify subject in main clause of this sentence.
  6. Personal pronoun may not be appropriate for formal or academic writing.
  7. Comma splice separates two independent clauses instead of conjunction or semicolon.
  8. Personal pronoun may not be appropriate for formal or academic writing.
  9. Adjective (instead of adverb) modifying verb.
  10. Determiner or modifier is potentially unnecessary.

(My favorite mistake is number 7.)

Do we want to write for machines, or do we want writing that can be read, interpreted, and appreciated?  As someone who teaches writing for a living, I want students to learn to write for their audience, usually people.

It is likely that computers do and will continue to have a place in writing assessment.  However, like Michael Williamson (2003) points out, “The goals of the people must drive the development of automation, not the automation itself” (p.453).  We must be sure that the technology we use, in whatever form, serves the purposes of true student learning.  And, to do that, we must ask, “What exactly are we trying to teach? . . . and to what end?


Williamson, M. M. (2003) Validity of automated scoring: Prologue for a continuing discussion of machine scoring and student writing.  In Huot, B. & O’Neill P.(Eds.), Assessing Writing:  A Critical Sourcebook (pp. 435-455).  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s & NCTE.

Yagoda, B. (2012, August 1). These cards always lie. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Works Consulted

Herrington, A. & Moran, C. (n.d.). Writing to a machine is not writing at all. Retrieved from

Melody Pickle

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