There has been recent debate about whether spell-checkers should be used in tests. Should they?
Well, for me it depends what the test is testing. If it is testing knowledge of specific spelling patterns, the spell-check would defeat the object of the test. But if the aim is to test a learner's general writing skills or content knowledge, I would say yes, let them use one. If learners are living a life where they will be doing most of their writing electronically, this is what they need to be able to do - write accurate and expressive text, using all resources (internal and external) available to them.
Those who object to the use of spell-checkers in tests are forgetting that you have to be a halfway decent speller anyway to be able to use a spell-checker. Your attempt has to be close enough to be recognised by the software and where there is an option, you have to be able to choose the right one. You also have to cope with homophones and other real-word errors on your own. See http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/spell-checkers-how-useful-are-they.html for more on spell-checkers and an activity to train learners to use them well.
Allowing spell-checkers in tests doesn't mean you don't need to teach or correct spelling in classwork and homework, of course.
Why not allow spell-checkers in tests but be more demanding about accurate spelling? After all they are getting more help.
To me, Autocorrect is much more worrying. This corrects your spelling automatically without you noticing it. So there is no opportunity to learn. I blame Autocorrect for the fact that I always spell 'the' as 'teh' because I got away with it for years and now the muscle memory is so established that I can't do anything about it (believe me I've tried!). Autocorrect was also a nightmare when I was writing my book (Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners) because every time I gave an example of an error Autocorrect kindly 'corrected' it for me! Yes, I know I could turn it off, but then what about all the 'teh's?
Anyway, back to the subject, should spell-checkers be allowed in tests? I would love to hear your comments.
ps Just ran a spell-check on this post in Blogger. I'd written 'anyting' instead of 'anything'. This is what the spell-check suggested: 'any ting', 'anting', 'anteing', 'Antin'! Thanks Blogger, really helpful - not! Luckily all spell-checkers are not equal!
Learning to spell involves practice and the ultimate spelling practice is writing. A free writing task could just aim to get learners writing something (anything!) or it could encourage the use of words, spelling patterns or aspects of spelling that have recently been taught. Free writing, of course, practises much more than just spelling.
Ask the audience
But when learners write, who reads the writing? Very often the answer is just 'the teacher'. Is this audience of one really motivating enough? Why do students write? Often just because the teacher tells them to and so the teacher can judge them on their writing. One of the reasons I chose to to do the MA that I did was because the assignments were so practical,
Write an article for a journal about...,
Create a website with these guidelines.
Review a piece of teaching material for...
This meant that I could get most of my assignments published - they weren't only for the tutors' eyes - and build up my own professional profile. I found it much more motivating and I wanted them to impress more than one person. And why should it be any different for language learners? Having an audience, knowing somebody is going to read your words for its meaning (rather than just for its mistakes!) gives us much more ownership over our work and more pride in it. And if the audience respond (through comments etc), then that's terrific.
I've found in my teaching that learners also make more effort if their work is going to be attractively presented. The quality the finished product becomes more important and stimulates more interest in the accuracy of the writing. One way to do this is to use webtools that package students' texts attractively. This could just be in a blog or wiki but I find one of the best tools for short pieces of writing is Glogster (www.glogster.com/). Glogster allows you to make digital posters (Glogs) which can include text, photos, videos and links, all on a range of backgrounds that you can choose. They can be as simple or jazzy as the user likes.
Greetings From the World
Glogster has been used to great effect in a fantastic award-winning project called Greetings from the World http://greetingsfromtheworld.wikispaces.com/, started by Arjana Blazic in Zagreb. In this project, groups of students in countries from all over the world - Singapore, Algeria, Spain, USA, Brazil, Sweden, Australia, India and more - make Glogs about their cities and countries. This has made a fascinating resource and a huge motivator for learners to write.
Collage of Glogs from http://greetingsfromtheworld.wikispaces.com/
To correct or not to correct?
One question that always vexes me when learners write online is how much I should correct them. One of the reasons I encourage them to write for a public audience is to encourage pride in their work. So I want them to want their work to be the best it can. We talk about this in class and I try to raise their expectations of their own work.
Unfortunately this can sometimes lead to plagiarism. Lazy students, or those who see the product as everything, sometimes think it's OK to just copy and paste something written in perfect English (from a guidebook for example). This needs stamping out - it is a complete waste of time and illegal. The teacher can use a plagiarism checker such as Dustball http://www.dustball.com/cs/plagiarism.checker/ (which even works if the student has been 'clever' enough to change one or two words). Alternatively just type a suspiciously good sentence from the writing (between quotation marks "____") into Google . I let learners know beforehand that I will be checking for plagiarism and that any graded work that has been copied will be awarded a nice fat zero. I also teach them how not to plagiarise: If you read something you want to take ideas from, note key words, put away the text and then write it in your own words. Alternatively, quote from the material by using quotation marks and attribute the quotation carefully. If they quote directly, I like them to comment on the quote so they are also using their own words.
So how can teachers get learners to produce writing that is as accurate as they can manage without the learner losing the emotional and intellectual ownership of their work? Drafting, editing and redrafting are needed. The teacher can guide self-correction first (that's another blog post!), but I'm still undecided how much the teacher should actually correct the writing before it's posted on a public space for the world to see.