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Writing Software Help Students Make "Perfect Copy"

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Teaching English in a computerized classroom is mostly a blessing, sometimes a curse, and always a challenge. At Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, one of the challenges for instructors who teach in the computerized classroom is to get the full benefit from the technology that's available. While the benefits that word processing provides are obvious, instructors such as I want the computer classroom to be more than a sophisticated typing center.

Editing Skills Needed

Some of the writing courses taught in the computer classroom are for under-prepared basic writers. One course, English 03, is a second-semester developmental writing class. Students in English 03 have already taken the first semester of developmental writing, in which writing fluency and voice were the primary emphases. The focus in English 03 is grammar and punctuation, i.e., sentence editing skills.

The problem is how to teach editing skills to students who are deficient in those areas and to do so in ways which are consistent with both our process-oriented pedagogy and our desire to make the most of computer-assisted instruction. One of our on-going goals has been to identify software that is likely to help students gain the sentence grammar skills they need in order to be successful in college composition courses.

Why "Perfect Copy"?

After hearing about North Tonawanda, N.Y.-based Logicus Inc.'s Perfect Copy and previewing the demo disk, we purchased a lab pack because the design reflected our whole-language approach to teaching editing skills. It differs from other grammar CAI packages in that the sentence skills are taught in the context of a passage of writing rather than in isolation. The user edits Perfect Copy articles ¬ one to three paragraphs in length ¬ in a fashion that is quite similar to editing on a word processor. This is a bonus in itself in the sense that it reinforces basic editing practices, emphasizing the malleability and fluidity of word-processed text.

How It Works

The program comprises nearly 500 articles of varying levels of difficulty. Some are indexed for youth, some for teens and some for adults. The majority of the articles are problem-specific; that is, they contain one type of grammar or punctuation error, for instance, comma faults or subject-verb agreement. But several dozen articles require a thorough editing and contain grammar and punctuation errors of all sorts.

Student users may consult an online handbook by clicking on "Rules" at the bottom of the screen. Additional help is accessed by clicking on "Clues." One click highlights the lines which still contain errors; two clicks highlights a small area of the line, narrowing the focus to the location of the error; and three clicks shows the corrections. Word lists for lessons on verb use and homonym errors can be turned on by the teacher.

The program's interface is user-friendly and training time is minimal for both the instructor and students. The instructor can set the levels of help or clues available and can view record-keeping functions that tell such things as which lessons have been completed, how much time a student spent on a given article, the type of help accessed, and whether perfect copy was achieved. I spent a total of about 20 minutes training the students and after a few uses, they didn't need my help.

How It Was Implemented

While I had used Perfect Copy for three semesters with what seemed like favorable results, I wished to confirm my feelings about the program, so I conducted a research project. The study group consisted of two English 03 sections ¬ 33 students total ¬ which were assigned to work 44 editing lessons in class over six weeks. The articles assigned reflected the grammar and punctuation conventions that are most problematic for developmental writers: sentence boundaries, verb use and commas.

The articles were all about 200-250 words in length, and working with all 44 of them filled most of our three-hours-per-week class time for six weeks. The percentage of correct answers on the pre-tests I assigned follow: commas, 46.8; subject-verb agreement, 67.8; beginning and ending punctuation, 76.3; irregular verbs, 86.1; combined total, 69.3.

On the post tests, the scores increased significantly: commas, 93.7%; subject-verb agreement, 94.7%; beginning and ending punctuation, 96.5%; irregular verbs, 96.5%; combined average, 95.4%. The overall increase was 26.1%. We also recorded a 9.2% higher overall success rate for student writing portfolios, the means by which English 03 students are assessed.

Since Perfect Copy was the only method of grammar and punctuation study that the students were assigned, we infer that these editing lessons are an effective means of learning punctuation and grammar.

We expect even better results when the program is made available for student access in the writing center so that they supplement, rather than supplant, classroom writing workshops.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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