Writing by numbers: Who needs an audience?

A colleague who is a librarian and shares a lot of my interests in writing and reading sent me the following from a friends blog:

In a previous post my daughter blew me away with her use of eLocker to access her school files from home. Last night my son used MyAccess to write an essay online. Big whoop – right? Get this – it analyzed and graded it in an instant. Took about 3 seconds tops and he was looking at a score that broke out scoring elements not only in spelling and grammar (Word can do that) – things like content and delivery, organization, completeness of development. It was like having my 5th grade English teacher right there – red pen in hand. It saves all of his essays and projects and graphs out a cumulative progression over time, showing improvements and areas to work on. Incredible.

Here’s a snip from the site :

“With MY Access!®, students are motivated to write more and attain higher scores on statewide writing assessments. By using MY Access! in the classroom, teachers can provide students with the practice they need to improve their writing skills. The program’s powerful scoring engine grades students’ essays instantly and provides targeted feedback, freeing teachers from grading thousands of papers by hand and giving them more time to conduct differentiated instruction and curriculum planning.”

I wish I could share the enthusiasm, but I am more than a little skeptical. It may be the science/humanities divide in play, but there is no getting past the fact that a lot of this represents some of the absolutely worst things that are happening with writing in our secondary schools. And we continue to wonder why our kids can’t write and prefer to do anything but read. When we treat writing like filling in the blanks on a mindless test, and treat reading as a mechanical process that any computer can do for us, what message can our kids get but that language is something to be dispensed with as efficiently as possible, rather than one of the essential elements of our being human in the world. Something to be treasured and embraced and explored and played with; not something to slot in to the appropriate input on a machine

Just to be sure I wouldn’t go off on a completely uninformed screed (who would care? this is a blog after all), I did take some time to visit the MyAccess web site and go through the student demonstration. It is clearly more sophisticated than such programs used to be, and it does go beyond simple grammar and spell checkers. Still, it’s clearly caught up in a formal approach to writing that completely removes writing from the intentions and language of the writer, as well as from the interests and concerns of any particular reader or audience. The site makes a point of saying that it will grade for development and organization–as if these elements of writing existed somehow independently of the particular concerns and creativity of the writer, and as if we could address all audiences in a similar fashion. These folks claim that they grade “more accurately” than human readers. What could this possibly mean in grading a persuasive essay? How can a computer be more accurately persuaded than a human being. Absurdity.

One thing that the program grades for is sentence variation, vocabulary, and paragraph length. I admit this makes me nauseated. My daughter, a decent writer in part because she has learned to read a lot in our household, is asked by her teachers to write ten sentence paragraphs. If she has one sentence too many or too few she is graded down. This is done explicitly because of expectations of standardized tests–which I am sure will soon be graded by computer programs like MyAccess, to ensure that we are all standardized. There is no such thing as an acceptable length for a well-developed paragraph, and paragraph length in general is dependent upon genre and media. One of my big problems as a blogger and emailer is that I’ve learned to write for paper and ink, and my paragraphs are impossibly long for this particular media. Similarly, when I write for newspapers, I’m consistently reminded to keep my paragraphs in bounds. Same things go for sentences and sentence variations. First year students are stunned when I tell them a three word sentence can be perfectly OK. or that you can use a fragment. For effect, people, for effect. As if you were a human being instead of a machine. Some of them have actually been told by teachers to not use short sentences at all, and certainly never two in a row. Sentence variation depends deeply upon the kinds of emotional effects you are trying to achieve with readers, not on an abstract calculus that can tell you your sentence variation is good because you have X number of short sentences, X number of complex sentences, X number of such and so.

As for vocabulary. Students seem surprised when I tell them clever words can’t substitute for good writing. They assume a thesaurus indicated sophistication. I tell them to be sophisticated with the language that they know, and read and read and read to become sophisticated in the language that they don’t.

To some degree, indeed, I think this kind of write by numbers approach is designed to bypass the simple fact that kids no longer read enough–if they ever did–to become sophisticated writers and thinkers. Rather than give them the linguistic tools they need to become writers, we give them a formula to make sure they become the machines they are intended to be in this society. MyAccess isn’t part of the solution. It’s a sign of the problem.

(Bizarre sidenote: MyAccess tries to sell itself by saying it will provide 24 hour tutors at a low cost. Does anyone stop to think that in the world of the internet you can get free 24 hour “tutors” in online writing communities–or, if you really want to you can pay for it. At least you’ll be writing for other human beings rather than believing a computer program can substitute for someone that actually uses the language with which you have to communicate).

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10 thoughts on “Writing by numbers: Who needs an audience?

  1. (I found this blog through my blog stats)

    Now c’mon…I think you’re being a little too harsh here. I see what you’re saying and they are excellent points, but for young kids, I think this is a great tool that can help them a lot.

    I learned my structure first…like the five-paragraph essay with an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. And without that structure to build on, I would have been lost. In my writing these days, I don’t follow anything near the five paragraph structure…but I could still see a vague skeleton of it here and there.

    The thing is, it’s very hard for kids to start off being aware, or being taught about, the nuances and flexible boundaries in writing. It’s hard to know when to do this and when it’s better to do that instead. Having a very solid, standard structure to start off is very helpful…almost essential, I think.

    Now I don’t see the reason behind failing a kid for having an extra sentence in a paragraph or because they didn’t have enough big words they don’t know the meaning of…and I think these programs should only be used very early on in education. Certainly not past the upper grade school level. After they have the basic structure down, then I think we can introduce them to playing around with the structure, using certain words and sentences in specific situations, and all that other great stuff…

    I can’t imagine schools using this program and rigid rules/structures past grade school…I think maybe lower grade school would be a good fit though. I could see the potential…but I could also see schools depending on this too much and, god forbid, start using the programs well into high school and college. THAT would be an abomination of language.

  2. Hi Michael, as luck would have it I just blogged something I picked up from your own blog. I enjoyed browsing through the other day.

    Re. the above, I tend to think we get caught up in a rules vs. expressivism dualism that isn’t very helpful. Either you are following the rules or you are expressing your soul in a vacuum. I’m not of the school that thinks kids should just express their souls. I tend to be more aristotelian and think we learn through imitation, including our imitations of how others break “the rules” and why they do so. But imitation is different than filling in a form, a more creative and interesting act of the mind that requires imagination. “How did that person do that? How could I do that too? How could I do it differently?”

    I think kids are actually more inventive with language than we give them credit for, and a lot of this inventiveness get quashed in the effort to fill in the blanks for meeting achievement test scores. Indeed, one of the big selling points for MyAccess is that scores on standardized tests will go up. Good for the school under No Child Left Behind. Not so sure it’s good for the child.

    I think kids at a very young age can think in fairly sophisticated ways about language. Indeed, it’s arguable that kids are at their most inventive well before they get in to the upper grades of elementary school. But surely by highschool–and the MyAccess stuff is clearly pointed toward high school and middle school–we can ask kids to write in response to deeper levels of self-awareness. What am I wanting to say? Who am I wanting to say it to? Why am I wanting to say it? What effects am I wanting to create in my reader? How have other writers created these effects in the past? What language should I use to create these effects in my target audience? Over time the answers to these questions become more nealry instinctual than conscious. But I still don’t think that a product that advertises itself as “more accurate” than human “graders” is proceeding with even an ounce of awareness of these kinds of issues.

    A final objection, of course, is that schools are investing in this kind of thing rather than in old fashioned technologies that, properly encouraged, might actually improve writing abilities: books. I saw something earlier today that suggested the average age of books in the public schools of (New York? North Carolina? Seems like it was an N) was 22 years!!! Kids are pretty sharp as to what their elders find valuable. In a lot of schools today its not reading; its filling in the blanks.

  3. I don’t know what the ideal education would be, and I agreed with your take on MyAccess… but reading Michael’s comments about it, had me stretching in my mind back to grade school (I guess). I recall having similar types of requirements, enforced by humans, not computers: no sentence fragments; never start an a sentence with because; don’t finish with a preposition etc. I suspect I had assignments that included word limits, or sentence limits. I remember the “introductory paragraph” … and the techniques of the expository essay.

    It was only later, through reading, that I started to see these rules broken, and started to break them myself. There is something to be said for kids learning strict rules of form first, and then exploring out later.

    But the big problem with MyAccess etc, is the Garfield quotation: “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Having a computer program sitting on the other end of the log is surely inferior to Mark Hopkins (whoever he is), but might be superior to the other things on offer. Which says sad things about what we are offering our kids.

  4. I have been a successful teacher of writing at the secondary level for decades and have used MY Access! for over four years. My Access! provides an environment for students to write, revise, analyze, set goals, and reflect on their progress. Teachers who have had professional development on using such an environment to support the effective teaching of writing, find that with MY Access!, they do a great deal more teaching and conferencing with students because students’ motivation and eagerness to improve is unleashed. It’s clearly up to the teacher to set expectations and standards, while MY Access! provides support as determined by the teacher.

    Any discussion that separates the writing teacher from using MY Access! is tantamount to a discussion that evaluates the efficacy of students using textbooks without teachers.

  5. What are you gaining from your cynicism and personal attack on me rather than an articulated response? I have nothing to gain except the hope that someone like you, who speaks from no experience with the program, might gain some insight. Your comment just shows me that you are are biased going into the argument and have no interest in learning about what you don’t know.

  6. Calm down doctor…I just thought it was funny that you mentioned “MY Access!” so much (each time with MY capitalized and the cute little exclamation point at the end) and I was just poking fun at that.

    I apologize for offending you. I’m just being young and stupid, like all young people my age. But for future internet encounters you may have, I will advise you to keep in mind, doctor, that this is an internet forum, not a formal conference room of an educational institution. Mildly inflammatory comments will happen. And most of the time, it’s just for kicks. Again, I apologize for my extreme “cynicism and personal attack.” I shall excuse your personal attack on me.

  7. Pingback: Freedom and Submission; or, the reading fetishist « Read, Write, Now

  8. My 3rd grader’s teacher is using myaccess almost exclusively to teach and evaluate the students’ writing. It is a nightmare. My creative, enthusiastic and talented daughter can’t get a score higher than 2.5 out of 6, and the software gives her feedback that is written in very awkard, coporate-education speak which is far above her reading level and which none of us can understand anyway. Worst of all, each time she logs in to the program, she gets a welcome screen announcing that she is “BELOW PROFICIENT” in six different areas! I can’t imagine anything more destructive to a child who was formerly a highly motivated and creative writer.

  9. p.s. Dr. Madeline Pan works for My Access. They have saturated the web with their own aggressive PR so there that it is imporssible to find objective or critical assessments of this awful program.

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