We have compiled these exercises and classroom activities to encourage students to become more self-reflective, confident, and critical writers when using grammar- and style-checking tools.
Some exercises have been designed with a specific tool in mind, while others are more generic. Most can be adapted for use with any other writing tool, as long as the two tools fulfil similar functions (e.g., both correct grammatical mistakes, or edit for readability or style). Some activities may work better as individual student tasks; others as small group exercises, or even class-wide discussions. Again, feel free to adapt the format to match your needs.
While we created most of these activities ourselves, we also borrowed some suggestions from other teachers and scholars of writing who were happy to share their ideas. You should also encourage your students to freely experiment with these tools as a way of learning about each tool’s capacities and limitations. See our Experiments for inspiration!
Microsoft Word grammar checker (MSGC)
Click here to download our exercises for the MSGC in a .pdf format.
Learning to correct spelling & grammar mistakes without the MSGC
Becoming aware of reliance on auto-correct and real-time editing
Engaging MS Word in creative writing experiments
Exploring the relationship between form and content
Questioning the authority behind MSGC rules
Using readability function for revision
Rethinking language conventions with MS Word
Revising and editing with MSGC (multiple ways to experiment and explore)
Activities suggested by Alex Vernon in his article “Computerized Grammar Checkers 2000″:
“Ask students to brainstorm other possible checking options, other styles, and the checking options appropriate for that style.
Have students, either individually or in small groups, articulate responses to program feedback to their own writing. Students could present their responses either in writing (in a separate document, or in annotations) or orally. Having students work together especially helps students decipher incorrect and misleading program feedback.
Task students to run Grammar-as-you-go on a completed text and – since the GAYG function simply underlines suspect constructions – to address the flagged items without accessing the checker’s feedback (by clicking the right mouse button). An improved sentence makes the underlining go away. This is a version […] for marking the text without identifying the problem, thereby teaching students to learn to edit themselves. It also avoids the confusion of misleading feedback altogether.
Focus on a particular issue by having students check their papers with only one checking option (or several options that look for the same essential issue), as described with “wordiness” above. Increase the number of issues checked as the semester progresses.
Ask students to write “bad” sentences, either to successfully trigger the checker or fool it.
Hold contests, pitting human checkers against one another and against the computer.
Have the computer and the students independently search for subject-verb agreement errors.
Compare the rules of the grammar checker with the discussions of the same issues in your writing handbook. If you choose an issue on which the sources disagree, you have instantly challenged any monolithic sense of language use students might possess, and have taken a solid step toward enabling students to analyze the rules, the rhetorical situation of their writing, and deciding for themselves (not to mention just getting the handbook off the shelf).”
Investigating MS Word features
(Re-published with the authors’ permission)
Testing Grammarly’s contextual editing (Version 1)
Trying out Grammarly’s contextual editing (Version 2)
Blindly following Grammarly’s suggestions
Checking grammar with Ginger
Learning to paraphrase
Use Ginger’s Paraphrase and Thesaurus functions as conversation starters for how to reword one’s ideas in writing. Working with a piece of text individually or in pairs, ask you students to explore the tool’s suggestions for paraphrasing their sentences or substituting words with synonyms. The aim is to get students to pay attention to the semantical, rhetorical and stylistic nuances of each chosen word or phrase, and to warn them against blindly choosing unfamiliar words with unknown connotations. The students should be able to explain their rephrasing choices. If the students have worked individually, they can then swap their revisions with a peer to get feedback on the changes they have made. This small activity can be used as a springboard to launch a class-wide discussion about discipline-specific vocabulary, clichés, and overused words, as well as one on the dangers of trying to sound “smart” by using jargon and less-known words. It can also be used to address the stylistic aspects of one’s writing, such as the effect of repetitive phrases or sentence structures on the overall readability and flow of writing.
NB! Before you use any of these activities in your class, make sure to introduce your students to ProWritingAid’s complex functionality and reports, explaining exactly how each function works and why it may, or may not, be useful to a writer.
Click here to download these exercises in a .pdf format.
Noting repetition in one’s writing
Students can use ProWritingAid’s Overused Words Check, Repeats Check, and/or Echoes (Repeats Check) on short pieces of their own writing to notice any repetitions of words and phrases (especially those that result in repeated syntactic patterns). The students can then share their insights within smaller peer groups or with the rest of the class. Ask the students to identify and discuss the rhetorical and stylistic benefits and drawbacks of using repetition. If necessary, they can continue individual work and revise their texts as they see fit.
Evaluating one’s writing with Summary Report and peer review
Instruct your students to run a substantial piece of their writing (e.g., a draft essay) through ProWritingAid’s text editor. Click on “summary” to view a comprehensive report. Aside from statistical data and other metrics on the text, the report provides grammatical and stylistic suggestions for improving readability and argumentative strength. Have your students carefully read the report and figure out what new insights emerge. Students can work first individually at first and then in pairs, swapping and discussing their pieces of writing and the summary reports generated by the tool.
The Hemingway Editor/App
Click here to download these exercises in a .pdf format.
Learning to be more assertive in writing (Version 1)
Ask your students to prepare a short piece of argumentative writing (it could be their draft to an upcoming essay, a brief opinion piece from an online discussion thread, etc.) and share it with a peer. Instruct the students to use The Hemingway App to identify modifiers and adverbs in their writing and have them follow the tool’s suggestions for getting rid of those. Students can then review one another’s revisions and discuss how the exercise has strengthened (or has not strengthened) their rhetoric, concision, clarity and style. Further, how has this activity changed the tone of the writing, the stance of the writer, and the readerly appeal? What has been gained and what has been lost as a result? This exercise can start as individual or pair work, and end as a class-wide discussion.
Learning to be more assertive in writing (Version 2)
Like The Writer’s Diet, The Hemingway App can be used efficiently to help students revise their drafts before peer review. The “wordier” writers among your students should follow the editor’s advice on eliminating some modifiers and adverbs in their writing, and limiting the use of passive voice. Those students who are confident in their writing could use the editor to focus on improving style (e.g., by varying their sentence length or structure to achieve a better flow).
Evaluating “easy-to-read” and “difficult-to-read” writing
For this exercise, students can work in groups. The collective task for each group is to find one “well-written” piece of a “difficult-to-read” text (according to the Hemingway App), and one “badly written” but “easy-to-read” piece. The students should then discuss the editor’s evaluation of each piece, commenting on very specific aspects of writing that make each piece difficult or easy to understand. Aspects to discuss could include sentence length, word length, the use of adverbs, syntax, word choice, etc. At the same time, the students should also be asked to evaluate each piece according to their own understanding of what makes good writing (rhetoric, style, coherence and cohesion, etc.). Finally, give each group an opportunity to share their examples and findings with the rest of the class (make sure you have the document camera ready, or any other device that allows for easy sharing of digital content). It is a good idea to model the activity for the students first by showing them some contrasting examples (e.g., an excerpt from a well-written article in The New Yorker and a sample of Donald Trump’s tweets) so that they can sense the scope of differences in style.
Exploring the role of adverbs and adjectives in writing
Use The Hemingway Editor as a conversation starter about the role of adverbs and adjectives in writing. What rhetorical and stylistic effect can they have (ask students to provide examples)? When are these words helpful and how? In which cases are they redundant (the students should again explain why)? Using adjectives and adverbs as a starting point, shift the discussion to the role of other parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs. Ask your students if they can come up with some active verbs and concrete nouns that make adverbs and adjectives unnecessary. Sometimes, an adverb can also be omitted by simply deleting it and replacing the adjective (e.g., substitute “very big” with “large”). After this activity, the students can move on to work with The Writer’s Diet (see below), which asks the writer to pay attention to similar issues (i.e. the over-reliance on specific types of adjectives/adverbs, and the use of weak verbs and abstract nouns).
Noting rhythm and flow in writing
Encourage students to experiment with various rhythms in writing by playing with syntax and sentence length. They can use their own writing for this exercise (e.g., a draft to an upcoming essay or another assignment). What would happen if they rewrote their text to completely get rid of all the highlights made by The Hemingway App? Ask the students to shorten or split the highlighted sentences to please the editor. Your students can then share their results and insights with the rest of the class. Make sure you have the necessary technology (document cameras, big screens, etc.) set up for the purpose.
Improving the readability of writing
Academic writing is often obscure, jargon-laden, and otherwise unnecessarily complicated. Students who are unaware of this tendency run the risk of imitating it as they learn to write in academic forums. The Hemingway Editor can help students undo the damage that might have been done by teaching them how to simplify writing without”‘dumbing it down.” But adverbs and adjectives should not be simply removed from writing, and more complex nouns should not be blindly replaced by ostensibly simpler synonyms. Instead, the work done by an adverb could be assumed by choosing a more precise verb. Warn the students about the dangers of simple but generic writing that says nothing: precision is another skill that students can develop while working with this tool. This activity might best be used before peer review.
Assessing readability levels in various contexts and styles of writing
For this exercise, students work in groups to discuss how context (e.g., the purpose, target audience, medium and other contextual aspects) changes the expectations and conventions for readability. For example, what makes web content stylistically, linguistically, rhetorically, and practically different from an academic article, a literary essay, or a political speech? Use the Hemingway App’s insistence on “simple, bold writing” as a starting point to address the alleged conventions of different genres of writing.
The Writer's Diet
Reflecting on one’s own writing
Learning about parts of speech (adverbs, adjectives)
Using the tool in peer review to improve concision and clarity
Rethinking and challenging the conventions of academic writing
Exploring engaging writing
Click here to download these exercises in a .pdf format.
Testing a grammar checker on common punctuation mistakes (CS, ROS/FS, SF)
- Travel is educational, it broadens your horizons.
- The current city policy on housing is incomplete as it stands. Which is why we believe the proposed amendments should be passed.
- There are many reasons to work here, the weather is lovely and the people are friendly.
- The small, one-page stories are all the same size and style. With no difference except the colour.
- Tim left his job he could not stand his boss.
- By paying too much attention to polls can make a political leader unwilling to propose innovative policies.
- Jarod had an interview with a television company, I might get a job as his assistant.
- She always recycles her bottles they are collected twice a month.
- John is always late for work, nobody seems to care.
- The magazine has a reputation for a sophisticated, prestigious, and elite group of readers. Although that is a value judgment and in circumstances not a true premise.
Exploring engaging writing with style checkers
Modelling engagement with digital writing tools
These suggestions from Michael Milone are presented by Alex Vernon in his article “Computerized Grammar Checkers 2000″:
“Model the grammar checker editing process in front of the class via projection, and discuss why the computer flagged items, the teacher’s response to the program’s feedback, and the technical limitations of the program.
Have groups of two or three students analyse student texts and grammar checker feedback.
Have students enable only certain checking options to focus on particular kinds of error.”
(Re-published with the author’s permission)
Connecting the grammar checker to instruction
Activities suggested by Reva Potter & Dorothy Fuller in “My New Teaching Partner? Using the Grammar Checker in Writing Instruction”:
“We designed the four-month action research study to include direct instruction of the grammar checker and regular grammar instruction enhanced with use of grammar-check tools. Students first learned about the checker, its components and purposes, before beginning the agreed-on three gram- mar topics. Once into the units, lessons incorporated grammar check in a number of ways. Students composed or typed essays with the grammar-check tools turned off and on; they wrote sentences to ‘trigger’ grammar-check error identification; they compared terminology and rules of grammar from text resources with those on the computer checker; and they explored the readability statistics, which report sentence length and the grade level of their writing.”
“A favorite activity for the seventh graders was typing the textbook ‘pretest’ for the subject- verb agreement unit. Students then observed the grammar-check performance, reported their results, and hypothesized why the computer grammar checker may have missed or misdiagnosed an error. [… In] subsequent units students eagerly typed their assigned ‘pretest’ sentences, typed extra if they had time, and began hypothesizing at their individual computers about the accuracy of the grammar checker before the results were reported.”
“Another engaging use of the grammar check allowed students to personalize their grammar experience by creating original sentence examples to challenge the checker: practicing examples of active or passive voice, creating possible subject- verb agreement problems, and changing simple sentences to compound or complex. Students watched the computer screens as the checker ‘reacted’ to the sentences they created, and they compared and discussed the checker’s recommendations with their classmates.”
(First re-published with the authors’ permission in this blog post on teaching writing with digital tools)
Checking on the grammar checker
Activities recommended by Paul John, Nina Wolla, Mariane Gazaillea, and Walcir Cardosob in “Using grammar checkers to provide written corrective feedback”:
“… the teacher could prepare a paragraph with 12 errors, making sure that the grammar checker identifies a certain number of them (e.g., 8 errors correctly flagged). The students’ task would then be i) to provide explanations for what is wrong with the 8 identified errors, and ii) to identify the 4 errors that have escaped detection.
A more complex version of the activity could include instances where the grammar checker proposes one or more inaccurate corrections or where it triggers false alarms (correct forms mistakenly flagged as errors). In this case, the students’ task would be to correct the grammar checker’s mistakes. In their case, students would be developing analytic skills that should lead to greater metalinguistic awareness and accuracy.”
(Re-published with the authors’ permission)