Saturday, March 9, 2013

Play-by-Wiki and the Virtual Writing Tutor

The Wiki Writing Project

By Andjam79 ( [CC-BY-2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
The Virtual Writing Tutor was created to solve a practical problem. In order to provide my students with more writing practice in my college ESL courses, I created a 6 week-long play-by-wiki writing simulation game. The project was such a hit with my French-speaking college students that nearly everyone wrote double the minimum word count I had set for the project. The correction load generated by the assignment was enormous.

I asked the people in my college's writing center to help, but the writing center became so crowded with my students that other teachers in my department complained that their students couldn't get an appointment. In the end, I decided it would be easier to program a grammar checker than to do all the correction by hand every semester.


Here is the game that caused all the trouble. In groups of 5-6, students imagine a house somewhere in the world and write a description of it on their group's wiki. Each student then imagines an unusual roommate to share the house and begins to write the rest of the story from the perspective of that character. The story has seven sections.

  1. The first section sets the scene with the whole group deciding on the description and location of a house somewhere in the world. 
  2. The second section is a first-person description of that character: appearance, how long he or she has been living in the house, and his or her daily routine. 
  3. The third section is a description of a party thrown for the new roommate. Each roommate brings something to the party that reflects how unusual that character is. 
  4. Then, each character goes to bed and has a dream which reveals what he or she wants most in life. (This bit is very important. Characters need a desire we can frustrate to generate conflict.)
  5. Soon after, the house gets crowded as roommates bring home pets, relatives and friends. The section involves the characters describing and complaining about the overcrowding.
  6. Then, each roommate has a disastrous day and confides in another roommate all his or her frustrations. 
  7. Then a meeting is called and one roommate is asked to leave. During that meeting, someone gets punched and someone gets kissed.

I have tried other versions of this project where characters work together in an office, go to superhero school, and set up a colony on Mars, etc. In every case, the project generates a tremendous amount of meaningful writing and lively group discussions in the classroom. With the help of the, peer assessment activities and a self-assessment checklist, I am proud to say that teaching writing at junior college has never been easier and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Here is an example of the project one student wrote. As you read it, reflect the variety or grammar and vocabulary the project generated. Also, because of the collaborative nature of the project, notice how it is impossible for students to plagiarize. For a complete 15 week course with, games, vocabulary exercises, practice activities, grammar lessons, quizzes, PowerPoints, and a Moodle companion site with a wiki with a complete set of instructions, visit and click on Actively Engaged at College in the webstore.

Sample Project

Our house is in Pakistan. It is in Karachi. It has 4 bedrooms. It is pink. It has a big backyard with an apple tree. Our house has a yoga room that we love. It also has cracked floors that drive us all crazy.

List of the characters with their countries of origin.
1. John is a chef, and he is from North Korea. 
2. David recently got out of jail, and he is from Brazil.
3. Mike is a fat gamer, and he is the United States.
4. Samantha is a prostitute and is from Russia. 
5. I'm Kelly. I'm from Honduras. 

Who Am I?

My name is Kelly, I'm 22 years old. I am an ordinary young girl. I'm tall, and I wear casual clothes like jeans and t-shirts. My favourite piece of clothing is an orange sweater. I love to wear a big hood on top of everything else I'm wearing. Sweatshirts with hoods are extremely comfortable that's why I love them so much. I am blonde, I have small green eyes, and I have one foot that's bigger than the other one. This year my program is Social Science and I've been living in this house for two weeks. Besides that, I really am into swords. I love swords so much that I even have a very precious collection of antique swords. I love them more than anything in this whole world. I really am into interior design too. I love to integrate swords in my designs. Some may find my designs a little weird but I love them just the way they are, and I wouldn't change them for anyone. There is one thing I have to tell you guys. My parents hate me, and so does my doctor. They are plotting something against me, and they are making up false stories about me. One of the stories is that I'm apparently suffering from schizophrenia. This is obviously untrue! I am without any doubt not schizophrenic, I promise you. (Word count = 229)

A Traumatic Party

We were in our new house, and we were organizing a party for our new roommate, David. Everything seemed to be fine, and we were ready to party. Our roommate whose name is Samantha brought with her a lot of her guy friends from her work. I don't really know what kind of work she's doing but she always comes back home late at night. I know our roommate John is a chef in a big fancy restaurant, and he was the one in charge of making the food. He cooked a frog dish with delicious spices for everyone. Mike is our fat gamer roommate, he spends most of his time on his computers, and he loves to eat. Mike's friends were invited to the party too and they brought their computers with them so that they can play together. John seemed a little stressed out because he had his friends from his restaurant over, and he wanted to impress them with the dinner that he had prepared. I was at the party with my friends from planet Zarbtall, and we were exchanging and trading our swords. My friends and I are really into swords. We have a very precious collection of antique swords. My friends were also there to help me decorate the house we hung lots of balloons, and other kinds of cool decoration but everyone ignored our hard work and pretended like they didn't see anything as if my friends and I were seeing things they couldn't see. Everything was fine until Mike and his friends started to eat everything John had prepared. David wasn't even home yet and all the food was gone. In order to calm John down, Samantha locked him in his dog cage. John always sleeps in his dog cage and is obsessed with it. When Samantha's guy friends saw how much attention she was paying to John, they got jealous and were in a bad mood. They were hungry as well, so it didn't help the situation. They started to fight with Mike's friends because they were the ones who ate all the food. There was a big fight in the house; I can't remember who was fighting with whom. My friends from planet Zarbtall were killed while they were fighting. Everyone used all of my swords to fight. And the decoration we made was destroyed just like everything else. Almost as soon as David got home, he somehow got into the fight too. My head was hurting and I was sad, so I went to sleep. (Word count = 425)

A Cool Dream 

So after the party, I went to bed. I was very sad because my friends from planet Zarbtall were killed in the fight and nobody seemed to care as if they weren't important or as if nobody except me could notice their presence when they were alive. It was hard for me to fall asleep because my head was hurting and the death of my friends was a very tragic and traumatic moment for me. I finally and slowly began to fall asleep. I dreamt about my friends coming back to life because they are invincible and because they have special powers that I didn't know about. It was a very cool dream because I was sure I would never see them again. In my opinion I dreamt about them because I missed them a lot in the moment. I also think I dreamt about them because I wanted to say sorry about my roommates. They are so rude and they didn't even seem to be concerned about the death of my friends. I think my dream indicates how important it is for me to feel normal. My friends from Zarbtall didn't judge me the way my roommates do. John is the worst in that regard. He doesn't seem to care about other people's feelings. My Zarbtallian friends are different, though. They accepted me even though I wasn't from Zarbtall like them. It is strange that people think I am not in touch with reality. I am. It is not like I go around telling people I am from another planet, however much I wish I were. (Word count =267) 

A Horrible Scene 

I was sleeping profoundly until I woke up in my bed. I wasn't in the mood of waking up and starting the day so I just laid in bed thinking about the dream I had about my friends from planet Zarbtall. I missed them so much that I wished I could see them again. As I was wishing my wish came true, my friends were there in a bubble above my head. I stayed upstairs talking to them until I realized Samantha wasn't in our room, everyone was having breakfast downstairs. Then I started to smell chicken. I started to worry because Fred, my pet who's a chicken, wasn't in my bedroom. I immediately got out of bed to look for Fred in every bedroom. Then, I went downstairs and I saw a horrible scene. Samantha, Mike, John and David were all there eating Fred. My poor little baby was their breakfast. I was mad and very frustrated; I came to the conclusion that John is Fred's murderer. I was very angry not just because of John but also because there wasn't any food for me. Of course, I got really mad at John. Some impolite words may have slipped from my mouth but then again, he had no right to kill Fred. I have to admit, I also got mad at John, because I assumed he was the one who finished all the toilet paper. After that fight, I went into my bedroom to calm myself down, and my friends from planet Zarbtall appeared in their floating bubble to comfort me. (Word count =265) 

Another Bad Day 

I came home from school, I was very hungry, but unfortunately, all the food I had prepared for myself had been thrown away in the garbage. I'm guessing it was John who had thrown away all the food. I hate him; he's really starting to make me go crazy. I can't believe how stupid he is. Did I mention he sleeps in a dog cage' I assume he thinks grass milkshake with tofu isn't real food and that's why he threw my food away. He should know that it's my friend's recipe and it's a very popular meal in planet Zarbtall. What if it was Mike who ate it all' Since he eats a lot and loves good food. Later on, I wanted to do an essay for my French class but Mike was playing games on my computer, because it was the only computer we had that was in good condition. All the other computers were broken that's why I couldn't do any of my work. Mike is very annoying as well as John, the house is a mess because of them. They're constantly bothering me. So I suggested to Samantha that one of them should leave because they are not respecting my personal stuff and also because we need more space. Then I complained to her about everything John and Mike had done to me like throwing my food away, killing my chicken and not letting me use my computer. Mike doesn't really seem to care much, but John thinks we all want Samantha to leave because she has a messed up virtue or she doesn't have any. (Word count =270) 

A Very Good Day 

John was bugging me, so I complained to Samantha about everything he had done to me again. I knew she would be on my side because John is against her and wants her to leave. David noticed the tension in our house so he called us for a meeting. I knew David would be on our side because he likes Samantha. Mike was on John's side because he loves free food and John always brings him food from his restaurant. During the reunion, we argued and complained a lot, but finally agreed that someone had to leave. Since we were 3 against 2 John had to start packing up. I had a big smile on my face. David was happy, because Samantha didn't have to leave, so he kissed her. Mike was the only one who was crying. (Word count = 138)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The 10 Best Grammar Checkers

I have added to an existing list. The link is here:

Best Grammar Checkers
To help you to consider the merits of the various systems in terms of addressing  English as a Second Language errors, I would like to offer examples of sentences selected from my students' writing. The best grammar checker on the list is Grammarbase with ten votes, so I submitted the sentences below to and received the message here to the right: "Congratulations! There are no critical mistakes in your writings." Judge for yourself.
After that, I had one of those bad day, everything badly begins this day. 
My school schedule is simple, everyday I start at 9 hr.
My last class of English it was in 2010.
I am studying here since two years.
I am in this program for 2 years
His mother took us there when we are young. 

I submitted this longer text, a text recently contributed by a user, and Grammarbase indicates that my text is genius level writing.
One day, I traveled to Ushuaia, but I had no idea than I would to find. I come to plane, I traveled four hours, and I arrived in Buenos Aires after, I come the second plane (the small and noisy plane) and I arrived in End of the World as the called the Ushuaia. I stayed wonder! The airport was built of wood and glass. The landscape was beautiful! The mountains and the sea together were amazing. I took the taxi and I arrived in the downtown. The city is as postcard. The homes had the European style and the diversity colours. The persons were friendly. There many activities for to make. I enjoyed a lot. The activity which I very loved was the track in the Park National. The thing very interesting was looked the evening at twenty three hours!

Please, try the samples given above on and then visit the list and decide which is really the best grammar checker for ESL students.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Virtual Writing Tutor Video Tour (en français)

Présentation du Virtual Writing Tutor : 

un correcteur web adapté à l'anglais langue seconde

Le professeur d’anglais langue seconde, Nicholas Walker, du Collège Ahuntsic, présente l’outil web que il a créé dans le but d’assister ses étudiants francophones dans leurs travaux de rédaction. Il montre comment, du site web Virtual Writing Tutor, l’étudiant peut soumettre son texte à la correction. Il peut alors faire ses choix, à partir de suggestions de correction, et accéder à un relevé des fautes, incluant les statistiques de fréquence et les éléments de rétroaction corrective (emplacement et explication de la faute, suggestions de correction, lien vers une ressource en ligne, s’il y a lieu). L’étudiant peut imprimer son texte corrigé et y joindre le relevé.

 On peut en connaître davantage sur la démarche pédagogique de l’enseignant en faisant la lecture du récit de Profweb : « Le Virtual Writing Tutor : un correcteur web adapté à l’anglais langue seconde ». Nicholas Walker y fait valoir le fait que l’on peut varier les stratégies d’apprentissage de l’anglais langue seconde avec cet outil en intégrant un processus de révision dans les habitudes de rédaction des étudiants. L’outil permet d’augmenter la fréquence des évaluations et la précision des rétroactions tout en offrant une assistance à la rédaction tenant compte des principales faiblesses des étudiants francophones.

(Merci à Émilie Lavery !)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Grammar Checker Fails the Test

The Virtual Writing Tutor Bombs Badly

A fellow ESL teacher recently sent me this message on Facebook about the VirtualWritingTutor, an English grammar checker for ESL learners.

I tried the VirtualWritingTutor with a text I ask my students to edit (English 100). It missed a lot of mistakes - especially with the present continuous verb forms. I think that you'll need to add even more error detection rules! 

Here's the text I tried out:
You have a pet? I do. I have a cats. It have five year old. I buy the animal for my childs. My son and daughter are very happy when they got Tommy. Tommy is the cat’s name. My son love the cat very much. He brings the cat in her bed at night and the cat sleep there. He is feeding the cat every day. Sometimes my daughter feed the cat. Last week, the cat go outside and don’t come back for two day. We not closing the door. Usually, we always close the door. This weekend, my friend is feed the cat because we going on a trip. We go at New York.

The Virtual Writing Tutor--a work in progress

Here was my reply

Thank you very much for this. Obviously, there are many more rules to write. The rules I am writing are based on authentic errors written by my own Francophone 100B and 101A students and based on the two student corpora on . For some reason, the errors teachers submit to test the system almost always catch it off guard. I am not sure if it is how teachers reformulate errors from memory, the fact that different writing tasks produce a different range of errors, or just the sheer chaos of L2 writing.

In response to the text you posted, I have added a couple dozen rules to the system. Instead of catching 4 errors and throwing up false alarms, the system will now catch 17 errors in your text. Some errors I won’t try to catch simply because they involve understanding sentences that come before and after. This system is set up to look for overt sentence-level errors.

New Error Detection Rules Added

You have a pet?

I added a rule to catch the lack of an auxiliary with “You have a pet?” and a second rule for “You have pets?”

It have five year old.

I had a rule to catch “It have five years old” and many variations but not “it have five year old.” I modified the rule to catch the extra variation.

I buy the animal for my childs.

I created an exception for Childs in the proper name capitalization rule, reasoning that high frequency pluralization errors are more of a problem than low frequency family name capitalization errors. I will have to create a separate rule for the family name Childs. I created a rule to catch “childs” with the exception that it should be ignored if “childs” appears before another noun. In such a case, it will assume that the learner needs a possessive form. I won’t try to catch the “I buy” tense error. it is too broad of an assumption to expect all storytelling to use the past tense when dramatic stories can use the present simple also. More to the point, I have been focusing on sentence-level errors only.

My son and daughter are very happy when they got Tommy.

I created a rule to compare the verb at the beginning of the sentence with the verb at the end of the sentence. I have 36 of these rules so far. I’ll need many more, I figure.

My son love the cat very much.

I created an additional condition for the 3rd-person rule. It is easier to teach than to program because of the danger of false alarms. For one, you have to add an exception for the subjunctive. Also, we need an exception for all past forms, past participles, modals and infinitives that look like present simple forms.

I fixed the adjective order false alarm for “cat very much” by adding an exception that looks for a determiner before “cat”.

He brings the cat in her bed at night and the cat sleep there.

Now the system catches the third person singular error.

He is feeding the cat every day.

The system was able to catch “Every day, he is feeding the cat”. It is easier to program the system to catch aspect errors when the adverb of frequency is at the beginning or in the middle of the sentence. I have nevertheless added the new rule.

Sometimes my daughter feed the cat.

The reason the system didn’t catch “feed” is that it is also the low-frequency but nevertheless past tense of verb “to fee” which is excluded as being potentially correct. I had to create a separate rule for “feed”.

Last week, the cat go outside and don’t come back for two day.

This one was tough because of the two verb errors, but I have cracked it. I’ll need to develop more rules along this line.

This weekend, my friend is feed the cat because we going on a trip.

This was helpful for me. I set up a new group of rules to deal with future plans and arrangements. The second part was simply a case of catching a missing auxiliary after “because,” a case that is very unlikely to be a question with auxiliary-fronting

Stumping the Virtual Writing Tutor

Do you have any error-correction activities or sentences that stump the VirtualWritingTutor? If you do, please share them by adding them in a comment below. I will certainly add any missing rules in short order.

Grammar Checker Forum

Grammar Checker Forum The Virtual Writing Tutor has added a community forum to its free grammar checker . Post your text, tell the community...