About the Virtual Writing Tutor Grammar Checker

by , under About, Grammar checkers

Nicholas Walker, creator of the Virtual Writing Tutor

Nicholas Walker, creator of the Virtual Writing Tutor

For a list of Virtual Writing Tutor features with video tutorials on how to use them, see here. This article is about the motivation to build and use the Virtual Writing Tutor for pedagogical purposes.

Until recently, I had been correcting student errors by hand, returning assignments a week or two later. Like other teachers, it always struck me that 7-14 days was a long time for learners to wait for corrections, but with the large number of students I had in my classes, it was the fastest I could get the job done. Even then, I was concerned that my slow method of error correction was constraining the amount of writing practice my learners were getting in my courses. To explain, if it takes two weeks to correct students’ writing and students expect corrective feedback on every writing task they do (or they won’t do it), then the most a teacher can assign is one writing assignment every two weeks. Nevertheless, students’ language development benefits from writing more often.

Of course, I tried using MS Word and other automatic error correctors, but they were not particularly useful at catching second language errors in my students’ writing. I then turned to Moodle and developed an extensive auto-linking glossary of errors, but the glossary filter put a heavy load on Bokomaru’s Moodle server and slowed everything down.

So, in the spring of 2012 while my college students were out on strike, I launched the Virtual Writing Tutor and set the following goals for myself:

  1. To increase the quantity of corrective feedback available to our students
  2. To improve its quality
  3. To improve its timeliness
  4. To increase its frequency
  5. To enhance ESL writing pedagogy

Increasing the Quantity of Feedback: Catching More Errors

Most automatic grammar checkers miss the kinds of errors that second language learners make. They seem more focused on the kinds of errors that writers in their first language make instead. I want to remedy that by catching transfer errors, tense errors and collocation errors. While human teachers can potentially catch all of these errors when they correct assignments by hand, no teacher has either the time or space in the margins to correct every error in a college-length writing assignment or explain at length the nature of each error. The VirtualWritngTutor can provide more detailed feedback on as many errors I program it to detect.

Improving the Quality of Feedback: Details, Links, and Resources

Skeptics of automatic grammar checkers sometimes interpret the occasional false alarm, bad feedback, or missed error as a sign that the quality of automatic feedback can never be as good as the feedback a human teacher can give. I am working on these individual problems, and I believe that I can overcome them with time. Indeed, members can help me by reporting issues with the system using the Report button on this website.

In the meantime, there are other aspects to feedback quality that sceptics should not overlook. Hand-correction usually involves a combination of underlining, terse metalinguistic correction codes and the occasional explicit correction. The Virtual Writing Tutor does all that, too. It locates an error, provides a metalinguistic explanation of the error (not just a correction code) and suggests one or more ways to correct the error. However, the Virtual Writing Tutor goes one step further and displays a clickable link to relevant online remedial practice activities and resources. In this way, the Virtual Writing Tutor can generate a kind of instant curriculum, tailor-made for each learner and based on the learner’s immediate learning needs. That in itself goes well beyond current hand-coding practices. So, all things considered, the Virtual Writing Tutor has the potential to give better feedback.

Example text

Try it for yourself. Click the text below to see what the Virtual Writing Tutor can do.

I make a lot of mistake that negatively effect my writing. Thats not good. I want always to make the good choice of verbs. I want also to improve my pronunciation. My English-speaking friends talk about to help, but they never do. I work in a big store on the south shore of Montreal where there are a lot of immigrants people. I’m speaking every day to a men that works there. I think practicing with immigrants is equally as effective. So far, I have work there since 2 weeks and my English is getting more better. Also, I have learned already a lot about retail, but I will like to have a better job. I am waiting still for my first paycheck. They don’t have paid me yet. When I will get paid, I will pay my parking tickets. Nevertheless if my English would be more better, I would definitely get a better paying job. I often wonder how many opportunities I would had had if I paid more attention to my nice English teacher in high school.

Improving the Timeliness of Feedback

With large class-sizes during the busy midterm period, the timeliness of the corrective feedback on writing we give our students tends to suffer. Teachers struggle to get corrections back to their students by the next class, but sometimes students have to wait two weeks. When assignments are returned, students exclaim, “It was so long ago that I have forgotten what I was trying to say here.” With the Virtual Writing Tutor, feedback is instant. What could be more timely than that?

Improving the Frequency of Feedback

The Virtual Writing Tutor is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Instead of receiving corrective feedback on only one draft of an essay or narrative composition, learners can now get feedback on every draft throughout the writing process. The system will never get annoyed or tired. Learners can write a paragraph, check it, write another check it, and so on. The Virtual Writing Tutor makes it possible for learners to get feedback as often as they want it.

Another point worth considering is that teachers can now give more writing assignments than ever before. Whereas teachers might have been reluctant to add to their own workload by assigning additional writing tasks to their students, with the availability of the Virtual Writing Tutor they can ask for error-free texts every class and the burden of error correction will never increase. In this way, students will get feedback on errors as often as the teacher wants or thinks is necessary.

Improving Writing Pedagogy

In many colleges around the world, writing is taught as a collaborative exchange between student and teacher. The teacher assigns a writing task, the student produces one draft, the teacher provides corrective feedback on it, then the student redrafts the text and submits it for evaluation. Sometimes a student can feel somewhat mystified and betrayed if, after trying to respond to all the teacher’s correction codes, the student then receives a low score on the essay since the teacher was in effect a collaborator on the final draft.

A better way to teach writing might be for teachers to ask students to consult the Virtual Writing Tutor throughout the drafting process as just one of a variety of revision strategies. Other revision strategies might include the use of self-assessment checklists, peer-review tasks, and participation in teacher-student writing conferences. In this way, the teacher can evaluate the use of a range of revision strategies and not the student’s success at responding to corrective feedback received on one draft of one essay from one source.

During peer-assessment activities classmates might find it useful to submit a student’s writing to the Virtual Writing Tutor to see if the revision strategy was used and which suggestions were ignored. In this way, a teacher can put the following question on a peer-assessment grid: Has the writer eliminated all major errors from his or her writing? Such a question teaches all learners in the class to be judicious consumers of corrective feedback for life.

Power Tools for Teachers

Just as learners will have to become judicious consumers of automated corrective feedback, teachers will have to reassess their old approach to hand-coding errors. There is nothing about the Virtual Writing Tutor that prevents teachers from continuing their practice of giving hand-coded feedback. However, like a master builder with a new power saw, ESL teachers will have to reflect carefully on when to pull this new power tool out of the toolbox and when to do things the old-fashioned way. Here’s why:

1.    The VWT is fast, really fast.
2.    It provides error correction upon demand 24/7.
3.    It can provide feedback on multiple drafts of text, not just the first and last draft.
4.    It can explain at length the nature of the error, something human teachers don’t have time or space in the margins for.
5.    It displays links to specific resources and remedial activities to help learners eliminate errors from future writing.
6.    It is available to students and non-students alike, supporting lifelong learning.
7.    It is completely free for teachers and their students to use.


8.    It provides unfocused feedback, correcting every error it finds without regard to the learner’s readiness.
9.    It generates false alarms, suggesting unnecessary corrections or providing explanations that don’t always make sense.
10.  It still misses lots of errors.

Get Involved–Stay in Touch

Of course, the Virtual Writing Tutor is a work in progress. If you are an ESL teacher and would like to help me make the VWT better, please Suggest a New Error or Report a False Alarm using the email utility provided or by leaving a message on my Facebook wall or by posting a comment on my blog. I would love to hear from you, and your feedback will help me provide the ESL world with better corrective feedback.