Don’t use this red pen! Use Labodanglais

by , under For teachers

I sent CEGEP ESL teachers across Quebec red pens inscribed with the words “Don’t use this pen.” Why? I want teachers to try It’s a Moodle-based website with companion courses for the Actively Engaged Series. Labo is packed with engaging content and interactive features, and it can score students’ writing assignments automatically in just seconds. Send me a message if you would like to try it with your students.

red pen with the words don't use this pen
Try Labo instead

Good pedagogy

Learning a second language takes a lot of practice. But students don’t get enough meaningful repetitions for new words and grammar to stick. Writing two essays per semester might be enough for teachers, but it isn’t enough for students.

Teachers could give more writing and speaking assignments, but we are often reluctant to assign more practice because of the impact summative writing tasks have on our workload. We make compromises and stick with them. For example, fill-in-the-blank exercises are great for helping students master fill-in-the-blank tests, but language skills demonstrated on discrete item tests don’t transfer well to complex communication tasks.

They are, however, easy to grade and easy to standardize.

The pedagogical solution that I have been working on for the past 10 years is to automate corrective feedback on writing. In principle, it is reasonable to believe that if we can put the focus on grammar, punctuation, and word choice during the creation of meaningful messages, students will master the grammar and master communication simultaneously. Teachers usually agree with me but are reluctant to add extra writing assignment corrections to their workload.

The Quebec Ministry of Education objectives are clear: grammatical accuracy must be demonstrated through the production of meaningful messages. Final grammar tests are out. Communicative production tasks that elicit target grammar are in. Clearly, automated writing evaluation can help us more fully implement a competency-based approach after decades of compromise.

If we can program a machine to give frequent, instant, accurate, consistent, explicit feedback that students value, we can ditch most fill-in-the-blank exercises and quizzes in favor of tasks involving the exchange of meaningful messages. That’s the pedagogical problem I have been trying to address with the Virtual Writing Tutor grammar checker and essay checker.

The Virtual Writing Tutor works well and keeps improving, but weaker students sometimes get overwhelmed when you ask them to use multiple websites. They ask, “Why can’t we have everything in one place?” Good question. is my answer. instead of a red pen

Enter, a Moodle-based website for college ESL. Last summer, I created a Virtual Writing Tutor plugin for Moodle called FastAssignment. It corrects and scores student writing, reporting grades to the Moodle gradebook. With FastAssignment, is able to give students more form-focused, meaningful writing assignments that count.

How good is’s automated evaluation system?

It’s better than a red pen for three reasons.

  1. Labo’s automated writing evaluation is fast. Waiting two seconds for feedback is better than waiting two weeks. That’s obvious.
  2. Labo is tireless. Feedback on multiple drafts of an essay is better than feedback on just one.
  3. Labo is explicit. Labo explains the problem in full sentences and with detailed suggestions for improvement. Check out the samples of the feedback for 101, 102, and 103.

How bad is Labodanglais, you ask?

It’s not perfect. There is one thing it doesn’t do well. It cannot detect nonsense. The topic sentence “Fish should drive electric cars to reduce CO2 emissions” will score as well as “Canadians should drive electric cars to reduce CO2 emissions.” What to do? Ask students to share their writing with their classmates for a coherence check. Perfection is not the enemy of the good.

Despite imperfections, Labo is better than good. Instant feedback makes revision enjoyable. Students get into a ludic loop, writing and revising for higher and higher scores. Their effort is rewarded, so they put more effort in. They often remark how helpful the system is.

What’s next for

I’m working on a plugin to score students’ pronunciation. I want to help them prepare for their orals in a way that they will like. From my experience, students are more likely to engage in form-focused oral practice activities if they get a score with feedback that helps them maximize their score. Stay tuned. It should be ready in October.

Students’ comments

Here are a few uncorrected comments from a colleague’s students last week about the “describe yourself to a new pen pal” task. I’ve since added exceptions to the spell checker for uppercase names with accents and hyphens. Unexpected spellings of proper names in French (people, towns, businesses) can trigger false alarms.

  1. The feedback that I got regarding the grammar and ponctuation mistakes were really helpful. Even the feedback about paragraph structuring was really useful. I think that it`s an intersting system and it is useful for us students.
  2. It is a good correction tool. It helped me with my writing task and even made me understand my errors. Although it`s a great tool, the only issue I had was with my name. I think it`s a great correction tool and the feedback was great!
  3. I really liked that I was given exemples of what my text should look like. I don’t have negative comments.
  4. It’s an interesting tool. The only problem, that is known by you, is the fact that the program doesn’t know proper names. However, this is a problem with all such programs.
  5. -nice subject to get started – i used the autocorrect it was pretty accurate
  6. My hometown’s name was seen as an error. So was my name, at first, but it got fixed. Also, the goal of paragraph 3 was not clear to me until my text was graded.
  7. This task was quite easy. The feeback seemed to work well.
  8. I thought it was an interesting activity to get us to talk about ourselves. The correction was helpful.
  9. It was a fun concept which I had never tried before.

Teacher’s comments

Here are two comments from teachers at two CEGEPs who used the automated writing evaluation system on and the 100% free (VWT) instead of a red pen.

  1. I have used Actively Engaged in Persuasion this semester. The students absolutely love the book and the automated writing evaluation system. They have improved A LOT. They will have their final essay tomorrow. Since they are so used to writing essays now, they are not even stressed about it. They are 100% confident. This is amazing. Thanks a lot Nick!
  2. I used the automated writing evaluation system with my 101 and 102 students this semester and loved it. I saw a huge improvement in the students essay writing. Not only did the VWT give a solid framework and essay examples, it also provided them tons of feedback so they could revise and improve their writing. This seemed to have built up the students self confidence and they enjoyed it. I will be marking their final argument essay (on my own) but honestly I think the VWT does a better job! Thanks, Nicholas for creating such a complete pedagogical tool. It has saved me time and frustration and improved students writing skills. It’d say that is a win-win!
  3. I have used both (Grammarly and Virtual Writing Tutor), and students have told me they prefer VWT.
  4. I love virtual writing tutor.

Want to try Labodanglais with your current course?   Send me a message. Want samples of the Actively Engaged Series of ESL textbooks? I’ll send you some if you teach college ESL in Quebec and send me a message. Not interested? Enjoy your ironic red pen.