9(3), August 1992, pages 87-99

Software for Writing Centers

Birgit Scherer-Wiedmeyer

Research on the success of computer-assisted instruction in the writing classroom has prompted writing center directors to equip their centers with computers, too. Once writing centers decide in favor of computer applications, they need to choose which ones they want to use. The following article describes several interactive software programs. They are separated by the skills they develop: tutorials and drills explain parts of speech and ask users to identify them in exercises; error identification programs present incorrect words or phrases and have the user identify them by typing numbers or moving the cursor onto the error; reading skills programs provide several sentences of text and ask questions on central ideas of the text; and sentence creating programs have students build sentences by giving the sequence in which given words should appear.

Points of interest in the evaluation were the structure, the language, and the interactive nature of the programs. As to structure, some programs are quite rigid, i.e., users have to complete every task presented, regardless of their skill level. Other programs possess enough intelligence to allow branching if students fulfill a certain number of tasks correctly. The language of the programs is mainly shaped by the age group for which the software was developed. Unfortunately, a number of programs contain sexist phrases and examples. As to interactiveness, several criteria were applied in evaluating that point: Can the program be applied to particular error patterns of students? Can students understand the tasks and complete them on their own? How much actual writing does the student have to do? Another important question is whether a writing center tutor can modify the program to suit particular students' needs.

Tutorials and Drills

GRAMMAR AT WORK, marketed by Merit Audio Visual, consists of six disks that separately treat nouns, adjectives, pronouns (two disks), verbs, and adverbs. The software runs on Apple and IBM PCs and is self-booting.

Every disk provides brief instructions on how the user can respond. Before the work session, users are asked to type in their name, class code, and the date. Unfortunately, the teacher/tutor cannot delete this part or skip it when working with just one student. The program allows the teacher to edit files by adding or deleting words and questions and to make corrections. The first disk treats nouns and possessives, common trouble spots among students who come to writing centers. It is divided into various sessions which the user can choose from a menu that ranges from simple nouns to advanced abstract nouns. The sessions, however, are interrelated, and the same terminology is used in the questions that students have to answer. Therefore, students have to go through each step to become familiar with the terms used and cannot just practice the last option, advanced abstract nouns. Working through each step is time consuming for students who might need practice in only one area (e.g., compound nouns).

Another major problem with the program is that the user cannot return to the menu after answering only two or three of the questions. Because every session is set up as a game, the round is not finished until the user answers all the steps correctly. If no answers are typed in, however, the program will stop after several minutes and return to the menu.

The second disk of GRAMMAR AT WORK practices identifying adjectives; the next two disks are concerned with pronouns. Disk five asks students to identify verbs. This entire program is based on recognizing the right term for the verb. The ability to label verbs is of dubious importance. Certainly, a writing center tutor does not have the time to go over such basic terms with the tutees. It would be more important to teach students what can count as a full verb and what cannot. This problem is at the root of fragments, for example, in constructions such as, "Bringing up a child carries many responsibilities. Caring for them and teaching them right from wrong." Many students assume that -ing constructions can take the position of full verbs; therefore, the program on verbs should explain the difference between the two.

The explanations on disk six, adverbs, are mostly simple, and students not only have to recognize or label adverbs, but they also have to actually construct practice sentences that use adverbs and thus get good practice using them correctly.

The fact that the series of disks is interdependent makes it difficult to use for tutoring in a writing center. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, as with the module on adverbs, GRAMMAR AT WORK practices recognition rather than active writing. I therefore would not recommend it for use in writing centers.

Nor would I recommend DIAGNOSTIC PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR, also published by Merit Audio Visual and available for either Apple or IBM PCs. Six disks are set up according to the same system as GRAMMAR AT WORK and cover nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns. Disk seven is a teacher's key with which the instructor can print or edit the questions.

Tutors can have students take a diagnostic test for each of the categories covered by the disks in DIAGNOSTIC PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR. The program then gives a score and recommends a range within which the student should start practicing. The tests are set up as multiple choice questions, and the student is asked to start at the level at which she or he answered four out of five questions incorrectly. The student can also go through all options of the main menu, regardless of the level recommended. The menus on each disk are very much like those on GRAMMAR AT WORK, and each category is introduced by a teaching screen. But, DIAGNOSTIC PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR is not set up as a game. Students have to either fill in a blank or retype a number, letter, or a word. If the answer is incorrect, the program explains why it is incorrect and the student has a second chance. After two incorrect answers, the program gives the right answer along with an explanation. At the end of each round, the program scores the student's performance as a percentage of correct answers. The program is designed to branch; that is, if a certain number of answers are correct, it skips further questions in a particular category.

Both grammar programs are too concerned with labeling grammatical terms to be useful for individual tutoring, which is geared toward having students write, rather than recognize, labels.

GRAMMAR AND WRITING, published by Encyclopedia Britannica and distributed by Looking Glass Learning Products, runs on Apple II computers. It consists of four disks, all of which involve themes related to exploration. The authors intend to combine language learning with education in other fields, such as biology. The students, "explorers of various language arts skills" (Program Guide, p. 3), are taken through the following subprograms: 1) Safari: Parts of Speech; 2) Underwater Odyssey: The Sentence; 3) Excavation: Usage; and 4) Frontiers of Space: The Paragraph. Designed for sixth through eighth grade, the program could also be used for students of English as a Second Language (ESL) at the college level, but I would not recommend it for college-level basic writers.

One word of praise for GRAMMAR AND WRITING: Here is finally a program without sexist language. The pronoun used for an astronaut in unit number four is a female pronoun, a laudable attempt to rid our language and thinking from stereotypes.

PRACTICAL GRAMMAR I and II, published by Queue Incorporated, is an extensive program that consists of 12 disks in PRACTICAL GRAMMAR I and 14 disks in PRACTICAL GRAMMAR II. A management system to score students' performance can be ordered along with the software for classroom use. On IBM systems, the user has to format the disks first according to the system used, and the DOS commands need to be copied before the disks can be used.

The individual disks contain several modules that the user can view in any order. The disks in PRACTICAL GRAMMAR I treat parts of speech, sentences, sentence patterns, nouns, pronouns, agreement of pronoun and antecedent, complements of verbs, case of nouns and pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and principal parts of verbs. The last disk is a comprehensive grammar review. The disks in PRACTICAL GRAMMAR II treat verb tenses, voice and mood, agreement of subject and verb, prepositional phrases, compound sentences, adjective clauses, adverbial clauses, noun clauses, participles, gerunds, infinitives, problems in the use of infinitives, and punctuation.

The modules provide several screens with rules pertaining to the subject treated and ask students simple questions, the answers to which require them to repeat words from the previous explanations or fill in blanks. Then they are given examples in which they have to identify certain words. The directions of some tasks are unduly complicated. For example, on the disk on verbs, students are given sentences and have to type A after auxiliary verbs and P after principal verbs. For the sample sentence "I have been singing," the answer would be "Have A Been A Singing P." It is questionable whether this kind of labeling teaches the student anything.

PRACTICAL GRAMMAR drills students on the theory of grammar rather than teaching them to use the rules actively in their own writing. In the case of sentence fragments, for example, students are asked to fill in key words from the explanation on sentences and to identify fragments in sample sentences.

The disk on punctuation is more practice oriented, although it does not allow students to create sentences themselves. Every module begins with rules and asks the user to choose which among five sentences is punctuated correctly. The punctuation disk includes instructions on periods and commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses, dashes, question marks, quotation marks, and apostrophes. The module on apostrophes has the student write out a possessive form of a word. With regard to words ending in s, it also points out the alternative versions of creating a possessive by either adding 's or simply an apostrophe.

The entire program is based too much on identifying grammatical terms and parroting parts of rules stated on the same screen as the practice question. Even the disk on compound sentences only lets students choose a punctuation mark. It gives an esoteric rule, namely that a semicolon is used before a coordinate conjunction if the independent clauses of a compound sentence are very long or have internal punctuation. Example: "Shakespeare, a great dramatist, wrote a great many plays; and he also wrote a number of sonnets." Transitional words and their respective punctuation are practiced, but the program does not explain the two different ways of punctuation used with however; it only treats the word when used between two independent clauses.

Error Identification

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT I-V, written by Douglas Higgins and distributed by Lingo Fun Incorporated, runs only on Apple computers. The five programs are designed as practice drills for the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) English Composition Achievement Test. The tasks become more sophisticated with every disk and progress from identifying the place of an error in a sentence to rewriting entire sentences.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT is self-booting and presents directions on every disk. Students take a part of a sample English Achievement exam and are scored by the computer. The program then suggests areas for study in which students did not do well. Before the first practice round of each disk, the program provides a sample problem and an answer on the following screen. The first part requires that the student identify the place in a sentence where an error exists. The program presents a sentence with four highlighted and numbered portions, one of which contains an error, and the options "No Error" and "Skip Sentence." It is not necessary to label the kind of error with its grammatical term. Students must rely on their feeling for language or simply guess what might be wrong. After typing a number, the screen displays an encouraging comment, identifies the error with its grammatical rule, and gives a correction. Because the rules and the corrections are explained very briefly, writing center tutors would have to do the exercises with their tutees and furnish additional explanations, if necessary. Hence, students can learn to identify their errors with the correct rules and see how they could be remedied.

The first round presents sixteen sentences with errors such as poor diction, fragments/run-on sentences, wordiness, pronoun/antecedent disagreements, cliches/mixed metaphors, adjective/adverb confusions, and faulty comparisons. Some error patterns are drilled repeatedly with different sentence examples. After the first set, students can see their overall score and their score broken down in error categories. At this point, the tutor could interfere and spend more time on those problem areas in which students received low scores. After the score has been displayed, a submenu lets the user choose to do another set of questions, review the score, print the score, or exit the program.

Unfortunately, ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT uses sexist language in several examples of pronoun-antecedent agreement problems. In one case, the corrected sentence reads, "He who has done well here should certainly do his best in the last game of the season." The program should not perpetuate stereotypes of games being associated with men only.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT, as opposed to the programs produced by Merit Audio Visual, is not accompanied by teacher's keys and therefore cannot be edited by the teacher or tutor. ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT II practices identifying grammatical errors with their labels. This time, the user must identify an error and decide whether it falls into the category of diction, wordiness, grammar, cliche/mixed metaphor, or none of the above. Or, the user can skip the sentence. After typing in the number of the particular option, the program responds with an encouraging comment, and highlights the correct option, even if the user chooses the wrong one. It then presents a correction of the problem and a brief explanation of the nature of the error.

This task is more difficult because students may not be familiar with the labels that teachers (or in this case, the software developers) use to identify errors. Tutors would have to talk about the categories with their students and explain that the category wordiness means that more words than necessary are used; that poor diction denotes a term which is not used appropriately; that grammar can mean incomplete or fused sentences or agreement problems; and which sayings count as cliches and what makes up a mixed metaphor.

Another shortcoming concerns the frequency of some of the error categories. In ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT II, most errors fall into the category of "cliche or mixed metaphor." It is the experience of most writing center tutors, however, that their students need more practice in constructing sentences than in writing innovatively. Therefore, the program should list more sentences with fragment or run-on problems.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT III presents underlined parts of sentences and four possible rewrites. The student is asked to choose a rewrite, opt for "The original is best," or skip the sentence. The sixteen questions in the first round mostly treat faulty punctuation; among the examples is one with a missing apostrophe to mark the possessive case, one with faulty commas around a restrictive clause, and two without commas to set off introductory phrases. Further errors include faulty comparisons and pronouns in the wrong case.

The errors on ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT III are well chosen because they are realistic examples as seen in the writing center. Another positive feature is that students have to choose a rewrite of the sentence, an activity that is more challenging than that of labeling an error. Again, however, tutors would have to stand by and explain the rules applied in more detail because the program gives one-sentence explanations only.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT IV has students identify errors by their grammatical rule, similar to the setup of disk II. The error categories this time are: error in agreement, error in comparison, faulty parallelism, and error in punctuation. The user can also opt for "none of the above," and "skip sentence." Even if none of the errors named apply, there may be an error in the sentence, and the student has to select the "none of the above" option. The program will then provide the error category and explain and correct the error.

Students who worked through the previous disks, especially III, should have no difficulty here because the examples resemble the ones used in III; only the task is different.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT V presents the most difficult task. The program gives one sentence per task, directions to alter the sentence, and four short phrases, only one of which can occur in the rewritten sentence. For example, the sample sentence reads, "People have become so suspicious of their fellow man that they don't stop at the scene of an accident." The user is directed to substitute "everybody" for "people." The options are as follows:

  1. his fellow man;
  2. that they;
  3. their fellow man;
  4. have become;
  5. don't stop;
  6. Skip sentence.

The computer suggests option one and displays the changed version of the sentence and a short explanation of the problem. This example, though it is well explained, contains sexist language.

ENGLISH MICROLAB, written in 1985 by Arthur H. Bell and Sharon R. Anderson and published by Houghton Mifflin Company, runs only on Apple computers. It consists of 15 disks--one for skill assessment, 11 practice disks, one quick check disk, one mastery test disk, and one data disk. The assessment disk evaluates students in 14 areas of grammar and punctuation. Students are asked to identify a particular error in a sentence, identify a correct or incorrect item from three choices, and proofread a sentence. In this part, the program provides an analysis of students' performance, but it does not give the answers. The questions are posed without complicated grammatical terms; thus, a subject/verb agreement error might be displayed in a sentence with a highlighted verb, and the program might ask whether or not the highlighted verb is correct. A run-on sentence might be presented with numbers at two places, and the program asks, "Which number marks the spot where this group of words could be divided into two sentences?"

After the assessment, the program provides a study plan of modules to work on, which can be recorded on the data disk and printed out. The quick check disk is a brief version of the assessment and can be used to monitor students' performance during the term. The mastery test disk is divided into exams for each skill area practiced with the modules. Students receive only a percentage score at the end.

Each practice module introduces definitions and rules, which can be called up from within a practice session as well. The explanations are comprehensive and easy to understand. The program underlines the parts of a sentence that are affected by a particular rule to illustrate the explanation. The program involves the student in the explanation by displaying a faulty sentence and suggesting that she or he rewrite it on paper. Then, the student can view the correct version.

After the explanations of rules, students can do practice sets that have them either recognize errors or repair them. If a student does not recognize the answer, the program will give a hint and allow another try. After finding the error, the student is asked to repair the sentence, for example, by choosing the position of a comma. Finally, the program refers the student to chapters in three Houghton Mifflin textbooks and index entries in other books.

ENGLISH MICROLAB possesses two major advantages, namely that it operates without complex grammatical terminology and that it treats errors typical of basic writers. Individual modules are devoted to run-ons/comma splices, subject/verb agreement, and commas, three trouble spots for student writers who come to writing centers.

A rather inexpensive one-disk program is CARET PATCH, distributed by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It is available for both IBM and Apple computers. The tests, exercises, and games on the disk are accompanied by the Harbrace College Handbook, and the program refers the student to the book frequently.

The menu consists of five options: "Introduction," "Diagnostic Test," "Practice Exercise," "Caret Bowl Game" (for two), and "Stop Studying." The introduction simply explains these options. The diagnostic test option displays another menu that gives the user a selection of items to be tested. The user can choose to be tested on grammar, mechanics, punctuation, spelling and hyphenation, all sections, or select sections of the Harbrace College Handbook. The menu options give the corresponding sections in parentheses after the selection. The tests consist of paragraphs of about two or three sentences that contain several errors. Once these sentences are displayed on the screen, the student is asked to move the caret--a small highlighted symbol--under an error by using the arrow keys. Other options are N for no errors and Q for quit, which takes the user to a summary screen of correct and incorrect answers and further options. Students can review how many errors they made, count their incorrect responses, see all questions, or practice unmastered sections.

During the diagnostic test, the program does not tell the user whether an answer is right or wrong, but simply records the results. The review of the results shows students which parts of the Handbook they need to study. The practice tests offer the same options of grammar, mechanics, punctuation, etc. The tasks are the same: Students identify the position of an error by moving the caret. If they are at a loss, they can opt for a hint, which gives the relevant chapter in the Handbook. If they identify an area correctly, the program gives two to four possible rewrites for the word or phrase. If they choose the wrong rewrite, the program again refers them to the Handbook and gives them another chance.

If students opt N for no more errors, the program will either go on to the next paragraph or tell the user, "At least one error remains."

CARET PATCH is difficult at times but could be a good tool for helping to spot errors. I used it with several students and found that they quickly became interested in the task and became accustomed to the key functions.

Reading Skills

Two quite different programs by Merit Audio Visual are READING CRITICALLY FOR UPPER GRADES and READING NON-FICTION CRITICALLY FOR UPPER GRADES, both for grades six to nine. Both programs are available for Apple and IBM compatible computers and consist of two disks each and a teacher's key. The texts on the first disks are easier than those on the second disks. Each disk provides easy instructions and a choice of two levels of difficulty. Student are presented with texts and questions whose answers have to be derived from the logical context.

I found these programs useful for college writers because they require the user to write full sentences. The problem with a program such as this is that answers can vary, and the program cannot possibly accommodate every possible, albeit correct, answer. It will only accept an answer if the words used match those of the program. If, for example, a student is asked how the person in the reading felt, and answers, "He felt bad," the program might not accept this answer because it expected the terms "embarrassed," "ashamed," "guilty," or "sorry." This can be seen as a plus, however, because students are challenged to try different versions of what they want to say. Also, they must spell the keywords correctly, otherwise the computer does not accept the answer.

If a student is at a loss for the correct answer, the student can type "/" to get a hint. The program then highlights the portion of the text that leads to the right answer. If the answer given is still not correct, the program gives examples of correct answers.

Both READING CRITICALLY programs give graphic images as rewards to students who answer 70% or more of the questions correctly.

Sentence Creating

Merit Audio Visual also markets a program called SENSIBLE SENTENCE MASTER. It runs only on Apple computers and is targeted toward grades six to nine. The menu takes the user from putting words into order to rearranging words on the screen to say the same thing. SENSIBLE SENTENCE MASTER, like GRAMMAR AT WORK, operates as a game and produces graphic images with encouraging messages. If students cannot find the correct answer, the program gives it to them. Because the tasks offer practice on skills of word order, an ability that native speakers possess naturally, this program is too basic for even basic writers. It might be useful, however, for writing centers that are frequented by ESL students.

Altogether, I found the software in the category "Error Identification" most interesting and most useful for tutoring in the writing center. Please refer to the following table for a quick overview of the software reviewed, each one's strengths and weaknesses, and an overall rating of its usefulness in college-level writing centers.

Birgit Scherer-Wiedmeyer lives in Huntsville, Alabama.

Computer Software

CARET PATCH. (1985). [Computer Program]. Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

APPLE DIAGNOSTIC PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR. (1987). [Computer Program]. New York: Merit Audio Visual.

ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENT I-V. (1989). [Computer Program]. Westerville, OH: Lingo Fun, Inc.

ENGLISH MICROLAB. (1985). [Computer Program]. Burlington, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

GRAMMAR AND WRITING. (1988). [Computer Program]. Des Plaines, IL: Looking Glass Learning Products Inc.

GRAMMAR AT WORK. (1987). [Computer Program]. New York: Merit Audio Visual.

PRACTICAL GRAMMAR I and II. (1990). [Computer Program]. Fairfield, CT: Queue, Inc.

READING CRITICALLY FOR UPPER GRADES. (1989). [Computer Program]. New York: Merit Audio Visual.

READING NON-FICTION CRITICALLY FOR UPPER GRADES. (1989). [Computer Program]. New York: Merit Audio Visual.

SENSIBLE SENTENCE MASTER. (1990). [Computer Program]. New York: Merit Audio Visual.


Appendix A.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Writing Center Software


Tutorial and Drill Software
GRAMMAR AT WORKTutor/teacher can edit files, add/delete questions; instructions on every diskette. User must complete entire round before returning to main menu; too much emphasis on recognition of parts of speech, too little active writing. Not very useful for writing centers.
DIAGNOSTIC PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR Tutor/teacher can edit files; diagnostic test; program branches according to performance. Too much emphasis on recognition of parts of speech, too little active writing. Not very useful for writing centers.
GRAMMAR AND WRITINGEasy enough for ESL/high school tutoring; nonsexist language. Too basic for college level tutoring. Not useful for college writing centers.

Error Identification Software
PRACTICAL GRAMMAR I and IIExtensive program; many explanations of grammar rules; individual modules very useful (e.g., possessives and punctuation). User must format according to computer used; complicated directions; emphasis on identifying grammar terms and parroting rules. Individual modules useful for writing centers.
ENGLISH ACHIEVEMENTDirections on every disk; preparation for CEEB English Comp. Achievement Test; sample test; areas of study; students must rewrite sentences. Cannot be edited by tutor/teacher; only brief explanations; user must identify errors by their labels (e.g., wordiness). Can be useful if tutor stands by to explain.
ENGLISH MICROLABDirections on every disk; rules and explanations easily understood; treats errors common to basic writers; assessment disk; suggests study plans; encourages user to rewrite sentences. No major weaknesses.Very useful for self-study without tutor.
CARET PATCHInexpensive 1-disk program; set up as game (1 or 2 players); refers user to handbook (accompanies program); diagnostic test; suggests study areas in handbook. Some errors are difficult to spot. Useful as diagnostic program.

Reading Skills Software
READING CRITICALLY FOR UPPER GRADES Easy instructions; requires writing complete sentences; good training in logical thinking, increasing vocabulary, and improving spelling. Only certain pre-programmed answers are accepted. Useful.
CARET PATCHSame as above. Same as above.Useful.

Sentence Creating Software
SENSIBLE SENTENCE MASTERProgram set up as a game; useful for ESL students; practices word order in sentences. Too basic for native English speakers. Not useful for native English speakers.