Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I Plan to Play With Writefull -- an App Designed for ESL Writers

In this NY Times online story (reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Ed?), "For U.S. Colleges, a Drive to Retain Foreign Students" (, Karin Fischer notes, ". . . the number of students from overseas continues to increase — the Institute of International Education reports there are 40 percent more foreign students at American colleges than a decade ago. . ."
I didn't attend the summer WPA conference, but colleagues who did reported discussion of how writing programs are adjusting to more students taking first year writing course for whom English is not a first language.

In that context, this Writefull ( might be useful. I'll be checking it out in the coming days, and will write up my notes. But for those who like to kick tires, here's a bit about it:

It offers editing help by comparing writing to content from Google books.  According to an introduction to his guest blog post at "The Thesis Whisper" (, it was created by Juan Castro . . . for people who are doing their thesis in English when it is not their first language.

Here's how Writefull describes itself:
Writefull is an application that provides feedback on your writing. You can select a piece of text in any writing tool (from Microsoft Word to Gmail) and a small popover will appear above your selected text. This popover offers five options to assess and improve your selection with the use of the Google Books database.

Many of us use Google to check if our writing is correct. We enter different phrases until we find the one that gives us most results – and this is the one we use in our own text. A smart approach, but not without its annoyances: revisiting the Google webpage breaks the flow of our writing, and its results often contain grammatical errors.

What if you could use this Google-approach, but within your own writing tool, with better results, and with writing-tailored search options? This is exactly what Writefull does!

Writefull is a light-weight app that uses data from Google Books (5+ million books) and the Web to give you language support. All you need to do is select writing, activate the Writefull popover, and choose one of its options.
The writer chooses text -- by highlighting it -- and that action pops up the Writefull app, which offers a menu for searching that phrase to see how often it is used. From an ESL point of view, the idea is that the more something is found, the greater the chance that the use is correct. If a writer isn't sure, he or she can compare options (in the link above they comparison is 'less people' [11.2% of returns] with 'fewer people' [88.8% of returns).

Here's the logic for that process from the inventor, a nonnative speaker of English, quoting from his entry at "The Thesis Whisperer" linked to above:
For me, the hardest part was knowing if I was saying things the right way. At times I realised there was something odd about my sentences, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Other times I had a sentence in mind, but I just kept looking for that one word that would fit in nicely. It was these sentence-level issues that made the thesis-writing process slow and painful.
Anyway, this intrigues for a few reasons:
  1. It's a palpable example of taking a technology approached usually used for plagiarism detection, and turning it to writers to use for self-coaching sentence level revision.
  2. Writers choose the text to check. This doesn't attempt -- at least not currently -- to grammar check. Cognitively I like that because it calls on the writers to have a hunch, to reflect, to be curious, to work through a struggle.
  3. It offers writers data -- the number of times a phrase turns up -- but also the option to see the phrase in context. So it gives quantitative and qualitative guidance, and I'm curious to see how they balance.
  4. It seems to me the kind of thing that would be useful in a 1:1 writing session, working with a writer who uses it, helping her or him to choose which phrases to search and how to read the results, setting them up to work further on their own.
  5. While it was created for ESL writers, I suspect it might work for any writer where a professor borrows from  Mina Shaughnessy's work on patterns of error, or Constance Weaver's on teaching grammar in context, for example, or where a writer learns or believes they have persistent quirk in their prose and could use help checking their work against other writers.
After I've used the app, I'll post more detailed notes on how it went here.

1 comment:

WUWritingCenter said...

Looking forward to hearing your experiences with the app!

- Anne Shiell, writing instructor and coordinator of social media resources, Walden University Writing Center