Monday, November 10, 2014

The Ineluctable Attraction of Grammar Quizzes and the Case for Reviewing Grammar Sites

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca Blog, Geoffrey Pullum has a piece on the decline of grammar education as measured by the quality of grammar advice and quizzes that proliferate on the Web. He opens with a telling observation:
Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the periodic table, or atoms or molecules. The web’s grammar quizzes deal in minor pieces of puristic flotsam with roots in dimly understood 18th-century grammatical analysis.
People love doing grammar quizzes online. I don't know why. But the sites seem to multiply like weeds (Some weeds are prettier than some flowers, so nothing against weeds; I just prefer this cliche to 'breed like rabbits'.) and draw hits. Maybe the exercises are fun if you're doing them by choice?

I recently stopped working for a college textbook publisher, and so I know how hard it is to get a good grammar quiz written. Even with dedicated editors, authors who write grammar handbooks and sweat the details, experienced question writers, and professional proofreaders, some questions still don't come out quite right. The volume of questions needed, the difficulty of writing a question that isolates one issue, and the excruciating challenge of writing a sentence and then trying to come with three or four variations of it, so that there are good distractors, hints at why exercises lack quality.

So it's not surprising that a lot of the stuff on the Web that is free, open, and done by people who love the topic perhaps not wisely but too well can cause more problems than it solves. Pullum looks at one site in particular, Collins Dictionary --, and details the quiz's faults, before coming to this summary judgment:
And that’s all there is! Irrelevant, pointless, or misconceived questions on a minuscule range of topics, set by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Not a single sensible question with a clearly correct answer on a noteworthy point of English grammar.
Now, I want to be careful. Grammar and the degree to which writing teachers address it is fraught ground.  So two things up front.

First, I make plenty of usage and occasional grammar errors in my own writing, especially one draft writing like this blog post. If you see something, say something (constructively, please), and I'll make an edit.

Second, when I teach sentence level revision, even when I teach the most novice of writers, I don't assign grammar quizzes in bulk. My primary concern as a writing teacher is not to teach grammar, but to give students enough understanding of grammar terms and guidelines to make good decisions as writers when they attend to their sentence level revisions during proofreading and copy editing stages. So I'm in the Grammar in Context, patterns of error, minimal marking camp by and large. I don't ignore this stuff, don't shy away from teaching or using grammar handbook language (independent clause, dependent clause, names of parts of speech, and other fun stuff) as needed in that context. For more on this, see the NCTE Guideline on Some Questions and Answers about Grammar at

That said, I do find grammar quizzes can be useful if used judiciously, as a part of sequence that takes students back to their writing. Briefly, the sequence is: discern an issue that remains after revising, experimenting with sentence combining, voice, and other fun stuff. Teach the writer how to look the issue up in a handbook, have the writer read what they need to in the handbook. Often, to help a writer process handbook advice, an exercise or quiz on the issue can help. Handbooks explain rules by showing incorrect and then correct sentences. Or incorrect sentences edited to become correct. Bedford/St. Martin's usability research on handbooks shows that writers look at those sentences first, and might, if they feel they need to, read about the issue. Sometimes they don't. At any rate, I find that having a student do an exercise or two in the form of a grammar quiz helps to reinforce the correct/incorrect lesson a bit. But I don't think even doing that is useful unless very soon after -- immediately is best -- the writer applies what they learned to their own writing, or in an editing workshop, classmates' writings. (See for a handout that helps with this.)

When I do the sequence above, I use the site and exercises associated with the handbook I'm using. I know more and more professors do not require a textbook publisher's handbook, but I've tried teaching without one, and found that even good resources, like Purdue's OWL, which I love for lots of reasons, is to hard to use for too many students compared to a well-designed, professionally edited -- and this is important, consistently authored -- handbook. Of course plenty of people do use a handbook and also use one of the many free exercise sites out there.

Assign Students to Review Grammar Advice and Exercise Sites

Whether as an instructor you use a handbook and its exercise site; or use a handbook and an alternative free exercise site; or don't use a handbook at all and ask students to use a free grammar advice and exercise site, given Pullum's observation about the quality of the sites out there, it's really important to only ask students to use sites that can be trusted. And no site should be taken for granted. Because free sites get a lot of traffic, which means a lot of writers, novice writers who may not know better, use them and learn from them. For example, a well regarded free site,

Capital Community College's Guide to Grammar and Writing, says it gets 30,000 hits a day.

At Bedford/St. Martin's, we have, for now, a free and open -- no code, no book purchase required to use it -- grammar exercise site called Exercise Central --   It's a site that gets traffic from all over the world, and from people who aren't using any of the books or media we sell. A majority of the accounts are unassociated with professors, that is, quizzes don't report to a professor grade book. They're simply being done by writers concerned about sentence level issues because I think a lot of writers like doing quizzes and/or think they'll help.

So it would be a good project, either as part of a proof reading class, a linguistics class, a tutor training course, a grammar course, a style course, or other course that touches on addressing sentence level issue and choices, would be to ask students in those courses to review some of these sites, especially since a lot of students seem to find them on their own and engage them on their own.  And not just the free sites that are put up by enthusiasts, or dedicated teachers such as Charles Darling, but also the stuff that textbook publishers provide, whether as open websites or behind a free code given with a new book, or, as increasingly is the case, products that are sold on their own.

Notes Toward Review Criteria

Criteria for a review, gleaned from Pullum's blog post, might include, but do not need to be limited by (so add you're own if you do this assignment) the following:

The puristic flotsam factor:  Does the quiz ground itself in the overly prescriptive bĂȘte noires of its author?

The confusion factor:  Is grammar used too broadly, with quiz questions under that name for issues of convention, spelling, punctuation, and style?

The instructional factor: Are there explanations -- either before a question is asked, in response to a quiz takers choice, or by reference to a print or online book? 

The accuracy factor: Not to be confused with bĂȘte noires of one's own, or even misnaming something as grammar that is not, but does the site get stuff fundamentally wrong in the ways Pullum illustrates?

The pedagogical factor:  Hello, are you reading, writer? I once visited a computer lab at a community college where students had to complete a battery of grammar exercises. This counted for one credit. Students could take the tests as often as they wanted. I watched students open a question -- not read the question nor the choices -- and just guess. If the answer was right, the noted the choice. If it was wrong, they noted the choice. When the question came around again, if they had gotten it right, the stayed with choice; if they had gotten it wrong, they tried a different choice. They were hacking the quizzes to get high scores.  Now, this behavior happened in part because of how the site was used, and how the lab was graded. But often teachers do in fact, where free sites support doing so, grade based on exercise activity. Does the site in use support the grading logic?

And most importantly . . .
The learning factor: A lot of sites are a lot of fun -- -- is a hoot.  And a lot of sites (see Exercise Central) aim for friendly and engaging (you be the judge) but more traditional in tone and approach. Whichever the approach, is there a way to tell whether the use of the site teaches anything?

For example, grammar sites of the kind we're discussing don't teach proof-reading. And having students do a ton of exercises does not mean you'll suddenly see error free prose. You may see more constricted writing, shorter pieces, loss of details, less ambitious sentences as writers seek to avoid all the grammar issues they've been drilled on, but even then, writing teachers who have students do lots of exercises regularly observe, and sometimes complain, that final drafts still come in with errors.

So what do exercise sites teach? Are they primarily teaching grammar terms and standard edited English rules about punctuation and spelling? Is the test of effectiveness of a grammar exercise quiz site that ability of a student to get better scores on grammar exercises tests?


sdkricard said...

I'm a new fan. One of my professors just sent the students in our master's program (Professional and Technical Writing) a link to one of your blog posts. I noticed this title and was intrigued because I am a notorious taker of grammar quizzes on Facebook. I will say that my first semester of grad school is turning me into a "reformed grammar cop." I enjoyed your insight into these quizzes. I will stay away from grammar quizzes, but I still want to know which Muppet I am.

Nick Carbone said...

Thanks for the note. What might be fun, would be to make a grammar game from the perspective a reformed grammar cop. I don't know if it could work . . . maybe themed around "You might be a grammar cop" in the spirit of Foxworthy's "you might be a redneck." But get your A first in the course of the prof who recommended the visit to my blog.