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Hey, the computer gave me an A for my essay
[February 14, 2011]

Hey, the computer gave me an A for my essay

SINGAPORE, Feb 14, 2011 (The Straits Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When Eunice Lim, a student at Crescent Girls' School in Singapore, hands in her English essay assignments, a teacher is not always involved.

Instead of turning in her homework to her teacher, the Secondary 4 student types it in a special software and clicks 'submit'.

Within seconds, she gets a score telling her how she did in content, style of writing, grammar and spelling. The software also points out her mistakes and tells her how to correct them.

Eunice, 16, said: "My teachers would take two weeks to mark my essays, most of the time by then I would have forgotten what I had written. Using the software, I get feedback on how I've done immediately and I can correct my mistakes on the spot." Her feedback, and that of students like her, may be crucial in shaping the future of how essays are graded in Singapore.

Currently about 3,000 students in more than 20 Singapore schools have tried out the technology that automatically marks English essays.

Such software is used by Secondary 3 and 4 students as part of English assignments and homework, but not in exams. The results of these essays marked with the software are not factored in their overall grades.

The technology, first used by schools here in 2006, is still very much in its infancy. But with more schools coming on board, the technology, if proven effective, could one day help lighten the Singapore teacher's marking load.

Secondary school English teachers interviewed said they take about one to two weeks to do detailed marking of essays of their classes during which they correct mistakes in grammar and spelling, and give suggestions for improvement.

Teachers said the aids do well in spotting grammar and spelling mistakes, thus giving them more time to focus on idea development and style which are more difficult to master.

Many teachers and principals also add that it could potentially be an excellent tool to encourage independent learning.

Said Crescent's head of English Usha Jeyarajah: "Using the feedback provided, the students will then edit the essays a few times. And their scores should improve with each version. So they are very much in charge." There are currently two competing types of automated marking software being tested in local schools.

The first is called WriteToLearn, developed by education conglomerate Pearson. It has been deployed in US schools since 2000 but made its way here only in 2008.

Since then, Crescent, with the help of Pearson and the Infocomm Development Authority, has been fine-tuning the software for Singapore students. Pearson hopes to sell the Singapore version of the software to other schools for their secondary students to use by the end of the year.

The second automated system is Criterion, developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). ETS is best known for developing various standardised tests like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl).

Both Criterion and WriteToLearn work roughly the same way. First, a computer is fed hundreds of essays for a given essay question to 'train' it to tell a good essay from a lousy one.

Teachers setting assignments will then select from a list of topics stored in the computer database. Students will then get immediate feedback after submitting the essay and then tweak the essay and resubmit it to improve the score.

ETS says the software is made for English language teaching, but can be used to mark essays for other subjects on things like grammar and spelling. Pearson adds that it has applied the underlying technology for the assessment of other languages like Arabic and Spanish.

Schools have long used computers to help grade exams on various subjects, from languages to maths and science. But most use it only for multiple-choice questions.

Licences per student, which last for one year, cost S$55 (US$43) for Criterion. WriteToLearn's price has yet to be confirmed.

Ministry of Education deputy director of English language and literature Ang Pow Chew said the ministry does not object to the use of such tools in schools and added that it is interested in helping in the WriteToLearn project.

Mr Ang stresses though that the software will simply be a tool and not a replacement for teachers.

He said: "Language, however, is infinitely complex. Therefore, you cannot just give the software to the students. You need to explain to the students how the software could and should be used and that it cannot do everything." Feedback so far has been mixed.

Ms Sandra Gwee, principal of Westwood Secondary School told The Straits Times that the school's experience with Criterion has shown that while it is useful for weaker students, it does not do much for the better ones.

"There is only one area that the platform has not been able to help in much -- stylistics. Good students with little or no grammar mistakes find using Criterion similar to writing on paper," she said.

Discerning meaning is also been a limitation for the software.

Crescent Secondary 4 student Sabrina Mohamed Nezam Meah, 16, said she tried submitting the same essay for two different topics 'A significant experience' and 'A learning experience' and managed to get a good score for both.

"This showed that it is assessing me mostly on my language and not much on my ideas. I prefer having my teacher to mark my essays as she will grade me on all areas," she added.

Parents interviewed said using such software has its benefits but added that teachers should be mindful that they are still their children's best resource for learning.

Eunice's mother Sarah Lim, 45, a manager in a health supplement company said: "I don't think a software can teach style and idea development as well as teachers." Speak Good English Movement chairman Goh Eck Kheng, who is a publisher and editor, similarly voiced reservations about the use of such software.

"I'm very uncomfortable with this. English is such a lively language. If you are strong in the language, you will break some rules when you are trying to communicate an idea in a creative way... You go and put Ernest Hemingway through grammar check and see what you get. It might make writing uniform and that's the worst thing," he said.

To see more of the Asia News Network, go to Copyright (c) 2011, The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit

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