Friday 20 November 2015

How to use spell check to improve your essay writing

The attached image comes from an essay I recently edited. Clearly, the intended word was "profitability." Fortunately, I spotted the error and corrected it. But it's unlikely that the client typed "probability." It's much more likely that she typed something else and the spell checker in M.S. Word flagged it, and she changed it to this word. Look what happens if I write a similar word to "profitability," but slightly misspelled.

Of the three suggestions for "profability," the correct word "profitability" is not included! It's so easy to choose the wrong word from the list. In fact, our brains are wired to see the word we expect to see. That's why proofreading your own work can be so hard. Once you believe that the correct word is there, you will see the correct word. Part of the skill of proofreading is teaching yourself to slow down and really see each word that's on the page, not the word that we think should be on the page.

Once you accept the wrong word, it becomes even harder to spot when you are proofreading. Because it's a correct word, it's no longer underlined in red. But now your brain really thinks you've corrected it, so it's even more likely to fail to notice the error when you proofread.

I actually think many people would benefit in their writing if they turn off spelling suggestions. This means you won't see any red underlined words at all, during the writing process. The advantage is that you can simply focus on the content of what you are writing. For anyone who struggles with spelling, or even keeping in mind the complex ideas that make up an essay paragraph, this means completing the whole sentence before even thinking about the spelling.

To do this, simply uncheck the "Check spelling as you type" option in the M.S. Word preferences. You can write with spelling errors and focus on your ideas. When you complete the whole document, you can still use the spellcheck tools to check your work.

However, as you can see, the options are still limited by the guess that M.S. Word has for what is the right word. In this scenario, you would still be wrong to pick the word from the list. You need to pay sufficient attention to the suggestions to realize that you need to actually type in the correct word. If you can get closer, then the spell checker can probably guess it.
And one more thing. Here's a screen shot from an on-line proofreading service, Ginger. Notice that Ginger, like MS Word, can't see the error. For accurate proofreading, there's nothing like a human.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Research Sources: Library vs Internet

Image courtesy of iosphere at
Teachers (like me) often try to force students to use libraries for their research. We assign essay topics like "Compare using a library to the internet for research." Students today constantly ask "Why can't I just Google it?" In fact, some even don't think learning anything is important because all information is available on the internet. Let's take a look at the reality.

First, I use the internet for research all the time. Even Wikipedia. The most important skill in research is finding good, trustworthy information. You can do this on the internet as well as in a library. The advantage to a library is that almost all of the information available has already been evaluated as trustworthy, whereas on the internet you are on your own. Remember, anyone can put up a website. They can give it a reasonable sounding name such as "Institute for Climate Evaluation" and then put up the most garbage information imaginable. So you have to be careful who you get information from on the internet.

Teachers seem to hate Wikipedia. They often state that this is because information on Wikipedia can change and the editors are anonymous. There is no central authority. But this is nonsense. Wikipedia consists of a community of people who are strongly dedicated to truth and accuracy. When I want a quick understanding of a topic, I turn to Wikipedia. But I would not cite Wikipedia as a source in a research project because it is at best a secondary source. That means it is repeating information that has been developed by experts somewhere else. That somewhere else is usually a peer-reviewed journal article. It could be available on the personal website of a researcher at a university. It is much better to go to the original source.

The problem is that if you are in high school and you are doing a research project, the depth of knowledge you are expected to develop is much lower than that of a PhD in the subject area. Your reading skills are not developed to the university level. You may not have access to peer-reviewed journals, which you could get through university libraries, but high school libraries do not have the funds to subscribe to. Therefore, it is much harder for you to access and evaluate original sources.

The sources in your school library are designed for your reading level. They are designed for your knowledge level. They are organized for your use, and the librarian is there to help you. In fact the easiest way to do the research is to go to the library and ask the librarian to help you.

Typing a search term (is it the right search term?) into Google gives you millions of websites to choose from. I have no doubt the right information is there, but can you find it? You may need to wade through dozens of sites to find what you are looking for. It's more like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Using the internet is convenient. If it's Sunday night and your essay is due on Monday, then it's all you have. But if you have a little time, using the expertise of your librarian should be a no-brainer.