Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Computers with Red Pencils

Machines can grade essays as accurately as human readers. According to the New York Times, a competition sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation produced software able to match human essay readers grade for grade, and a study of commercially-available automatic grading programs showed that computers assessed essays as accurately as human readers, but a whole lot faster, and cheaper, to boot. But that's just the start: computers could lead to a reading-free future.

Not only are they cheap and efficient, computers grading essays do something human teachers can't: they grade consistently. Because human readers disagree, you might assign a B+ to the essay I flunk, and someone else would give it a C-. Plus computers aren't unionized, at least, not yet.

I have long been skeptical of machines grading essays. But now, in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence, I think it's time to welcome these newly literate machines and find even more for them to do. After all, reading is a chore, which is why literacy scores on standardized tests are down (those tests are graded by machines, so we know they're accurate).

The fact is that nobody reads books any more. Can you even find a bookstore on the rare occasion that you want one? So if machines can do our reading for us, like they do the laundry or the dishes, then we should celebrate this progress. We're already using computers to check our spelling; some writers use them to check grammar as well. But give a computer a red pencil, and there may be no limit to what it can do.

Teachers can use computers not just to read student writing, but also to autorespond to student email: no, you can't have an extension; yes, it's on the final; I'm sorry about your goldfish. And not just student email. Your computer can tell the dean you're not available at 10 on Thursday. It can read the committee report for you and file it away. And it can read that book you agreed to review but could never find the time to read. It can do your professional reading. It can do your beach reading. So far as I know, computers are already generating book reviews on Amazon, the New York Times Book Review, and TLS.

In fact, if the Hewlett data is correct, computers will soon replace human readers for just about all academic chores. A computer will read your dissertation and pass it, or suggest revisions. It will read your grant application and fund it, or suggest revisions. It will reject your manuscript. It will deny you tenure. 

But computer readers are not just for academics. A well-programmed computer can take the drudgery out of all our daily reading tasks:

  • It can read your junk mail.
  • It can read your important mail.
  • When you're at the movies it can read the subtitles and credits, get you the IMDb plot summary and list of continuity gaffes, and tell you whether you'll miss something important if you go refill your popcorn.
  • It can read menus at restaurants and order for you based on your personal preferences or on Yelp reviews.
  • It can read signs, product labels, and assembly instructions both in English and Spanish, and tell you which ones you can ignore (but it can't read them if they're all pictures and diagrams and no words).
  • The literate computer can even read its own multi-screen terms of service, digital rights management, and end-user license agreements and click "Accept" for you so you can start using its reading services right away.

Plus, a computer-reader can friend you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter, retweeting your posts or favoriting them. And since literate computers have a strong and consistent sense of what's important in writing, they can unfollow you as well, block you, or report you as spam. Computers, if they're lazy, can even rely on other computers' assessments: Deep Blue rates this essay 4.5 out of 5, so your computer will definitely want to read it. 

4.5 stars out of 5

Computer editors are replacing human editors in publishing as well. Given the annoying typos and spurious hyphens endemic to ebooks, I could save myself a lot of trouble by having my iPad read my iBook to itself. Then I can just go do something else while I wait for the movie version to appear in my Netflix queue.

Writing teachers tell students, "Write for your audience." But what if your audience is a machine? Apparently my concern was misplaced, since it's now a proven fact that computers and human readers agree with a statistical likelihood of P < 0.05. But even at the dawn of the digital age fourteen years ago I saw the possibilities for computers replacing readers and writers:

Web sites now offer students the ability to download term papers free. If we're going to eliminate the human reader, why not eliminate the writer as well, and let the computer grading program interface directly with the computer-generated essay? In a way, they deserve each other. Besides, eliminating the drudgery of writing would allow students more free time that they could then spend with their newly-leisured instructors.

Now that I'm convinced about the value of computers reading writing, I've even developed a slogan for the computer reading machines to use: "We read, so you don't have to." Naturally, it will be up to a computer to decide whether that slogan is effective, though my roommate thinks it's worth an A.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 11th 2012, 2:06 AM
Comment by: Stephen M. (Chicago, IL)
First of all, My nieces and nephews, nine older than 11, LOVE to read books, and so do their friends - yes actual books with real pages you can put between your fingers and fold at the corners to hold your place. They don't like reading on an iPod touch, or iPhone, or even an iPad. Those they use for games. I work in a computer store and you would be amazed at how poorly kids treat their electronic devices. They toss them on the ground, take them out in the rain, or flat out lose them and simply ask their parents to buy them a new one. Books, however, are coveted by kids, and protected much more so than the electronic gadgets they use to entertain themselves. Kids have a much greater sense of ownership when it comes to their books. So don't be surprised if you see future generations still appreciating the value of a real book.

Now, having a computer grade your papers...? That's just lazy. And if all papers are graded the same way you are likely to have a whole class writing the same way so they can all get good grades. It's not a good idea. Not at all. Yes, computers can do amazing things. As I said I work in a computer store so I like electronics and what they can do. But when did we stop believing in ourselves to the point where we want computers to start thinking for us. That's just sad. It's easy to get excited when a computer can grade papers, or beat the best Jeopardy contestants. But if all we do is work at making computers better and better, then we are not taking care of, let alone trying to improve, ourselves.
Monday June 11th 2012, 7:31 AM
Comment by: Hopping for Philology (MI)
I’m picking up on Mr. Baron’s sarcasm about computer grading – don't think a computer can do that (at least not yet). I see this ‘automated essay scoring’ heading right through the front door of standardized testing while creative writing takes a walk out the back. Not that standardized testing gives much room for creativity.

There does seem to be some advantages to using the software and if you’ve ever faced down a stack of 100+ essays on a weekend, can appreciate the consistent and speedy feedback a computer can give. NPR (npr.org) has produced several interesting stories on this hot topic – check out Computers Grade Essays Fast…But Not Always Well (Molly Bloom, June 7, 2012).

Thanks, Mr. Baron, for a sassy look into the world of computer graded essays. I don't think this topic is going away any time soon.

From a 6th grade literature teacher who regularly scores essays the ‘old-fashioned’ way – by hand.
Monday June 11th 2012, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Dennis, Dennis! Don't you know VT is no place for satire? Here everyting is to tbe taken at face value. Nevertheless, bravo!
Monday June 11th 2012, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
Students in college for years have exchanged information about which professors are best suited to teach a class they are required to take. They could do the same with computer graders of those classes if they knew what method the computer relied on for grading. They could match their style of writing to the computer grader and take personalities out of it. What if the professors is having a bad day, the day of grading?
Monday June 11th 2012, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Tom B. (Primm Springs,, TN)
Dennis definitely has tongue in cheek... maybe! Isaac Asimov said phooey to the "Frankenstein complex", but that was in 1939 in a story called "Robbie". That was when computers weighed 5 tons! I have one in my pocket that talks to me and is more powerful than that one built by the U.S. Navy during WWII.
The information age is here and developing rapidly. There is no turning back. Although, I doubt computers will ever take the place of my HS English Teacher. She would never not allow it! Great article Dennis!
Monday June 11th 2012, 12:47 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Some readers think I'm writing satire, others don't. Which one would a computer agree with? Is there a correct interpretation of any text? Who--or what--should be grading writing?
Monday June 11th 2012, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
Dennis, Based on some spelling and grammatical suggestions my Microsoft Word 7 makes, I don't think a machine can detect a keenly written piece of satire. But then of course, Microsoft is not using that prize-winning software.
Monday June 11th 2012, 5:14 PM
Comment by: Jamison S. (Boulder, CO)
Great article. Thanks!
Monday June 11th 2012, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Should your prophesy come to pass, Dennis, the world will be the poorer without your wry wit to entertain us! Long may you continue.

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