How Do You Spell Success?

Statue of Rocky in Philadelphia, his arms raised in triumph.

To find the prescriptive answer to this question, look in a dictionary.  To find the descriptive answer to this question, look in a corpus.

In ESL Programs at Ohio State, I have been working towards building a couple of corpora of learner language not only for our own analysis, but also for researchers around the world to access.  Our plan is to include the English placement compositions that all international students’ write when the arrive on campus in the first corpus and the Intensive ESL Program (IEP) students’ placement and end-of-term compositions in the second.  Because almost all of these compositions are now written on computers instead of paper, it is relatively easy to take the next step and format them for analysis by corpus tools.

Both corpora should be interesting.  The former could grow by more than a thousand compositions per year as international students are admitted to Ohio State in ever increasing numbers.  Because these students have met the English proficiency requirements to be admitted, their level of proficiency is relatively high.  The latter will include fewer students, but will include longitudinal data because each student will write multiple compositions as they progress through the program.

As I was scoring some of the recent end-of-semester IEP compositions, and encountering the usual and frequent errors in our lowest-level students’ writing, I began thinking about how our students’ creative spelling would affect, and possibly inhibit, searches of this corpus.  For example, how can you search for past tense verbs when so many of them are misspelled?  Then it occurred to me that these misspellings could themselves be quite interesting.  So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, here are some of the ways our students spell success (and its cognates), listed in order of frequency:

successful, success, succeed, sucessful, successfull, succesful, secessful, succes, succed, sucssed, successfully, succeful, seccsessful, suessful, suecess, suceessful, succsful, succsess, successul, successufl, successfufl, successeful, succeshul, succefull, succeess, succees, succeeded, succeccful, secuessful, secssed, seccssful, seccessful, scuccess, sccesful.

We are currently working on securing IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval for this project, after which we will be able to share the data and results more publicly.  As part of our IRB application, we are alpha testing our procedures and this question about the spelling of success became an interesting test case.  To create this list, I took a set of student compositions and fed them through AntConc, a free concordancer written by Laurence Anthony.  In addition to the frequency of words, lots of other interesting queries are possible with this application and others.

All of the compositions will be coded with the demographic information we have for each student (age, gender, country of origin, first language, major or degree program) as well as information about each composition (score, topic, date).  By sorting for whatever factor is interesting, we’ll be able to make any comparison we like.  Want to see what the compositions above and below a certain score look like?  No problem.  Want to see how Chinese speakers compare to Arabic speakers?  Male to female?  Grad to undergrad?  We will be able to do it.

We’re looking forward to bringing this Big Data approach to our programs.  Not only will this data inform our curriculum, but it will also become a useful resource for researchers across our campus and around the world.

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