Classroom tech · For Your Classroom · Writing

ChatGPT and the English Classroom: What Teachers Need to Know about AI-generated Essays

OpenAI’s new project, ChatGPT, has rapidly captured the attention of teachers, students, and tech enthusiasts everywhere. In fact, the chatbot was unavailable the first time I tried to use it because of the overwhelmingly large response– it managed to gain one million users in its first five days of existence.

Whether you’ve read all about ChatGPT or this is the first you’re hearing of it, this post is a quick reference for you to get all the facts as they relate to ELA teachers, ideas for ways to use ChatGPT in your classroom, how to avoid students using the chatbot to cheat, key points to consider, and more.

What’s in this post 

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a large language model (LLM) online bot powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that can converse in text with a user. It is a project created by research and development company OpenAI. Their mission is “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” 

Conversations with the ChatGPT bot can include asking questions, providing a writing prompt to receive a story or essay, requesting that the bot help solve a problem, and more.  It can even write lesson plans. The possibilities are endless, really.

Eliminate the overwhelm of teaching English in the AI era with this thorough ChatGPT for ELA Teaching Kit.

It’s important to know that ChatGPT is currently free to everyone because it’s in the research preview stage. It’s likely that once OpenAI considers the bot more complete, they’ll require a fee or paid subscription to use it. This particular computer-generated composition free-for-all could die down soon, but this instant success of ChatGPT has shown us that assignments completed by AI will continue to be a struggle for teachers moving forward.

This type of essay-generating AI is not brand new technology. Your students may already have tried turning in pieces of computer-generated writing. But those were probably pretty easy to spot, because they were usually disorganized and sounded stilted and artificial. The trouble English teachers face with ChatGPT is that the writing it’s producing is awfully convincing. A quick browse through your favorite teacher Facebook group or Twitter feed will yield examples of scarily-impressive essays composed by the new chatbot.

Should teachers be worried?

Many ELA teachers are concerned about the future of writing assignments now that such powerful AI technology is available to students. How will we know if an essay was written by our student or her computer? 

Previously, unoriginal writing was able to be verified through apps like Turnitin, that could scan a piece of writing, compare it to a database, and expose any plagiarism. But the tricky element of AI-generated writing is that each response from the bot is novel and won’t be cataloged anywhere online and therefore plagiarism scanners are useless.

teaching the writing process resource
To cut down on cheating on writing assignments, make sure students are confident navigating the writing process. Click here to check out this time-saving resource.

The quick conclusion that most teachers have jumped to is that they’ll simply require all writing to be done on paper and in class. While this might be a band-aid solution for shorter pieces of writing, it really doesn’t address research papers and other writing that ideally would be typed, and/ or worked on at home.

Some tech critics are not so worried about the new chatbot (or similar technology) because they don’t feel that the bots actually have the ability to disrupt anything of any real consequence. Atlantic writer Ian Bogost, in his critical overview of ChatGPT, “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think,” points out, “The AI can generate credible writing, but only because writing, and our expectations for it, has become so unaspiring.” Maybe the real change that AI writers will bring to English classes is the reevaluation of our learning goals and standards. 

It’s true that ChatGPT currently has a number of notable limitations. Some of these might put you at ease a bit.

What ChatGPT can’t currently do:

  • Correctly integrate quotations 
  • Share your personal opinion 
  • Be 100% accurate 
  • Cite sources accurately (or at all)
  • Be polite or politically correct: “because the base model was trained on internet data, researchers have warned it can also emulate the sexist, racist and otherwise bigoted speech found on the web, reinforcing prejudice.” — Washington Post 
  • Be ethical: Washington Post noted, “Facebook’s owner, Meta, released a large language tool called Galactica last month trained on tens of millions of scientific papers, but shut it down after three days when it started creating fake papers under real scientists’ names.” Several writers have pointed out that ChatGPT has similar issues with passing off fabricated information as if it were true. 
  • Exhibit common sense: The Washington Post also points out that “For all of its knowledge, the system also lacks common sense. When asked whether Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth were on the same continent during Lincoln’s assassination, the AI said it seemed ‘possible’ but could not ‘say for certain.’” 

Despite the number of shortcomings, the fact remains that this sort of technology is here to stay and only getting smarter. We teachers have to find a way to work with it, maybe even welcoming it into our classrooms occasionally. There are some possible benefits of and positive uses for ChatGPT in the English classroom.

How to incorporate ChatGPT into your ELA lessons

Dial in on higher-level writing skills

Teacher and Atlantic contributor Daniel Herman suggests that ChatGPT might benefit ELA teachers by allowing students to essentially “Pass GO and collect $200” with their essay writing, leaving them with the solitary task of up-leveling the writing. He explains, “The rudiments of writing will be considered a given, and every student will have direct access to the finer aspects of the enterprise. Whatever is inimitable within them can be made conspicuous, freed from the troublesome mechanics of comma splices, subject-verb disagreement, and dangling modifiers.” This approach might be useful when teaching higher-level nuances of writing such as tone, mood, rhythm, and syntax. Maybe allow students to generate a piece of writing using a chatbot, then work to improve it themselves.

Provide a powerful thesaurus

Historian Dr. Anton Howes tweeted that he was using the chat bot as a next-level thesaurus, not only to help him think of a specific word he’d forgotten, but also to improve word choice among shades of connotation when writing. 

Support differently-abled students

The Washington Post published an in-depth article on ChatGPT this week, revealing an upside to the new bot: assisting a British business owner who struggles with dyslexia in writing emails to his customers. It helped him be more clear and professional. This AI project could possibly play a role in carrying out IEPs for some students.

Use as a study tool

The Washington Post article also noted, “For computer science students, it’s been helpful to ask the AI to compare and contrast concepts to better understand course material.” This could certainly be applied to any course.

Combat confusion or writer’s block

Forbes assistant editor Rashi Shrivastava pointed out, “Educators say that the chatbot could be used as a starting-off point for students when they face a writer’s block, or it can also be used to get examples of what an answer should look like.” Depending on the assignment, using a chatbot could benefit students in the brainstorming stage.

Eliminate the overwhelm of teaching English in the AI era with this thorough ChatGPT for ELA Teaching Kit.

Test the depth of your writing prompts

Another Forbes article by former veteran English teacher Peter Greene makes an interesting point for English teachers: “ChatGPT is an excellent prompt tester. Think you’ve come up with a good writing prompt? Feed it to the chatbot. If it can come up with an essay that you would consider a good piece of work, then that prompt should be refined, reworked, or simply scrapped. Sure, your students might not use the software to cheat (particularly if its capacity is not increased). But if you have come up with an assignment that can be satisfactorily completed by computer software, why bother assigning it to a human being?”

Generate lesson plan ideas

Because the bot can actually write lesson plans, it might not be a bad idea to occasionally request a lesson plan, then improve upon the framework and ideas it provides. Certainly doesn’t hurt to try.  

Is using ChatGPT cheating? How to talk to students

If plagiarism is defined as using the work of another as if it were your own and/ or without proper credit, does using the “work” of artificial intelligence count as stolen content? In the strictest sense, perhaps not. However, it’s obviously problematic any time a student’s work is not entirely his own. 

Reiterate to students that the work that they turn in is not for you. You’re not requesting an essay because you need some new reading material. Everything you assign is for them. For their growth. Each task given is meant to provide exposure to something new, get students to see with a new perspective, to think deeper, to be creative, to express themselves, to prove they understood the lesson, and more. 

Getting a good grade on an assignment is not about mere completion. We’re looking to gauge their level of understanding. If students are turning in work that a computer generated, how do we know what they’ve learned? This is for sure rudimentary, but often students need to be reminded of the point of school.

Included in the ChatGPT for ELA Teaching Kit is a heartfelt letter to students that you can edit to fit your classroom culture and then read or distribute to your students.

Ways to avoid ChatGPT or other computer-generated writing

Monitor writing

As mentioned, an obvious (but effective) method is requiring students to handwrite compositions in class. Or if they’re typing in class, make sure your school has a way to monitor student screens and/or effectively block any composition bots.

Require all work to be shown

For longer compositions, requiring students to show their work for each step of the writing process would reduce the use of ChatGPT for cheating. Require that students write down their brainstorming, research, sources, outline, and rough drafts. 

Participate in the composition process

Similarly, make sure to scaffold longer writing assignments to keep students on track and avoid the overwhelm of staring at a blank page, feeling as if they have nothing to fill it. Walk them through the steps they’ll need to take to generate the piece of writing. This is imperative for struggling writers. We often must provide more than just a writing prompt and a rubric. If you’ve walked with your students through their composition journey, you’re much more likely to be able to spot a computer-generated finished product. 

teaching the writing process resource
To cut down on cheating on writing assignments, make sure students are confident navigating the writing process. Click here to check out this time-saving resource.

Assign more creative projects

Since writing is a cornerstone of ELA instruction, we can’t avoid it all together, but sometimes we might consider different types of assignments to allow students to show what they know. Check out this post for four fun post-reading assignments that aren’t an essay. And check out this post for a dozen creative book report ideas that will surely keep students off of the chatbots. You might also get some ideas from this post with several creative and tech-free ELA assignments.

Solicit help

Make parents, guardians, and study hall supervisors aware of ChatGPT and similar technology and enlist their help in monitoring students as they write and encouraging students to ensure that their work is 100% original and their own.

Appeal to Students’ Integrity

Sometimes simply letting students know that you trust them with something can go a long way. Getting students involved in the process of setting boundaries around their use of AI in their ELA class can go even further. Why not have students compose a statement of their personal values and ethics when it comes to using ChatGPT on their writing assignments?

Guidelines and suggestions for this activity are included in the ChatGPT for ELA Teaching Kit.

Support students prone to cheat

Food for thought: as you seek to reduce cheating via AI writers, try to consider the “why” behind students’ choosing to use these tools. I know our knee-jerk response is, “they’re lazy!” but that really isn’t always the case. Often when I’ve spoken with students about why they plagiarized, they do have reasons such as, “I ran out of time to complete the assignment,” “I didn’t understand the assignment,” or “I don’t have any thoughts about this topic.” How can we be more supportive of students in their learning process, and avoid chalking up all failures to mere laziness?


When we come up against tricky things like an AI writer, at the core of our deliberations will be our personal philosophy of education. 

While the initial response is to throw up our hands in disgust and declare, “That’s it! I quit!” maybe this new frustration is simply an invitation to revisit the foundations of the courses that we’re teaching. 

You might want to ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish in my classroom? Why do I require what I require of students? Are my assignments worthwhile, growth-inducing experiences for students, or just busywork? 

At the end of the day, don’t forget this: kids will be kids, and they’re infinitely clever. They’ll expend more effort into trying to get out of doing the assignment then they would have expended just doing the work as you outlined it. We already have a lot on our plate as educators; it’s not our responsibility to remove every possibility of cheating from every situation; and we can wear ourselves out trying. Do what you can, where you’re at, with what you have. It’s enough. You’re doing a great job. 

Sources consulted / for further reading:

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