Lingua Latīna: LOVE the textbook, but is it right for my students?

No.

Lingua Latīna per sē Illustrāta (LLPSI), the Latin textbook entirely in Latin, has a cult following. I understand the appeal. Personally, I love it, and am currently rereading it for the nth time. Still, I’m wary whenever people suggest LLPSI as the panacea to common pedagogical problems, or assume it’s the most appropriate resource to use when teaching Latin communicatively. Again, I understand, but LLPSI is still a textbook, and comes with every downside of using a textbook to teach communicatively.

The majority of its users hold the series in such high esteem that it’s often the only resource used, and very few teachers use LLPSI along with other materials, probably because its so well self-contained, though I do know some teachers who keep it on hand for Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Even then, it’s clear that the narrative is part of a textbook designed to teach Latin grammar—not necessarily a compelling story—which is the kind of thing most people don’t read for fun. LLPSI certainly has its moments, but reading a narrative designed to teach over 30 forms of the pronouns quis, quī, is, ille, and hic all in Capitulum VIII gets old real fast.

The success of LLPSI relies on its AMAZING (don’t get me wrong) methodical design, but it tends to only reach a small few, at least in public high school with students of average to high interest in Latin (not absurdly off the scale like most Latin teachers). Why isn’t it suitable for my students? First and foremost, I don’t teach according to a grammatical syllabus. Personally, I find it unethical, at least when teaching for acquisition is the goal. Vocabulary is also a major problem…

The first chapter of LLPSI has 42 words. Since the rest of the book uses many (but not all) of those first 42 words to define and provide context for new words, understanding must be quite high (like 98% high). Chapter 2 has 35 new words, but only repeats 21 from the first chapter (i.e. Rōmānus, est, quoque, et, sunt, nōn, sed, in, parvus, duo, trēs, magnus, multī, ūnus, fluvius, īnsula, prīmus, secundus, tertius, capitulum, vocābulum), and many of those are recycled just once or twice aside from the function words. Chapter 3 unleashes another 36 words. This time, only 8 words from the first chapter are recycled (i.e. est, nōn, sed, in, quid?, et, ubi?, parva) and 4 from chapter 2 (māter, pater, puella, puer). So, by the time students reach chapter 4, they will have been exposed to 113 words, 8 of which they’ve seen most. That’s what we call a vocabulary problem.

I was reading LLPSI at a coffee shop recently, and a random person began talking to me about language pedagogy. When I mentioned that LLPSI is easily the best resource for the autodidact wishing to learn about Latin but that the vocabulary introduced was too much too soon when it comes to acquisition, he said “well that’s the problem with learning languages, right?” My reply was “yeah, so don’t do it. If you don’t use too many words it’s not a problem.” The thought never occurred to him. He honestly thought that learning languages had to involve flash cards and struggle (he might be true re: learning vs. acquiring). 

The key to using LLPSI in high school is straightforward; “just memorize what words mean, study paradigms, and respondē Latīnē.” Easier said than done. LLPSI is an excellent textbook for sponges—the problem is that most people aren’t sponges. LLPSI is also excellent for people who have developed some mental representation of the language ( = acquired), which mostly includes Latin teachers who have been to immersion events, but NOT their students. My advice? Buy LLPSI and read it because it’s awesome, but before you rush out to use the textbook that YOU love so much, ask whether it (or ANY resource, for that matter) is right for your students.

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4 thoughts on “Lingua Latīna: LOVE the textbook, but is it right for my students?

  1. Pingback: LLPSI Challenge | Magister P.

  2. Dear Magister P.
    I find your article really interesting. I am also a teacher of Classics with interest in CI and recently have started using LLPSI in my lesson, I have given the jump finally.
    In my experience, a lot of the problems you mentioned can be responded by saying that LLPSI is precisely that: a textbook. It is not that it does not have its virtues, as you repeatedly express in your article: it is that, in my view, is insufficient in itself. Just like any other textbook. A few solutions occur to me with regards to the problems that you mention:
    1st, i have found that the pace the method follows if you solely focus on reading the text and answering the exercitia is a high one. My students all find it challenging because of the rhythm at which LLPSI introduces new content. Even at the end of chapter VII, quite early in the text, one of my best students confessed that he felt overwhelmed by the amount of forms and that he felt he needed some time to consolidate much of the content, mostly the grammar. I then focused on doing some extra activities on different aspects (prepositions introduced, active to passive voice) and he found this really helpful. I believe then that part of the solution is to assume that we, as teachers, need to assess what contents are more challenging for our students, and which one of them are going to need extra drilling and practice, and so focus on these during lesson time as we progress through the text. I think this practice pays off really well, in my experience, plus if you are following an immersive approach and talking Latin in lessons (as I believe you are), you may find many ways of introducing such varied practices. This may mean creating activities and collecting resources, and so bring you some work in the short term, but like I said, in my experience, it really pays off. There are also some wikis online of teachers who already have started to build up activities, particularly Spanish teachers. To conclude this, I never just “follow the textbook” when I am teaching, say, Spanish in MFL, so it seems fair we should apply the same principle if we want to teach Latin using CI or any kind of immersive approach.
    The best teachers I have had in immersion courses always did something else on the margin to complement LLPSI, sometimes not even related to the main text. This always helped to build up a more “relaxed” and fruitful environment, at the time it offered the chance to consolidate much of the text’s contents. You also have the colloquia personnarum, which gives you some extra material to do to reinforce the contents of each chapter.
    2nd, your concerns about vocabulary and recycling of words sound more than fair. This is a point I myself feel very concerned about and that I am trying to address in my teaching at the moment. But it is worth bearing in mind 2 things: with Latin, I believe, and particularly if you teach it in the context of secondary school education and are constrained by the impositions of a national curriculum, you need to establish a clear difference between words and words, and decide where you are going to place the focus. I mean by this that not all vocabulary is equally important from a reading perspective: many studies have been carried out in this respect and we know that 98% of the language in the corpus of texts is constituted by no much more than 1500 words, and then again, only 500 or 300 hundred of words may constitute 80%, (I am sort of quoting the last from memory, may be more or less than 300 and 500, but I think you can get my point) of the totality of a corpus of classical Latin authors. The implications of this I believe are clear: we ought to concentrate not only on teaching vocabulary, but also, and more especially, on teaching the most frequent one first. It does not seem a problem to me that LLPSI introduces a good bunch of new words each chapter, and does not recycle all of the previous ones, as long as the one it does recycle are the most frequent ones. The second thing to bear in mind is that we are teaching Latin for reading purposes. I know we want to take advantage of the benefits of using it lively, I know we want it to be a live language. But if we consider our teaching limitations, and first of all the highest limitation of any teacher, namely time, then it seems to me that we need to start planning the contents we want to deliver intelligently. The effect I think this has particularly in the teaching of vocabulary is that we ought not to confuse words which we expect our students to master (like high frequency ones) with other words which may play their role at a particular moment, but are not be so precious from a frequency perspective. Linguists have already established the difference between “passive” and “active” acquisition of vocabulary: students can be familiar with a word even if they themselves are not able to produce in speaking or writing, which is a further stage of “acquisition” of vocabulary. One way of sorting out the problem of how to focus on the right corpus of words may be to plan our lessons, activities, schemes of work, and the whole syllabus in such a way that we require from our students an “active knowledge” of those words that are more frequent, of course following a progression (1500 words are a lot to get started in! but it is a reasonable figure to aim at at the end of, say, 4 years of teaching). This way, they master the most important ones first, while they still may be exposed to a wider amount of vocabulary that will enrich their reading skills. and, of course, while teaching vocabulary we ought to create as many relations as possible among words, and from as many angles as possible (e.g., teaching vocabulary through semantic fields, lexical relations, relations of synonymy and antonymy, recycling words in different context and through different stories, etc.). it is, in my view, this particular are where we teachers of classical languages have still a great work to do. While you do find easily materials for vocabulary in MFL that apply this principles, there are only isolated,individual attempts to reproduce these practices in the case of classical languages. This kind of resources, to conclude, seem also of vital importance for those of us teachers who plan to transfer from a grammar translation approach into an active teaching of classical languages.
    I am sorry this replay was so long.
    Cura ut valeas!

    Xaverius

    • 1) Thanks for the comments, I’m glad you enjoy LLPSI.

      “…and which one of them are going to need extra drilling and practice…”

      2) We have different ideas about language. There’s no drilling going on in my classes.

      3) I don’t follow an immersion model. I establish meaning in English, and students can respond in English freely. Providing input by speaking Latin isn’t the same as creating an immersive environment in the classroom. Immersion often leads to submersion when time is limited, and I don’t recommend immersion models in schools.

  3. Pingback: Reading LLPSI, Teaching NONE of it! | Magister P.

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