Writing for the Novice: Parsing

On Episode 64 of Tea with BVP, Bill mentioned a couple things we’ve heard before, only this time through the lens of parsing (i.e. “moment-by-moment computation of sentence structure during comprehension”). You’ll note immediately that this definition is different from the Grammar-Translation method teacher prompt of “Student X, would you please parse the main verb found in line 2?” in which the pupil gives the person, number, tense, voice, and mood of the verb, which we all know the diligent student can do, though has nothing to do with the psychologically real comprehension of the sentence in which it was parsed.

First Noun Principle
Novice students* of most languages process the first noun they come across (e.g. “Caesarem” in Caesarem canis mordit) as the agent (i.e. one acting, but not necessarily grammatical subject). The savvy language teacher aware of language-learners’ first noun strategy could respond to this by using word order that avoids the misleading tendency.

Yes, using “English word order” could be more beneficial for your students, at least until they create enough mental representation of the language in order to begin processing everything in the input (i.e. Caesarem). This also means that restating the agent—every sentence—is one way to make language more comprehensible for the student, even though we know Latin cam omit these things.

Different Contexts (i.e. shelter vocabulary)
Students need to hear words in different contexts in order to process language in the moment-by-moment computation that is “parsing.” This is a case for sheltering vocabulary. With a low unique word count, the student encounters words used in more contexts. As the word count increases, the student might only have 1 or 2 opportunities to parse the sentence structure. A lack of parsing leads to “reduced comprehensible input.” That’s bad. Take the phrase to ask to go to the bathroom, licetne mihi īre ad latrīnam? (i.e. puedo ir al baño?), for example. The student must encounter licetneīre, and mihi all in different contexts for them to build mental representation of the sentence structure. They must encounter latrīna without the ending in different contexts, and they must encounter ad with words that do have the ending in different contexts. Without different contexts, licetne mihi īre ad latrīnam becomes one phrase spoken in order to get out of class for a few minutes, but with little meaning or structure attached. Over time, and with enough input in different contexts, students will begin to “break out individual parts of that phrase.” This begins with recycling words, and we recycle more words when the unique word count is low.

Lexical Preference Principle
Bill has refined this idea to state that students must have adverbs entrenched in their lexicon (i.e. “robust representation”) before verb endings are acquired. He used to think that temporal adverbs and personal ending pronouns were a crutch, yet now he believes they might be necessary. This is a game-changer. For the novice, Bill would advocate for adding more temporal adverbs and subject pronouns. Personally, I won’t start attaching pronouns 1 to 1 for every verb ending change that occurs in my writing, but I must recognize that it would help make Latin more comprehensible. As such, I intend to consciously use more pronouns as a real-time strategy in class when interacting with students, and begin using them to indicate changes in subjects in more of my writing.

N.B. “Novice” is a loosely-defined term. To ACTFL, it represents students who cannot understand past tense, which is ridiculous. To some authors, it represents students who understand 100 unique words in a 175 total word text, which I also find ridiculous. To others, it means “beginner,” or “easy”, with no criteria attached, and “novice” materials are often disregarded in favor of misplaced “rigor,” which is probably the most ridiculous. I use the term to represent students who understand 20-100 words in a 1200-3000 total word text, respectively, which is the target audience for my novellas. To me, “novice” refers to all students within the first 2 years of Latin in public education, knowing full-well that there will be a few novice students in the 3rd and 4th years of inclusive Latin programs as well. I’m not sure about self-selecting private schools and universities, but something tells me that “novices” are more alike than different, regardless of the classroom context.

What do you consider “novice?”

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One thought on “Writing for the Novice: Parsing

  1. Pingback: A- in Conjugating, D in Comprehending | Magister P.

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