Preparing Our Students For…Latin 100?!

Someone on Facebook posed a couple questions to those at the college/university level regarding the preparedness, and subsequent placement of incoming students.

These are excellent questions.

One comment reported that most incoming Advanced Placement (AP) students retake a lower level grammar course in college. Most! These AP students were successful in high school because of significant memorization, but aren’t prepared for grammar the way colleges expect them to be. Perhaps we should look at exposing students to grammar a different way, no?

I’ve asked these questions, myself, yet the few Classics Departments I solicited years ago didn’t collect any of that data beyond a handful of students they could remember from the current year. Oh, would that they had done so!

In my first year of teaching, a Spanish teaching colleague criticized CI by stating that the language program was successful the way it was, so I should be quiet and listen to the elders. I became curious, so I asked our own counselors about data regarding what college classes our Spanish students were signing up for. They had no clue, and mentioned how hard it was to collect data from grads. I understood that, but it meant that we didn’t know if our program was successful because of what the department was doing, or if students were just studying abroad, then coming back to visit the high school teachers speaking Spanish and validating the teacher’s practices. No bueno.

This kind of data is especially important for Latin teachers, which seem most resistant of all language teachers to ditching particular teaching practices. If we had better data on what course levels students test into, however, we’d probably find out that the teaching methods employed for so long actually prepare very few—of the already very few do continue studying Latin—for college courses beyond the lower levels. These lower college level courses include content supposedly covered in high school. Perhaps, the word “covered” is the operational term since we know that the affects of instruction disappear after about 8-12 months! In that sense, I wouldn’t be surprised to find only a handful of students testing into courses beyond “basic grammar,” which is a, if not the major focus of the majority of Latin programs out there. Of course, the nature of college placement tests is a different story altogether, but if they test explicit grammar knowledge, teachers who explicitly teach grammar in high school ought to be preparing students adequately. Are we sure that’s happening?

Another experience from my first year teaching illustrates this nicely. A senior in my study hall thought he’d waive the upcoming college language requirement by testing out of Latin, which he had taken 3 traditional years of. He was confident going into the placement test, even though it had been a year since his Latin 3 final. Based on his scores, however, he was told that he’d have to begin with Latin 100, the absolute lowest level Latin course. He opted to start learning French instead.

I suspect that this student would’ve been more prepared had he received copious amounts of CI the previous 3 years. Actually, I don’t even have to suspect that. A solid foundation of CI is objectively more beneficial as the more-universal ingredient for acquisition that reaches more students.

Let’s stop playing games.

Even if explicit grammar instruction were more beneficial for language acquisition, it just doesn’t reach many studentsI’d like to see some evidence against that.

Another anecdote, since data seems to be dismissed left and right these days, would be that a Latin teacher I know heard from a former student who was totally prepared to read Latin after some solid CI in high school. The student read better than his “A+ in paradigm” peers, yet found the college course dull, and irrelevant. This was not a Classics student. He was a student into tech who understood Latin far better than the majors, yet, even he was excluded from whatever joy he could’ve had in that college Latin class. Perhaps worse, this student achieved what the supposed goal of explicit grammar knowledge is, anyway—reading Latin—but was somehow excluded. That’s sad.

As teachers discuss methods, and possibly criticize each other on the basis of preparing students to be Classics majors, I would urge them to consider the facts, look at evidence, ponder whether goals are realistic, or whether their own students are, indeed, achieving what they appear to be achieving on teacher-generated assessments, as well as national tests (like the AP requiring massive memorization, yet little ability).

So, what are we preparing students for? The one testimonial from college/university land  in the FB post suggests that most programs are preparing ~1 kid per year to repeat Latin 100.

Surely, we can do better.


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