Grammar Syllabus Alternatives

**Updated 10.23.17** Lots of related support and sources cited on the Eric Herman’s Acquisition Classroom Memo Video Playlist for Memo 8.

I just presented at the Vermont Classical Language Association’s 2017 meeting on “A Grammar Free Syllabus, Personalization, and Proficiency in the CI Latin Classroom.” The title of my PPT, however, reflects the possible consequence that if we don’t say goodbye to the grammar syllabus, we might say goodbye to teaching Latin in public schools. It’s a strong claim, but I don’t tend to make light claims, anyway.


The meeting included the usual battery of questions and concerns that accompany presentations on moving away from explicit grammar, but I would say receptivity was high. At one point I mentioned that I share ideas (mostly not my own) of one extreme because we already have the other; I bring balance to the force. If all teachers began with any of the principles, goals, or strategies included in my PPT, the profession would be in a better, stronger place. Here are some ideas that were raised, along with commentary I didn’t have enough time to get to:

Students learn more about English (L1 native) via explicit grammar instruction of Latin (L2), which is a main reason students take [my] Latin class.

Sure, some do, but I would ask a) if teaching grammar explicitly were the only way to accomplish this, as well as b) what this greater knowledge about English actually does for students’ English. My take? Just read more English. Better readers write better since they’re exposed to excellent models. No instruction necessary. 

As for the attracting students with the idea that Latin will help with English, well, we know that general transfer is rare, and thinking about how English works (i.e. applying explicit knowledge) isn’t the same as communicating in English (i.e. implicit processes). It’s like claiming how Latin will improve SAT scores. First of all, the typical self-selecting Latin student is also the type of student already going to do well on the SAT. Otherwise, don’t spend 4 years studying a language for a test you can cram for in 2 weeks, that’s just silly.

I’m on board with realistic expectations and personalization, but how do we push students beyond Novice, or beyond Intermediate and towards reading ancient unadapted texts?

We don’t.

There are so many internal learner constraints when it comes to acquiring language that the teacher only has control over the quantity, and comprehensibility of input. This explains why the effects of explicit instruction disappear after 8 months to a year in the ~5 studies that delay testing that long!

Not only do we have very little control over speeding up acquisition, but we also need to recognize inadequacies of the conventional teaching model. Students are constantly faced with a smack in the face when transitioning from the textbook to literature. This has been recognized for a long, long time, and very few students persevere through the mucky muck. We know that explicit grammar isn’t adequately preparing students to read ancient unadapted texts…this really shouldn’t be hard to ditch.

Why not teach Latin as the Romans did?

A professor brought up the soon-to-be-released “Learn Latin From The Romans” by Eleanor Dickey. Surely, this should justify teaching explicit grammar as the Romans did, right?

Not even close.

Although the book will prove to be a fantastic look into education in antiquity, we can’t overlook the fact that Roman schoolchildren already knew Latin. Instead, Romans learned how to refine their Latin in school, not begin from scratch. Our little ones are no different…they go to kindergarten already communicating in their native language better than those with a B.A. in Latin! **Update 10.23.17** See the comment below, with an excerpt from the book on the teaching of Latin to non native speakers: “Some Latin grammatical texts, such as that of Charisius, were clearly aimed at learners with little knowledge of Latin, and yet it would have required considerable knowledge of Latin to read them.”

Let’s at least recognize that the conventional model of teaching explicit grammar aims to refine a language our students don’t yet know!


3 thoughts on “Grammar Syllabus Alternatives

  1. Dickey’s book describes that after native Latin speakers as you describe, interaction with the army, Roman law, and travel were other reasons for learning Latin. Especially for Greeks, she writes, “Latin learning was largely a utilitarian enterprise.”

    After alphabets, “they then read easy-reader texts designed for beginners [her section 2 is filled with examples]” in which the Latin faced the Greek. These were primarily dialogues called “colloquia”. Only after they had learned enough Latin were learners generally “presented with monolingual Latin texts and a dictionary”.

    And last,

    “Some Latin grammatical texts, such as that of Charisius, were clearly aimed at learners with little knowledge of Latin, and yet it would have required considerable knowledge of Latin to read them. Exactly how Charisius expected his work to be used is a debated point….One grammarian, Dositheus, appears to have become exasperated by the inevitable failure of students to understand the Latin grammars, for he provided part of his work with a running Greek translation in the same format as the colloquia.”

    There’s a whole lot more in her book . . . “Learning Latin the Ancient Way” (2016)

  2. Hi MagisterP, I’ve got a question. As you know I’m new to the CI movement, and very curious about it. Could we not make an implicit-grammar syllabus? I mean, is it Krashen-kosher to have a definite roadmap in mind (as a teacher) and to drop in form-focused-CI to help learners develop “that” communicative skill / implicit grammar knowledge. E.g. I’m now teaching Latin 1 and I decide they should have a good grasp of pronouns within this first year. This is my agenda. I keep it secret to myself, don’t talk about it but deliberately make an intensive use of pronouns in my CI materials. This is my own very private grammar syllabus. Does it work, in the SLA theory? Thanks a lot.


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