Meaning-Based & Form-Based Latin Teaching: Survey Results

In a report on the 2018 National Latin Exam Survey, the number of teachers primarily using grammar-translation (478) was over twice that of the next most-used “Reading Method” option (202), and over 16 times that of the least-used “Active Latin” option (27). The other options given were CI, and TPRS. You might already see the problem there. That is all those options were labeled as “methodologies/techniques/philosophies” on the survey, likely in an attempt to account for all the differences between terms. However, such a comparison is like asking “what do you primarily do in class?” That is, there’s almost no coherency between the five options. For example, a teacher could use the TPRS method to provide CI, and in doing so be characterized as using Active Latin. The only clearly distinct option is grammar-translation, yet that still doesn’t show the extent to which grammar is present in one’s teaching (i.e. grammar is also included in “Reading Method” and possibly “Active Latin”). Therefore, I wanted to send out a new survey that focused on practices rather than terms prone to misunderstanding. I did just that in June of 2020. In this post, I share those results…

I posted a survey to 1,703 members in the Latin Best Practices Facebook group, which was then shared to six other groups ranging from 75 to 4,149 members. There’s definitely some membership overlap between groups, but a conservative estimate would be that the survey was sent to at least 4,500 people. Still, who knows how many members are active in those groups?! It’s possible this only reached 1,000 people over the course of a week. I dunno.

Description & Definitions
The survey asked participants to report their estimated use of two broad types of teaching:

  1. Meaning-based teaching (e.g. focus on input, comprehension, communicative purpose—entertainment, learning, creating)
  2. Form-based teaching (e.g. focus on grammar rules, accurate identification/production, error-correction).

A total of 131 Latin teachers responded; three at the post-secondary level, three independent/tutor, and remaining 125 at the pre-collegiate K-12 level. There were more teachers within the first 15 years experience (81) than there were with 16+ years of experience (50). Combining the two groups with the highest levels of experience into one (i.e. 21+), teachers were evenly represented in this survey. Two groups (0-5, and 16-20) were represented by exactly 21 teachers, two groups (11-15, and 21+) by exactly 29, and one group (6-10 years) by 31.

Meaning & Form
The distribution is remarkably balanced, with teachers reporting slightly more overall (75%+) meaning-based teaching (48) than overall (75%+) form-based teaching (42), as well as the 50/50 combination of both (41). Participants chose from five percentage ranges to report their estimated meaning-based and form-based teaching. The biggest difference of any range was between participants reporting nearly all (90%) meaning-based teaching (17) to nearly all (90%) form-based teaching (12).

In terms of experience, teachers in the 6-10 year group reported the most difference of either meaning-based or form-based teaching by eight, yet that difference was balanced (i.e. 13 meaning-based, 5 combination, and 13 form-based). Differences in the other experience groups were minimal, with teachers reporting more meaning-based or form-based teaching than a 50/50 combination by only a few.

There were 34 comments (optional).

The most common response (11) was a desire to move toward more meaning-based teaching, reported by two teachers in every experience group, and three in years 0-5. Reasons for not being more meaning-based were district, department, and standardized test restrictions, and one comment specifically mentioned Facebook as a source of support (i.e. “It’s rough, but wouldn’t be occurring without the Latin / language teacher groups on FB.”).

The next most common response (9) was that one’s teaching moves from meaning-based in beginning years to form-based in later years. Reasons for this were sending students to other teachers with form-based teaching expectations, as well as standardized tests.

Two teachers reported the opposite, beginning with form-based teaching in the first year or two, and moving to more meaning-based teaching in later years.

One comment from an independent/tutor was “I wouldn’t understand Latin that’s not grammatically correct! Latin IS grammar.”

One comment was “Even in the world of text messaging and emailing, I still believe in English grammar, and find that most of my students become experts in English grammar with the Latin grammar I teach them. I believe in the value of grammar!”

I really appreciate this one comment that began with “Based on your descriptions of the positions, I have zero confidence that I am reporting this correctly,” ha! I understand completely, but any lack of descriptions and examples on my part would’ve introduced far too many variables when estimating. For example, teachers using textbooks as the *primary curriculum resource* might want to think that the focus is more meaning-based, but the structure of textbooks needs to be taken into account. Textbooks are designed to present forms of Latin systematically. It would be hard to explain how using a textbook—primarily—results in less than half the focus on Latin forms since that’s what’s being presented to students.

One comment from a teacher reporting 50/50 combination was “Covid probably changed this to 75/25 in favor of meaning based this year.”

One comment was “your constraints on data responses are problematic because of your clear research biases.” Burn.

That bell curve really is remarkable. Depending on your perspective, any number of interpretations hold true. For example, most teachers are reporting using meaning-based teaching, yet the same could be said of form-based teaching. Had results been less-balanced, interpretations or even conclusions could have been clearer. Sample size is always a problem. If only 1,000 people saw the survey, the 131 participants is definitely above an acceptable survey minimum of 10%, but what if 5,000 saw the survey?!

If this survey hadn’t been shared to groups other than Latin Best Practices, I would’ve expected the amount of meaning-based teaching to be higher. That is, there are definitely more discussions on how to move toward more meaning-based teaching, and the group’s description includes “a safe forum for those who have taken an intentional dedicated plunge into Comprehensible Input-based practices and away from legacy practices.” N.B. “legacy practices” would be considered almost entirely form-based teaching. Over 30% of the comments did reflect a desire to move towards more meaning-based teaching, even if they aren’t doing so at this time. I suppose the fact that no one expressed a desire to move toward more form-based teaching is notable, yet expected. If form-based teaching is the status quo, any comments about changing one’s teaching will be about meaning-based, naturally.

The comment of “Covid probably changed this to 75/25 in favor of meaning based this year” is fascinating. Whereas there used to be a combination of meaning-based and form-based teaching for this teacher, remote learning led to a decrease of practices like a focus on grammar rules, accurate identification/production, error-correction, and an increase of practices like a focus on input, comprehension, communicative purpose—entertainment, learning, creating. What was it about remote learning that might have done that?

I’m left with the following questions:

  • To what extent did having a middle ground option (50/50) keep teachers from reporting more meaning-based or form-based teaching, even if they couldn’t see themselves reporting as much as 75% either way? Could splitting that option into two more ranges (e.g. “40/60 vs. 60/40”) have led to any clearer interpretations?
  • Are 30% or so of the participants really using a 50/50 combination? Or, is that the percentage of teachers who read my suggestion of reporting primarily using a textbook as 50/50?
  • Do the results indicate that over 36% of teachers reporting slightly more overall meaning-based teaching (75%+) aren’t using textbooks as their primary curriculum resource? If so, that’s a lot higher than I would’ve expected, and speaks to the “untextbooking” movement.
  • Is thinking in terms of these two broad types of teaching and their descriptions more helpful than “grammar-translation” vs. “CI,” or other kinds of comparisons?

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