Methods & Results: To What Do We Attribute Success?

Not every teacher shares how well their students are doing—probably out of fear of being criticized—and I don’t blame them one bit. This data is often kept under lock and key, so it’s hard to get a sense of whether all the talk amounts to something. SPOILER ALERT: it does. The reports I’ve seen on how well students have been doing under a…NOT…grammar-translation approach tend to attribute success in different ways, though. Today, I’m looking at two such programs to see if we can narrow down what contributes success:

Program 1:

  • 69% of Latin V students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • Uses LLPSI (Lingua Latina per se Illustrata)
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat) when students ask
  • CI is necessary, but not sufficient for acquisition
  • Extensive interaction is most important

Program 2:

  • 64% of Latin IV students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • No textbook
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat)
  • CI is necessary, and sufficient for acquisition
  • Interaction is important

The results are very close by the end of each program, and there’s definitely more in common than not, but what isn’t in common makes for differently-enough teaching and learning environments. Both are just as successful, but what can we attribute that success to? Let’s look into those differences a bit more…

This one is easy. One program uses a textbook, and the other doesn’t, but both programs use other texts as well, and both have students reading Latin at least in the Intermediate Mid level (I4) by the end of the program. Therefore, both programs provide their students with input, period. If you choose to use a textbook (vs. not), it doesn’t look like we can attribute any success to just that.

Establish Meaning
One program is immersion-leaning—not with full insistence on 100% Latin—but a strong avoidance for using native/English (still knowing it’s inevitable at times), taking the position that using English to establish meaning of Latin encourages students to believe Latin is coded English. The other program doesn’t hold this position. Science can jump in here to confirm that one’s native language cannot be ignored. It’s actually activated no matter what we do. So, even in a full 100% immersion setting, our mind/brain makes a connection through our native language (e.g. “oh, fēlēs means cat”). Yet even with science to back this one up, both programs have students reading Latin at least in the Intermediate Mid level (I4). If you choose to use English all the time to establish meaning (vs. avoidance), it doesn’t look like we can attribute any success to just that, either.

CI Sufficiency
This is the tricky one, for sure. The only thing SLA (Second Language Acquisition) studies have shown over and over is that input is necessary, it’s just that the amount of whatever else is unknown. That is, not one study has shown we do NOT need input, but not one study has shown something else we DO need, what amount of it, and when. So, the “…but not sufficient” tag has been added to leave room for whatever we find later on, and I think that’s great. I think leaving room for future discovery is great, but it does seem like there’s a tendency to hang onto that tag as if there’s more evidence to support it than there is. Of course, it’d be nice if research could give us a ratio of something like 80% input, and 20% interaction, or even something as high as 95% input and 5% interaction, but let’s not hold our breath on that one. Bottom line, we know that learners need input, and only recently in the last decade(s?) have more and more teachers been realizing they could be providing a lot more of it. Therefore, any effort to increase input—and do what we can to make it more comprehensible—is the way to go, for sure.

The snag? “Interaction” could mean a lot of different things. When students read and click multiple choice responses, that’s some kind of interaction with a text. When students translate a text, that’s also interaction. Interaction also involves person to person negotiation of meaning. When students speak to each other in Latin, that’s interaction via interpersonal communication. When a student responds to a teacher’s question with one word, that’s also interaction via interpersonal communication. Given all these possible forms of interaction, we’re talking about a wide range of output in the target language, from zero (i.e. translating), to full (i.e. 100% immersion speaking only Latin in class).

Both programs I’m looking at in this blog post are keen to recognize that “interaction” could mean all of those things. Both would agree that if a student isn’t attending to the input, and isn’t reacting, or responding, there’s little hope for acquisition. One difference we can identify between the programs is interaction that results in understanding input, and interaction as a form of output. One program takes the position that all interaction is most important, with more emphasis on interaction as output. The other program takes the position that all interaction is no more or less important that input, and places emphasis on interaction for understanding. So, if you consider input to be insufficient, and emphasize interaction as output (vs. input being sufficient, and emphasize interaction for understanding), it doesn’t look like we can attribute any success to just that, either!

It’s All CI
At least in this one comparison, the use of a textbook, English, and interaction (as output or for understanding), have such little impact on their own that we cannot attribute success to any of them individually. What one program uses, the other doesn’t, yet both achieve very close results by the end of the whole Latin program. Of course, there’s a good chance there are other things in common, too, such as…

  • …having a strong connection with students…
  • …being caring and sympathetic to the language learner…
  • …being culturally responsive to the students in the room…
  • …maintaining realistic grading practices…

…and perhaps anything and everything that falls under something more “affective” that’s hard to identify as a concrete way to structure class. This “hippy affective stuff” might even be found in the sections above. For example, a switch to avoidance of English in Program 2 could create such tense conditions for those students in that school that even the input being provided wouldn’t be received. Yes, Krashen’s “affective filter” is the weakest part of the input hypothesis, and hardly researchable, yet NO ONE denies the existence of something like this at play. Or, in Program 1, the idea of tossing out the textbook could be so ungrounding that the program would collapse, affecting far more than just what kind of input would be provided. Instead, we must look at what’s in common.

Aside from the generally similar approach to reading and use of translation, input, and specifically comprehensible input (CI) is the common thread. Sure, Program 1 would say CI is insufficient, but they’re providing it nonetheless as a baseline plus some additional interaction. Program 1 also avoids English whenever possible, but still provides CI through pictures, synonyms, etc., and when they don’t, they do give the English when students ask. Program 2 places no more emphasis on interaction than input, and sticks to interactions for understanding. That’s CI. It’s all CI, actually. We can attribute the success of both programs to…CI!

The question moving forward, then, becomes “how do you provide CI?” Everything else has marginal effects, regardless of what we want to attribute success to. We all have the freedom to do whatever we want in our classes, but all roads lead to CI. There are teachers who provide CI in very complex ways. There are teachers who provide CI in very simple ways. There are also teachers who provide CI in different ways, none of which might be qualified as complex or simple!

So, what are ways in which you provide CI?

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