Efficiency & Effectiveness vs. Enjoyment

It’s my 9th year teaching, and I’m done. Finished. Kaputz. That’s it. I’m completely over the approach of talking to other teachers about efficiency and effectiveness. You won’t find me straying into a Twitter discussion circus trying to point out efficient practices for second language teaching. That ship has long sailed. The curtains have closed with me weighing in on comparing the effectiveness of Terrible Practice A and Undoubtedly Much Better Practice B. I might never update my page on Studies Showing the Ineffectiveness of Grammar Instruction & Error Correction, instead ignoring commentary on why I haven’t treated it like a formal annotated bibliography, or lit review, or part-time job. Ah yes, and 2020’s article on grammar-translation could be my final say on the matter.

I’ll be talking about enjoyment from now on.

I’m also going rogue here to say that the kids aren’t actually the priority. Teaching is a profession, and it’s time more teachers think of it that way. Underfunded and undervalued public education right now is like a plane heading straight for the water. Put your own damn mask on, first. It took all of last year to expose all the worst problems, and it should be clear by now that the mask is enjoyment. If you don’t enjoy what you do, learners in the classroom don’t stand a chance. We don’t have to be entertainers, uh uh, but kids sense a lot more than we think. Given all this, I won’t really have much to say about which conditions make a comprehension-based approach more effective than a grammar one. I won’t bring up how a communicative approach is more efficient for acquisition than immersion. No siree Bob. When asked why I do what I do, my answer will be “it’s more enjoyable.”

Enjoyment…for whom?
I’m sure someone who doesn’t teach with a comprehension-based and/or communicative approach reading this is pushing up their glasses (I wear them, too, relax) thinking “bUt My StUdEnTs LoVe ClAsS.” Sure, that might be true. Of course, that’s also like saying “my students turn in missing assignments only if I put in a zero.” Teachers who believe these do so because it appears to be true and work for the students for whom it works. However, it certainly doesn’t account for the rest of the students for whom it DOES NOT work. N.B. It’s also likely that the zero itself getting isn’t the student’s attention, but some notification and reminder from the teacher. Thus, the same holds true with enjoyment. The teacher who enjoys using a certain approach might assume it’s the approach itself that students enjoy. In reality, there’s probably a host of other factors actually causing the enjoyment, and students just have to deal with the approach.

So, you won’t find me comparing a grammar approach to a comprehension-based one. For starters, the best way to do that would be to teach two sections of Latin I using the former, and two using the latter. Sorry boutcha, but here’s no way I’m gonna do that. Of course, there’s no way another teacher using a completely different approach would do the same, either.

However, there’s a key difference.

I’m not going to use a grammar approach because I’ve been there, and it’s not enjoyable. Granted, I personally found that approach enjoyable in college as a complete nerd, but I never enjoyed the approach when I first started teaching, watching students either fail or succeed regardless of my support. Also, I’m not going to use an immersion approach because I’ve tried it, too, and it wasn’t enjoyable for me. As you can see, I’m talking about experience with different approaches. I’m not sure every teacher with a different approach can say the same about a comprehension-based and/or communicative approach. In fact, I only know of one teacher who tried, went back, but then ultimately settled on a comprehension-based approach again years later, as well as one other teacher who tried what generally has been referred to as “CI”—so who knows what that that teacher was really up to—then ditched it and went all Judas on a colleague and openly trashed the approach. I’m sure there are some others, but similar anecdotes don’t really abound. The majority follow a progression away from grammar, period. Are teachers drawn to a comprehension-based and/or communicative approach at first because they’re touted as more efficient, or effective? Maybe, but they mostly stick with it because it’s enjoyable, and the joy seems to spread to students, too. This kind of “new pedagogy” that Thomas Hendrickson refers to in his hot-off-the-press SCS blog on novellas is summed up well in a near-closing statement:”

…I’m confident that the time is better spent in reading novellas than in reading more sentences from Wheelock, which is what we used to do with that time. At the very least, the students seem to enjoy it more. And if one of your course goals isn’t to foster a love of reading Latin, perhaps it should be.”

Besides, future research on efficiency and effectiveness probably most definitely won’t lead to findings suggesting that a) the grammar-translation approach is more suitable and equitable for secondary students, b) learners somehow need less input than we thought and its comprehensibility overrated, or c) students don’t really need a meaningful purpose to communicate. No way. So, with future research all but certain to strengthen support for comprehension-based and/or communicative language teaching (CCLT), I’ll let those studies speak for themselves as I hang out over here talking about enjoyment.

Communicate ≠ Communication ≠ Communicative Approach ≠ Comprehension

I thought it’d be helpful to go through some terms that seem to be used interchangeably. Why? The misunderstandings have an effect on pedagogical discussions, and there’s always room for reminders. So, communication, as defined by at least Sandra Savignon and Bill VanPatten, boils down to “the interpretation, negotiation, and expression of meaning.” Each researcher added details like “within a given context, and “sometimes negotiation,” but the basic idea us teachers can focus on is in the three words, also conveniently picked up by ACTFL and keyed to their three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.

  • Examples of interpreting Latin would include listening and reading. You can do this alone. It’s one-way (input).
  • Examples of negotiating in Latin would include some interaction, which isn’t necessarily spoken because you can respond in non-verbal ways, and you can also do this via writing, such as email correspondence. You can’t do this alone. It’s two-way (input + output).
  • Examples of expressing Latin would include writing or speaking. You can do this alone, such as when writing a story, or publicly speaking. It’s one-way (output). When giving a presentation, there are people there, but you don’t necessarily have to interact with them. Think lecture without follow-up, or better yet, think videos. TikTok videos are people expressing meaning. Of course, any follow-up would involve interaction, thus becoming interpersonal communication.

OK, those are very clear examples of communication from a second language perspective. However, when most people say that they “communicate” with others, that usually just means speaking, and maaaaaaybe writing. That is, the verb “communicate” is often synonymous with “talk,” and almost always suggests two-way interaction. That’s…fine…but we start running into problems when language teachers use the two interchangeably…

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“All You CI People Do Is Just Quote…”

The typical claim is that teachers cite Krashen—and only Krashen—when talking about, or defending, comprehension-based teaching practices. In the past decade or so, that’s also expanded to include Bill VanPatten. One reason teachers might do this is that they have day jobs, and that day job certainly isn’t researching Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories. Seriously. The fact that anyone demands evidence from comprehension-based teachers to justify their practices is insulting. Furthermore, the fact that language teachers have *any* awareness of research is amazing when you compare the state of teacher preparation programs/licensing paths with the responsibilities of a classroom teacher. Sometimes I think how INSANE it is that I even blog about teaching in addition to teaching!

Now, time—alone—doesn’t invalidate research, but bad research certainly invalidates bad research. When it comes to science, Krashen hasn’t been all that technical, but you know what? Who cares?! Eric Herman brought up that bad research could have very good implications for teaching, while at the same time good research could have very bad implications for teaching. His example was that if it were replicated study after study that 100% error-correction all the time were effective, just imagine a classroom in which the teacher corrected every utterance/writing of the students! That’d be a messed up, top-down, authoritarian, walking-on-eggshells kind of class for most kids in the room.

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Compelling Diversions: “Who needs a Boost?” and “What would you like, today?

The longer I teach, the more I pull back the curtain, becoming more transparent with students in the room, and better-aligning my practices with core principles. An understanding of communicative purpose has really helped me eliminate some of the charades you tend to see everywhere. For example, what once began as reading textbook passages designed to teach a specific grammar point has now become me outright saying “today, we’re gonna learn about some grammar” (i.e. learning). No veil. Texts are now read for enjoyment (i.e. entertainment), or learning about the target culture (i.e. learning). Any collaborative storytelling or Write & Discuss (Type & Talk) results in texts (i.e. creating), though the process is often enjoyable (i.e. entertainment), and focuses on some topic (i.e. learning). Those three classroom communicative purposes: entertainment, learning, and creating, have all led to great buy-in and trust. The longer I teach, there’s just no need for any of the role-play and ruse within the classroom reality.

Well, it’s that time of the year when I get ideas on what to improve upon or do differently next fall. In particular, I’ve got my eye on a couple new transparent routines that are best established right from the start…

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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…

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100% Coverage ≠ 100% Comprehension

A question by a member of the Latin Best Practices FB group prompted me to look into text coverage, which ultimately led me to comprehension. These are two ideas that a lot of people have misinterpreted, much like the “4%er” figure, and even “90% target language use.” I’m thinking people have a hard time with mathematical concepts, and maybe we should avoid percentages moving forward. But first, we should take care of what damage has already been done by looking at simple examples right away:

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens. There are five tokens in the sentence “the bird sees the cat.” Two of the tokens in that sentence happen to be the same word. Therefore, “the” represents 40% text coverage. If the reader doesn’t know “the,” they have a text coverage of 60%. The reader who knows everything except “cat” would have a text coverage of 80%.

Comprehension
Comprehension is a different idea entirely. If the reader who doesn’t know “cat” were asked “what does the bird see?” and it were scored, they’d have a comprehension score of zero. If they were asked two questions about the bird, and two questions about the cat, their score would be 50% comprehension with their 80% coverage of the text. Not the same thing.

Reading
Laufer et al.’s research shows that learners need a text coverage—not comprehension—of 98% ideally to read with ease (and 99-100% whenever possible), but that’s just getting through the reading. That 98% figure is just the start of comprehension.

Hold up.

Yeah, that’s right. Knowing 98% of a text—STOP!!—Remember the first section on tokens. It’s not 98 out of 100 different words, but 98 of 100 tokens (i.e. some words probably repeat). So, knowing 98% of a text doesn’t even guarantee comprehension of what is read. That’s quite the trip, isn’t it? It gets worse when we look at some findings from one of Eric Herman’s Acquisition Classroom Memos on exactly how [in]comprehensible reading can get with what seems like decent text coverage.

There’s a lot in that chart, but compare the text coverage to comprehension scores. Even 95% text coverage can get woefully low comprehension (55%). Keep in mind that the higher scores are still in the “most” range, as in learners are understanding most of what they read when they know 95%+ of a text. Also, those vocabulary sizes are incredibly high for what the majority of K-12 teachers should expect from their students. Eric also adds some context to the research:

“For the most part, the above reading studies were done with high proficiency students, ungraded and academic texts, and count word families. A reasonable prediction is that even higher text coverage and vocabulary size numbers are required to enable adequate comprehension of graded texts by lower level proficiency students. And this is not considering levels necessary for a confident and pleasurable reading experience, which would undoubtedly be even higher!

Higher would be 100%. Let’s make sure we set the record straight:

  • Students need to know 98% of a text to read it with ease.
  • Reading with ease from knowing 98% of a text can still result in much lower comprehension scores, like 70%.
  • Coverage ≠ comprehension

Providing students with texts of 98%…even 100% coverage of known words is step zero. It’s actually the minimum hope we could have for students reading with ease with high levels of comprehension. It turns out that text coverage isn’t very important to look at, because even knowing 100% of the words doesn’t guarantee 100% comprehension. It all goes back to vocab as top priority, sheltering whenever possible so gradual exposure to new words increases vocabulary without the burden of incomprehension. What does this mean for class? Probably using even fewer words than you think! Students can’t magically learn thousands of words, so if we expect them to comprehend high levels of what they read—especially during any kind of independent reading—we must use and create texts with a very limited number of words.

Text Coverage & DCC’s Top 1000

**Updated 2.25.21 with details from this post**

The DCC frequency list is often consulted for choosing which words to use when writing Latin for students. It certainly makes sense to use ones they might encounter over and over again vs. those they might not, but *how* frequent are these frequent words? In particular, I was curious what a student could probably read having acquired the Top 1000 words on DCC’s list. Here’s some quick background…

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“…& Classical Humanities”

Almost every degree and teaching license I know of related to Latin attaches “& Classical Humanities” to the end. That is, it’s rare to study and teach the Latin language without also studying and teaching Classical Humanities.

Why is this?

I know, I know. They’re two peas in a pod. It might seem obvious since the culture most associated with Latin is Roman, part of the Classical era. Yet Latin has been around for thousands of years, right? Many cultures have used Latin, and not all of that Latin has been about the Romans, either. Consider teaching Classical Humanities without Latin. It’d be a history class focus on a particular time period, right? That’s like a history class on 18th century Spain. Now consider a high school Spanish language class. Surely, students don’t learn only about the18th century, much less Spain’s entire history, or even focus on just Spain at all! There are tons of Spanish-speaking cultures that have written about a ton of different stuff, and Spanish language classes take that into account.

Why not Latin?

Of course, the context of a Spanish class seems different, but is it, really? The Latin language didn’t die with the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, non-Roman cultures have now been using Latin longer than the Romans existed. I’m not saying there are now more texts written by non-Romans than Romans. Then again…

TheLatinLibrary.com
The second I wrote that, I suddenly realized I had no idea whether it could be true. In what a colleague would say is very “on brand” of me, I ran some numbers through Voyant Tools, taking all ancient Latin texts from TheLatinLibrary, and comparing the total words to the Miscellany, Christian, Medieval, and Neo-Latin categories. It must be noted right away that this doesn’t represent all of the world’s extant Latin. In fact, I’m reading a work of elegiac couplets from the 15th century by Vincent Obsopoeus that’s nowhere to be found on TheLatinLibrary. There are thousands of words of Latin in there, but it won’t appear in my data. You won’t find works like Cornelia, or Ora Maritima, either. There’s no Hobbitus Ille in the data, and women are utterly underrepresented, with perhaps just Sulpicia and Egeria included in TheLatinLibrary at all. So, my source has its flaws, yet what we have of ancient Roman Latin is all there, or nearly all there, and these estimates* help put things into perspective. Of course, I went into this wondering if the world has surpassed the Romans in writing of Latin—prompting more inquiry into why the Classical Humanities are still a focus in high school Latin study—and the truth is undeniable, especially when acknowledging there’s so much recent Latin unaccounted for. Bottom, line, far more Latin has been written since the Romans than what you see here, which is already more than what we have from them:

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A Solution To Asking Wrong Questions (e.g. “How Do You Teach X?”): Focus & Flip

Ask 10 teachers how they teach X, and you’ll probably get 10 different responses. However, if you flip it, and instead ask “how do students learn X?” you might get what in many cases is the only answer. Furthermore, it helps to focus the question first because most “how do you teach X?” questions are way too broad. Teachers can’t possibly teach everything about X, so there’s gotta be a more specific outcome to the question. What is the point of X? Or, what are students expected to do, or know about X? For example…

  1. Take a question teachers always ask:
    • How do you teach the subjunctive?
  2. Focus it:
    • How do you teach students to identify subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip It:
    • How do students learn to identify subjunctive verb forms?

In this case, the answer is quite simple: students must memorize verb forms. There’s no way around that one. Humans won’t spontaneously infer which verbs are subjunctive. To identify them, students will have to be shown what they are, commit them to memory, and then recall from memory. So, the teacher who expects students to identify subjunctive verb forms needs to provide them, and hope their students have good memories (oh right, that last part is out of their control). Not a very reliable thing to expect, it turns out.

Consider back to the alternative, too. Just think of all the different answers you could get to “how do you teach the subjunctive?” They’ll probably all be from the teacher’s perspective, like descriptions of activities, and have nothing to do with the actual learning that must go on, too. This is probably why so many teachers reinvent the wheel year after year. The teaching isn’t actually addressing what students need to learn. Of course, that grammar question is a bit silly since the focus doesn’t have much use. Let’s look at a related question with a more useful purpose…

  1. Q: How do you get students using the subjunctive?
  2. Focus: How do you get students to speak using accurate subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip: How do students learn to accurately speak using subjunctive verb forms?

This answer is also simple: time & exposure. Accuracy, especially in speaking, isn’t expected for the first years (3-4+), with or without any “error” correction, either. For any language to come out (output), students need lots of examples coming in (input). So, the teacher who expects accurate use of subjunctive, then, needs to ensure that there are tons of examples of subjunctive verb forms in what students listen to and read. Oh, and they also need to have patience. Any teacher who expects—and gets—beginner students speaking accurate subjunctive verb forms either doesn’t know the research, measures that in isolation and moves on, or is seeing short term memory results. Yet also probably holds “review” sessions each year!

So, give Focus & Flip a try!

Something Strange…

Before I started teaching in 2013, I joined the moreTPRS Yahoo list serve. Then in 2015, I joined Ben Slavic’s PLC. At that time, there were daily—DAILY—conversations about Second Language Acquisition (SLA), with really tough questions being asked, answered, and debated ad nauseam. Then Tea With BVP was launched, with weekly shows until 2018—here are my clips down to the nuts & bolts. N.B. That show was rebooted in a different iteration as TalkinL2 until just about a year ago. Needless to say, I learned a great deal in those five years; far more, in fact, than in my MAT program (no offense, just a result of SLA expert-lacking faculty nationwide).

I cannot overstate this enough when I say that those early years were simply *crucial* in the development of what we all learned about SLA, and teaching languages. Furthermore, what we now know has also been around for like 10, 20, 30, even 40 years beforehand! That is, most scholarship in the last decades haven’t really changed the game of what’s been discussed since the 70s. The problem? This stuff wasn’t (isn’t?) mainstream—at all. That “golden age” of my SLA development involved the constant interaction with perhaps 200, maybe 300 teachers, almost all of whom I can reach out to with a click. I also had direct access to researchers, their ideas, as well as teachers implementing and arguing about what is, essentially, “best practice” for teaching languages in schools. When we didn’t understand, we emailed and got answers. And we were fringe. Having been exposed to the same ideas over and over—not just Krashen & VanPatten—thankfully from a variety of perspectives courtesy of Eric Herman, a solid understanding of universal truths (as much as we can call them that in the field of SLA) was being discussed.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a LOT of disequilibrium that nearly everyone had to face (e.g. “wait, so you’re saying that…”), and it was not without major headaches. After all, teachers’ worlds were literally being turned upside-down (no, I do mean literally like what you thought was the cause was just a result). Even the researchers’ ideas were challenged—by “mere” teachers no less—and fruitful discussion emerged, like when Carol Gaab demanded a concrete response about whether co-creating a story was a communicative act (i.e. had purpose). N.B. Yes, it is; entertainment. There was significant growth at that time, but it wasn’t all roses. We could call a spade a spade, or at least all come to agreement that a heart was definitely not a spade, and then talk about how to make that heart into a spade. Granted, this was within the fringe group of hundreds of teachers who had that shared experience, but there was definitely some kind of “tell me if what I’m talking about is complete nonsense” agreement. Whatever it was, it now feels like he heyday of theory to practice and critical looks at each others’ teaching.

Then…

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