Ideas Without Labels: A Discussion Framework

It was John Bracey who reminded me that if either of us just started discovering CI right now, we’d have NO IDEA what to do or where to begin. It was very clear a few years ago when Story Listening wasn’t as popular, and Ben Slavic had yet to write his Big CI Book, let alone create The Invisibles with Tina Hargaden. TPRS wasn’t even promoting its version of MovieTalk, which is now standard practice in its workshops as the easier gateway to story asking. These all have positively contributed in some way to those teaching in comprehension-based communicative classrooms—don’t get me wrong—but the culmination has also made communicating ideas about CI more complicated. For example, the Teacher’s Discovery magazine has begun selling products branded with “CI,” regardless of actual comprehensibility, let alone amount of input, and some methods mention CI while simultaneously drawing from older methods shown to be ineffective (i.e. Audio-Lingual), and aligning practices with the latest publications from the research-lacking ACTFL. This isn’t a jab at ACTFL, it’s just the reality that most of what they promote is determined by committees, not actual research.

There were fewer teachers interested in CI, too, which meant that there were fewer opinions. In a way, it was almost easier beforehand to be dismissed by most colleagues than it has been lately, falling into debate after debate over what used to be quite simple. Professional groups have also migrated to Facebook, a more active platform. Instead of ignoring messages from a single list-serve daily digest email, folks have been receiving notification after notification on their phones, and responding promptly. There doesn’t seem to be as much time as there used to be to absorb ideas, formulate thoughts, and respond accordingly. For example, while my principles about what language is have been refined since the release of Tea with BVP in October of 2015, many teachers are just now discovering that resource, some of whom have been responding on Facebook with their ideas that haven’t had much influence since the 70’s. It’s becoming difficult to communicate ideas about CI clearly.

So, there are a lot of voices now, which is great, but just not that much support, which is not great, and not as much clarity, which is really not great at all. Many ideas I observe being discussed share no guiding principles, yet teachers go back and forth as if they’re the same thing. Most ideas aren’t, or there’s a crucial difference that one or all parties don’t see. There might be a way to move forward together…

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Teaching Grammar without the Grammar-Translation Method

Among the many misconceptions about CI, such as some mission against the Classics, “not teaching grammar while providing CI” is probably the most-cited, yet misinterpretissimus of misconceptions.

We teach grammar, oooooooh do we, although mostly in the context of complete Latin messages since even words/phrases contain grammatical information. There’s even explicit instruction, too, though brief student-initiated pop-up grammar explanations (e.g. “Mr. P, why does that word end with nt and not t?”) comprise most of this in a comprehension-based communicative classroom.

Still, even after all that, we do give explicit instruction when students are ready, usually in years 3 or 4. That’s right—even CI-advocating teachers explicitly teach grammar, and they do so using a host of methods and method-free strategies—all grammar-translation alternatives.

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Establishing Meaning: Confusion

Step 1 of TPRS is “establish meaning” to show what a word/phrase means in the target language (TL) before using it to co-create a story. The most efficient and effective way to do this is by using a native language (L1) common to all students (e.g. “fēlēs means cat“). In TPRS, we write the TL on the board, underline it, then write the L1 below in a different color. We refer to this throughout class by pointing and pausing.

Establishing meaning is also Step 1 for anyone providing comprehensible input (CI), regardless of the method or strategy.

If this step doesn’t occur, teachers are providing input (I) that might not be comprehensible (C). Although there’s some role that noise in the input plays (Incomprehensible Input?), it’s clear that acquisition doesn’t happen with high levels of that noise. This is why no one—NO ONE—disputes that CI is necessary; it’s the sine qua non of acquisition, which is why establishing meaning is so important.

Still, there’s been confusion over establishing meaning, and that confusion has to do with purpose…

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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.

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Communication: Definition & Clarification

Recently on Twitter, Tea with BVP caller extraordinaire, Longinus, as well as some Inclusive Latin Classroom folks, got me thinking about the definition of communication. What follows are terms I’ve been using for a while (almost entirely unoriginal), clarified by Bill VanPatten on Episode 68 of Tea with BVP.

Communication isn’t only speaking:
Communication is the interpretation, negotiation, and expression of meaning. We interpret when we read, and express when we write; no speaking necessary.

Two people are usually involved, but not required:
If I write a note (expression), and place it in a drawer, but then the apt. catches fire (yes, we have renters insurance), there’s no possible way for anyone to read it (interpretation), or ask me about it (negotiation), even if that was my intent. I most certainly expressed my ideas, there just wasn’t anyone around to interpret them.

In Latin, reading—though not to be confused with translating—is the primary form of communication. ACTFL modes of communication are helpful, here. Reading is one-way, and Interpretive (i.e. interpretation), but someone had to write what we read…at some point (i.e. two people involved). That person who wrote what we read is also one-way, and Presentational (i.e. expression). Neither of these become Interpersonal (i.e. negotiation) unless there is interaction between two people, and this interaction doesn’t have to take place in person. This is why Bill VanPatten refers to communication as “expression, interpretation, and sometimes negotiation of meaning.” Both the writer and reader engage in acts of communication, it’s just that their role is different.

Timing (i.e. real, or asynchronous) & Perspective:
Ovid wrote something (expression) a couple thousand years ago that I can try to read today (interpretation). There has been no interaction between us, eliminating the possibility of negotiation. However, if I write an adaptation of Ovid (expression), and then send it to John Bracey, a couple things could happen. John could star the email, forget, and never end up reading it (no interpretation, just my expression). Or, John could read it (interpretation), and send back some notes or questions (negotiation). This interaction between us would be delayed, but still the same process communication-wise as if we were in person. Now, if I also star and forget about that latest correspondence from John, however, neither negotiation nor interpretation occur. This doesn’t change the fact that John expressed ideas and attempted to negotiate with me. That is to say, from John’s perspective, he still engaged in communication, but it was only one-way without my involvement.

Communication as a concept, not as verb “communicate:”
Although I’m engaging in the act of communication by trying to read Ovid (interpretation), one could hardly say that I’m “communicating with” Ovid anymore than Ovid is “communicating with” me, or us as a society. Ovid certainly expressed meaning, itself communication by definition, but in the absence of real time interaction and negotiation, or even delayed negotiation of meaning over letters, we are not “communicating with” each other.

Someone correctly brought up the fact that the idea of “communicating with the ancient world” isn’t possible. Classicists use this phrase, referring to relating to [certain] ancient people’s ideas (expression) by learning more (interpreting) about the past, and making connections to our own lives, but this ends there as far as communication goes. There is no possibility of interaction (negotiating) with ancient authors. When we read about the past, communication is one-way.

Partially- or fully-communicative:
Things get more complicated from here, but the definition of communication still holds up. An activity lacking a purpose yet focusing on meaning is partially-communicative. Most teachers spend their time doing partially-communicative activities in preparation of a few fully-communicative tasks along the way. Personally, I don’t bother with tasks/Tasks, and find them awfully close to performance-based assessments, the juice of which tends not to be worth the squeeze.

Writing for the Novice: Fewer Words, Shorter Sentences

When it comes to writing for the novice, nothing is more important than using words students know, and keeping sentences short. The use of fewer words is self-evident. Shorter sentences, however, help reduce cognitive demand, and likely result in more repeated words from restating the subject, and clearly separating contrasting ideas instead of piles of subordination.

Magister Craft’s latest October Equus is the most understandable novice-categorized Latin video out there that doesn’t establishing meaning in the video itself (though complete subtitles in English are available). There are 127 total words, and 86 unique. If we exclude names, and a handful of words with different forms, that brings it down to about 60 words. The most frequently repeated words are est (6), in (6), et (5), caput (4), and equus (4), with another 5 words repeated 2x. Even this most-likely-to-be-understood video is nowhere near comprehensible to my first year students, or any other students who aren’t familiar with about 58 of those particular words.

How to make this more comprehensible for my students? The first step, without reducing the word count, is breaking up sentences (the longest sentences are 10 words in length). This allows us to restate the subject, or verbs with multiple subjects, and then add one or two words from the original longer sentence. As a result, the novice student has more exposure to the big content words that hold meaning, and increases the chance that any new words are comprehended instead of part of a string of new words all at once. Here are examples:

  • Aeneas, conditor Romae, Troianus fuit.
    • Aeneas Troianus fuit. Aeneas conditor Romae fuit.
  • Sacerdos equum hasta interficit.
    • Sacerdos equum interficit. Sacerdos equum hasta interficit. 
  • Sacerdos caudam et caput equi capit.
    • Sacerdos caudam equi capit. Sacerdos caput equi quoque capit. 
  • Suburaneses in Subura  et Sacravienses in Sacra Via habitant.
    • Suburaneses in Subura habitant. Sacravienses in Sacra Via habitant.
  • Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant quia volunt caput equi.
    • Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant. Suburaneses et Sacravienses inter se pugnant quia volunt caput equi.
  • Si vincunt Suburaneses, caput ad turrim Mamiliam portant.
    • Si vincunt Suburaneses, Suburaneses caput ad turrim Mamiliam portant.
  • Si vincunt Sacravienses, caput ad Regiam portant.
    • Si vincunt Sacravienses, Sacravienses caput ad Regiam portant.
  • Cauda equi ad templum Vestae portatur.
    • Cauda equi ad templum portatur. est templum Vestae.
  • Tum sanguis ex cauda in ignes cadit.
    • Tum sanguis in ignes cadit. sanguis est ex cauda equi. 
  • sacrificium faciunt.
    • Sacerdotes sacrificium faciunt.

There is no trick to reducing word count. The best we can do (without rewriting) would be to recycle existing words by creating new, shorter sentences that include some of the least frequent words. This technique is used in Recycled Readings (RR) as a way to personalize and increase exposure to seldom-repeated words in textbooks, although we don’t have to insert details about our students just to make October Equus more comprehensible. Breaking up longer sentences and restating the subject, shown above, takes care of recycling some words. Otherwise, we would add more information with the following words:

  • celebratur
  • ceperunt
  • conditor
  • fortasse
  • in memoria
  • belli
  • incipit
  • bigae
  • currunt
  • via
  • turrim
  • sacrificium faciunt

Some of the words above can easily be added to the original text (e.g. “Suburaneses per Suburam currunt. Sacravienses per Sacram Viam currunt,” and “multi festi celebrantur Romae,” etc.), while others would require a little more creativity to recycle (e.g. conditor? turrim?). The result of all this is a more comprehensible text for the novice, which also has the benefit of being longer in total length. All of the simple changes mentioned above would add 41% more total words (53), with per and multi added to the unique count. Once we take care of recycling some of the other words, at least once, the total word count would likely double from the original. There is certainly a risk to overdoing the recycled vocabulary, which Rūfus lutulentus pushes the limit of, with only 20 words of 1200 total length! However, the novice—the true novice—doesn’t feel that repetition the way we do, or even the way most students do. If your students do, however, they’re probably moving out of the novice level! This is a good thing seeing as there’s less of a need for intermediate+ reading material.

If you’re not convinced that shorter sentences are easier sentences and more appropriate for the novice, check out this demonstration (Gellius, Noctēs Atticae XVII 21.3):

Incipiemus igitur a Solone claro, quoniam de Homero et Hesiodo inter omnes fere scriptores constitit aetatem eos egisse vel isdem fere temporibus vel Homerum aliquanto antiquiorem, utrumque tamen ante Romam conditam vixisse Silviis Albae regnantibus annis post bellum Troianum, ut Cassius in primo annalium de Homero atque Hesiodo scriptum reliquit, plus centum atque  sexaginta, ante Romam autem conditam, ut Cornelius Nepos in primo chronicorum de Homero dixit, annis circiter centum et sexaginta.

That’s a 72 word paragraph—wait, sentence—with 54 unique words. 18 of them repeat (dē Homerō (3); the other 16 (2)). Of the words that repeat, very few of them are big content words holding a lot of meaning. In fact, this entire idea could be reduced to the first 4 words, and we can even leave out igitur (i.e. incipiemus a Solone). I probably have an intermediate proficiency level in Latin. To put this into perspective, I couldn’t read the paragraph—sentence—above once through with enough meaning to understand the gist. It took me rereading 3x to get the main idea, and that’s after studying Latin for about 12 years, but only actually reading it for about 4. Had I been given more Latin with fewer words and shorter sentences, there’s a good chance I could read that sentence once through without hesitation, today.

Rūfus et arma ātra: Teacher’s Materials, and Student FVR Readers

3000 additional total words in 28 scenes and stories for the novice reader featuring more vivid descriptions of weapons, deeper character development, mud, fights with animals, retiarii, baths, rumors, mysterious odors, infants in danger, Crixaflamma’s real name, and more…

This is a different kind of teacher’s guide.

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