Reading Latin: What Does That Mean?

Next winter at SCS (Society for Classical Studies) 2023, there will be a panel on what it means to teach students to read Latin. Reading Latin. It seems so obvious what it means, right? But no. What does it mean to read Latin? Of all the approaches to take, looking at data is a good starting point. Let’s start with what reading Latin has meant in the first year Latin classroom for decades…

What better place than the self-described “reading method” of textbooks such as Cambridge and Ecce, Romani? The latter’s first chapter begins with a cold-open paragraph of Latin. Here are the details:

  • 70 total words in length (i.e., tokens, see below)
  • 29 unique words

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens, or total words. 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%. It’s a simple example, but not hard to see what can happen at that 80% level comprehension-wise. The reader understands “the cat sees the ____,” so the unknown word is a big piece of missing information. Imagine reading a whole paragraph about the cat and ____ without knowing what ____ is and then being asked about ____. That’s not a very fun experience. And now imagine grading some kind of assessment on that experience! Don’t do it!

In that Ecce textbook example above, est appears 7 times and isn’t glossed. You gotta guess what it means from context. Luckily, most kids do. Those who don’t, though, miss out on 10% of the text coverage. A text coverage of 90% isn’t good enough for comprehension to have a solid chance, either (Laufer 1989, Laufer 1992, Hu & Nation 2000, Laufer 2010, Schitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011, Herman & Leeser 2022), but est isn’t the best example. Let’s look a little more into what “reading” means in this first textbook paragraph…

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9 Years & 90% Uphill Battle: Why I’m Not Choosing To Research Second Language Pedagogy

It’s absurd, really. After nearly a decade as a professional second language educator (i.e., employed AND trained as one, because those don’t always come in tandem), I can say that the opposition has been steep. No need to get into the weeds about Terrible Work Experience X, or Shockingly Obtuse Administrator Y, or even Internet Troll Z whose job seemed to be disagreeing with everyone about A) how languages are acquired, B) why acquisition-focused practices are the most equitable and effective way to teach second languages in public school, C) that you cannot update content without updating pedagogy and still call yourself a social justice advocate who promotes intercultural competence, and D) how all of the above apply to Latin.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Optional Retakes

I polled the large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers once again, this time on retakes. Retakes aren’t always necessary. However, when we tell a student they can’t redo or retake something, especially if they request it, the message is that it’s OK to not learn the content, or that learning isn’t really a process that matters, or that we get more than one shot at. Students have one chance, on the one day we’ve decided, following the timeline we determined, to show what they know and can do. That’s almost narcissistic, no? How sure are we that we’ve cracked the code of learning and set the perfect date for an assessment? Right…

I’ve sometimes seen retakes referred to as “free passes,” yet the easiest thing we can do is slap a zero on something, tell a student they have to deal with the score they got, maybe followed by “better luck next time,” or shake our head at any redo/retake requests. This actually absolves students from the responsibility of doing anything further, from the actual learning. In such cases, it becomes inequitable NOT to offer redos/retakes. Granted, they still might not be necessary, though, especially if you have a grading system that accounts for continuous learning, etc., but suffice to say that retakes are a good practice, and at times necessary for equity. Retakes are a good idea for anyone averaging all assignments in a category. Those kind of retakes can…”correct”…for the problems associated with lumping every grade together (as seen in this post). But even then, not all retakes are the same.

This was the first large poll that had an overwhelming majority of participants reporting the use of an inequitable practice: optional retakes. That might come as news to some, but this one’s counter-intuitive, so no worries. The next highest number of responses was setting a cut-off for the optional retake, and having no retakes at all. The smallest number of responses went to mandatory retakes—the actual recommended equitable practice—and those who don’t do retakes for various reasons not tied directly to a student’s grade. Let’s unpack all that. But first…

I’m gonna ask readers to pause here and reflect.

I really don’t need to hear right now from anyone getting upset as I share all these best practices that have shown to advance teaching and learning. Don’t take things personally. They’re not. This is a profession, so let’s be professional. This sharing of ideas is done mostly a grassroots thing because teacher education is inadequate and we’ve got some catching up to do, not unlike second language teachers learning well after the fact that input is like 100x more important than any output. Let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of language teachers who were never trained that way, and who still aren’t there yet, either. It follows, then, that we wouldn’t want to be equivalent teachers in the dark about grading, assessing, inequity, and equity. So, if you don’t need to hear about possible inequitable practices you might be using right now—because it’s just too much—that’s fine. Put this on the back-burner and get to it later. Otherwise, let’s look at what makes optional retakes inequitable…

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Vocab Quizzes

I followed the same format of polling a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on things-inequitable and grading. Of 144 participants, the overwhelming majority grade some kind of reading comprehension without a focus on individual vocab terms. Quizzing vocab (full-out or vocab section of another assessment) isn’t something I recommend doing, especially not grading it. This holds true across all content areas, not just languages. Why? That kind of focus is on the micro level isn’t necessary, and it might just be measuring a student’s short term memory. We don’t need to document any of that, nor is it particularly helpful to know. In Wormeli’s 2018 update to Fair Isn’t Always Equal, one of his principled responses is “avoid test questions that ask only for basic recall of information” (p.14). That makes sense. We can skip insignificant acts of recall and go straight to whatever the vocab is used for—the greater purpose—presumably to read or interact in the target language. That word knowledge is embedded in the greater, more-purposeful task. Why bother with both?!

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Averaging

For my third poll in a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers in this mini-series on inequity and grading, I asked about averaging. A FRACTION of teachers responded this time, with a total of just 80. Compared to the previous poll participants of 585 for late work penalties, and then 625 for homework, I wonder if this is because averaging is something teachers let the gradebook handle without giving it much thought. Most teachers don’t question homework, but they still play a more active role in creating and assigning it, right? Even setting late policies is something teachers…do. Averaging, though? Looks like we might be in a “set it and forget it” situation. The thing is, the gradebook only does what we tell it to (or its default setting), so if we’re not thinking about that, well…

Poll results had the majority (60) doing some kind of averaging. Let’s unpack all that.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Homework & Zeros

Like grades, homework in school is just as expected as yellow buses, questionable cafeteria lunch, rank & file desks, band, and of course, football. Homework is such a part of school culture that it’s hardly given a second thought by the teachers who assign it. I’m sure there’s the following definition somewhere, too:

teacher (n.) = Overqualified and underpaid professional who assigns homework over vacation

Unlike using the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) to illustrate the inequity of late work, the inequity of homework should be self-evident: we cannot monitor student learning, and the home environment—if there is a home—differs from student to student. Some of those environments are conducive to learning, and others not so much. When teachers grade homework, they contribute to keeping those with privilege soaring high while those without get hit with more obstacles. Most teachers not giving homework much thought at least understood how to play the school game (whether or not they did it as students, themselves). Therefore, I’m guessing that the thought of not having a quiet space to do homework, the freedom of not needing to take care of family members, or responsibility of working at the family’s restaurant is questioned by probably just 1% of teachers assigning it. And it’s quite possible that in some communities these situations are completely unheard of. Or, they’re just lurking in the shadows, still there.

For the second week, I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers, this time on their homework grading policies. After about a week, 625 responded. A little under a quarter (139) grade homework one way or another (e.g., completion, rubric, etc.), with the majority of them (109) dropping a zero in the gradebook if not done.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Late Work Penalties

I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on their late work grading policies. After about a week, 585 responded. A little under half (255) apply some kind of penalty, whether work is accepted through the entire grading term, within some window or not at all after its due date. If we look at this practice from the perspective of grading standards (vs. completion, or whatever else), it can shed light on how inequitable late work penalties are…

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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.

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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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