What Is A Language Curriculum?

Modern and classical language teachers alike have been using big name textbooks for decades, yet there’s been an emerging counter culture known broadly as “untextbooking.” This movement is a response to a) the lack of proficiency, b) dropping interest/enrollment, and c) the kind of exclusivity that form-based textbook teaching has an affect on. Instead, preference within the “untextbooking” movement is given to meaning-based teaching that results in greater proficiency, higher enrollment, and a removal of obstacles, making language programs more inclusive. For years now, I’ve heard things like “there’s not enough culture,” or “this lacks curriculum support,” or some other complaint suggesting that textbooks have something necessary to offer that not-textbooks don’t. It’s been shown that textbooks can overload learners with too much vocab, grammar rules, and target-culture details (in English). However, I’m more interested in the role of proficiency. That is, for all the supplements textbooks might bring to the curriculum, what do they really do for language proficiency? Where does proficiency come into play in a curriculum?

Language proficiency generally refers to one’s unrehearsed ability to communicate (e.g. listening, reading, seeking clarification, replying, sharing ideas, asking questions, etc.). Humans can’t plan to communicate genuinely (e.g. “ready, communicate!”). It’s just something that happens when there’s a reason to do so. The following curricular questions keep language proficiency in mind (vs. studying about languages, or cultures, or memorizing vocab, which requires little to no proficiency)…

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Specialized Vocab vs. High Frequency: “If You Need To Look Up A Word…”

Jim Wooldridge, aka Senor Wooly, once lamented over having to teach a unit on different kinds of fabric. That was his all time low in terms of thematic vocab textbook teaching. Thematic vocab teaching is basically mini units of specialized vocabulary. However, our reality—in a genuine communicative sense—is that people start getting into specialized vocab when they choose to do something…special…beyond common daily needs and experience.

Since archery is my latest thing, let’s use that as an example. There are a lot of specific terms in archery. Of course, if the purpose is to learn about archery in the target language, I’d probably be using that specialized vocabulary. But do I need them all? In a first year class, maybe I wouldn’t have to go quite as deep into the topic, therefore less-specialized vocab could suffice (e.g. “can you teach me how to hold X?” will be more useful to a student than “can you teach me how to string walk after nocking with a finger sling?”). So, not all of that vocab is necessary when exploring a specific topic to learn about the topic. That is, a particular topic explored lightly doesn’t require the use of highly-specialized vocab otherwise needed when exploring it deeply. Think of the kind of learning that goes on in a survey-level undergrad course vs. a very focused grad course. And in terms of vocab, our students are more like kindergartners!

In this post, I’m asking you to consider something, but only consider it…

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Forced Input

There’s plenty of talk about forced output (i.e. when students are told to produce language beyond their proficiency level), yet not much has been said regarding forced input. Forced input occurs when students are given a text above their reading level, or told to listen to something beyond their comprehension. Perhaps this is even assigned, and affects the course grade. Forced input also occurs when students are given or assigned anything that lacks a communicative purpose. Forced input is not very meaningful at best, and incomprehensible at worst, which means the target language is less likely to be processed and acquired. Are you forcing input? Let’s see…

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Adapting Latin: No Excuses & Every-Text Tier Challenge

I’ve been writing my next book on the zodiac signs and their associated myths for months now. Despite being intended for the beginning Latin learner, I thought each myth could use an additional, even simpler, version in the final book. Today, it took me only 7 minutes to adapt one of the myths—that I’ve been writing for months—to about 1/4 the length using fewer words. Every teacher can do this kind of thing. Every.

No excuses.

My Every-Text Tier Challenge goes out to all language teachers. To accept and claim honor after observing greater comprehension from students, just take tomorrow’s text—because there’s no good reason your students aren’t reading every day—and write a simplified version of it…right now. Don’t worry about changing formatting if it’s perfect for printing or something. You can project the simplified version tomorrow and read with students just before they read the original (as part of the simple Talk & Read daily lesson plan format). Oh, and does the text have some twists, or juicy details? Leave them out in the simplified version, and you’re on your way to creating an embedded reading.

Keep doing this for every text until you can adapt Latin (or whatever) so fast you don’t have to think about it. No excuses. “No time” is the usual excuse I hear for not doing this kind of thing, but that tends to come from teachers doing too much planning, quiz creating, and/or too much grading. Just do less of all that, and do more simplifying of texts.

Why Bother?
Bottom line, all students will benefit from reading a simple- to super-simple version of a text. There’s also a very good chance that particular students even need a text at a much lower level to truly receive CI (i.e. input that’s *actually* comprehensible, and not just partly- to incomprehensible input).

Oh, and if it takes you too long to adapt your Latin (or whatever), that’s a really good sign that the original text is too high level for students to read, anyway (i.e. also a sign that you need to be giving more comprehensible texts that provide more comprehensible input). So, I challenge you to the Every-Text Tier Challenge. Of course, there’s no need to share this work, especially with Latin shaming still lingering about, so it’s truly the honor system, here. However, I encourage you to discuss the process of simplifying texts in fōra varia, especially if you’re unsure where to begin, or have questions about this important strategy to make language more comprehensible.

Dante’s Circles Of Latin Shaming Hell

Instances of Latin shaming (i.e. causing one to feel ashamed or inadequate regarding their use of Latin) come up every now and then. I last pondered the issue back in August of 2019 in a draft of this post, first started in 2018 after observing some kind of online scuffle. Like clockwork, there have been public discussions once again regarding Latinity (i.e. quality of Latin), whether spoken in the classroom, or appearing in published works. To be clear, I have no interest in participating in those discussions. None. However, I’d like to share a bit about what’s been going on, and give some examples of Latin shaming…

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AP Latin: There’s Bad News…And…Worse News

I ran texts from the AP Latin syllabus through Voyant Tools:

  • 6,300 total words in length
  • 2,800 forms (i.e. aberant + abest = 2)
  • 1,100 meanings/lemmas (i.e. aberant + abest = 1 meaning of “awayness”)*

Based on the research of Paul Nation (2000), 98% of vocabulary must be understood in order to just…read…a text. According to Nation’s research, then, Latin students must understand about 1,080 words in order to read the AP syllabus texts.

There’s a catch. That 1,080 figure represents the exact words from the AP texts that students must understand, which is a lot. To put that into perspective, it’s been reported that students reasonably acquire ~175 Latin words per year, for a total of something more like 750 by the end of four high school years. Needless to say, there’s a low chance that all 750 would be included in the specific 1,080 needed to read Latin on the AP, and that varies from learner to learner. Even if they were the exact words, though, 750 is still only a text coverage of 68% understandable at best. This is far below Nation’s research. We know that reading starts to get very cumbersome below 80%. This is just one reason why no student can actually read AP Latin. Oh wait

****Those figures are just for Caesar****

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The Latin Problem

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), there’s a scale of five main proficiency levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. Most states require Advanced Low speaking proficiency to teach modern languages. However, many teachers attain near-native-like proficiency, anyway. To give you a sense of what that means, beyond Advanced Low, there’s still Advanced Mid, Advanced High, Superior, and then the highest rating on the ACTFL scale, Distinguished, for which the following are features:

“A non-native accent, a lack of a native-like economy of expression,* a limited control of deeply embedded cultural references, and/or an occasional isolated language error may still be present at this level.”

*economy of expression
“The use of the most precise and expressive words and phrases, thus eliminating the need for excess description, wordiness, jargon, or circumlocution.”

Of course, most of these teachers spend time abroad, and/or have found themselves exposed to the target language in some other way. Needless to say, modern language teachers tend to be highly proficient speakers, yet at the same time they’re not necessarily scholars who study the language, earning an M.A. in its literature. Granted, it’s not uncommon for modern language teachers to be that kind of scholar while also studying abroad and/or being exposed to input and interaction elsewhere. However, the former certainly isn’t necessary in order to achieve the latter. Then there’s the Latin problem…

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CI Sects

If conventional language teaching is grammar-translation, then we’re all somewhat a group of heretics! Still, there are so many sub groups of CI that it warrants a bit of elucidation. At some point, John Bracey and I were talking about if either of us just started discovering CI right now, we’d have NO IDEA what to do or where to begin. Here are descriptions of all the different CI groups I’ve observed over the past 5 years already in existence, or just emerging:

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Input Expectations: The Updated ONE Rubric

I’ve had great success reporting scores of any homework, assignments, and quizzes in a 0% grading category portfolio, and then using those scores as evidence to double check and confirm each student’s self-assessed course grade based on Proficiency Rubrics. However, I’m constantly open to streamlining any teaching practice, so I’ve just updated my rubrics, distilling them into a single one. Students still self-assess their own estimated ACTFL Proficiency Level, but that level is independent from the grade they also self-assess. So, what’s the grade based on? Instead of proficiency, it’s based on course expectations of receiving input! After all, input causes proficiency, so why not go right to the source?

Move over Proficiency-Based Grading (PBG)! Hello…Expectations…Based…Grading (EBG)? It’s not as wacky as it sounds, trust me. In fact, it’s probably the least-restrictive grading practice next to Pass/Fail, yet still holds students accountable and provides all the flexibility I’ve enjoyed thus far. Here’s the rubric:

Capture

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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:

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