Meaning: Establishing & Cueing

I’ve written about establishing meaning not once, not twice, but thrice before today. It is perhaps the most fundamental equitable practice a language teacher can use to provide input. There really is no discussion here—a student must understand the input (CI). That’s step zero. So, the teacher must tell students what words mean! The only discussion lies in how teachers establish meaning. This discussion doesn’t have to be complicated, either, yet it has turned into a debate that keeps cycling ’round and ’round. At the heart of the debate you’ll find two perspectives on how to establish meaning…

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Grammar-Translation: Not Really A Method & Resisting It Now More Than Ever

**Updated 7.26.2020 with this Cicero quote**

“Hence, if someone does not have a natural faculty of memory, this practice cannot be used to unearth one…”
– Cicero (de Oratore 3.560
), trans. James May in How To Win An Argument, 2016

OK fine, the grammar-translation (GT) method has been used for a few hundred years. It’s still the dominant practice for teaching Latin, and widely known. However, what is there to the method, really? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it turns out the method is quite simple. GT actually consists of presenting students with textbook grammar rules they apply to words in order to understand the target language. As a method, then, teachers present rules, but what is GT—really—for the student?

Memorizing.

I posit that the entirety of GT can be reduced to memorizing. This makes it less a method, and more just a process. Students listen to or read about textbook grammar rules, and then recall and apply those rules in order to derive meaning. To be clear, this is a fairly complex way to arrive at step zero—establishing meaning. With GT, students not only must do this for themselves, such as consulting dictionaries and grammar notes, which accounts for a lot of “the work,” but the conscious process requires a decent amount of cognitive demand. Actual interpretive communication, on the other hand, either listening or reading, is an implicit, unconscious process, and effortless. In order to effortlessly apply textbook grammar rules while also recalling word meanings, though, a very good, if not uncanny memory, is required. Memory, then, is both paramount to student success with the GT method, as well as something we have no control over…

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The Full Glossary Experiment

Yesterday, close to 10 students across all classes asked what auxilium meant. Oh, and here’s the excerpt from that text:

Capture

With questions like that, how often are students aware of all those glosses I intentionally put into class texts?! In the same classes, I also noticed that students were working much slower than I’d expect during Read & Translate. Surely, if they’d been reading at home the process would be much easier. Could it be that comprehension support during class time isn’t helping students read independently at home? Also, it just so happens that two new students began school this week too, so those in-text glosses certainly weren’t much help with almost every other word unknown. At what point might those in-text glosses make a difference, and what could I do to help these new students begin reading on their own?

Based on all those questions, I’ve decided to experiment…

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2-for-1 Etymology & Meeting Expectations

This year, I’ve implemented a new strategy while establishing meaning of words (i.e. write word, underline, then write English equivalent underneath in different color). When I give the English equivalent, I immediately ask the class to think of words we get from the Latin (i.e. derivatives).

It’s simple, allows processing time, and increases the likelihood of students making form-meaning connections whenever they come across the word again.

Not only that, but this strategy also has the benefit of giving most people what they want to see from offering Latin in schools, that is, a direct influence on academic language, SAT prep, etc., without being too obtrusive when it comes to providing compelling input.

Meeting Expectations
CI can be a hard sell, partly due to how counter-intuitive it seems, partly due to the widespread intellectual appeal of grammar rules and literature decoding/analysis, and partly due to obstinant teachers unwilling to accept that they could get better results doing a fraction of the prep they’re accustomed to doing.

Besides teachers, some kids damaged by school as an institution think they aren’t learning, and then admin/parents who take their word for it think teachers aren’t doing their jobs. In the face of all this, the 2-for-1 etymology strategy can be used as concrete evidence of meeting certain expectations.

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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