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?
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…
One way to get students’ attention is to say something they don’t quite understand. Granted, you need to have solid rules in place for negotiating meaning, and you can’t just unleash a ton of words students don’t know. However, when used judiciously, messing with the input ever so slightly is a handy, level 10 trick…
Yesterday, close to 10 students across all classes asked what auxilium meant. Oh, and here’s the excerpt from that text:
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…
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.
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…
I live by the “low-prep/no-prep” mantra. Yes, there’s life outside of school (maybe not if you teach high school ELA, sorry folks), and I enjoy sharing with others ideas on how to regain their personal life back while also being a damn fine teacher. As part of this, I pride myself on having not taken home student work for a few years now.
This first week, however, is different…
I’ve been used to starting the year with a half-day devoted to essential rules, some routines, and that school-required housekeeping stuff. Then, in next 8-10 class days over about 2 weeks, I would get into Circling with Balls (CWB), Total Physical Response (TPR), Discipulus Illustris, not to mention the No-Travel Story Script I was looking forward to trying out. Not this year. I see my students just 1 hour per week, which means those usual beginning activities would take us up through Thanksgiving! That’s simply too slow for he brain craving novelty. Expectations must be lowered. I’m just now recognizing exactly how much lower, too. This first week—one class—had to combine all that housekeeping with only a little bit of Latin…very little. You know what we did? placet (= likes). Yep, that’s it, at least as the only verb, although eī, tibi, -ne?, an, nōn, et,harpastum, minimē, and certē also made appearances. The focus was on just one student, and another parallel student to compare.
Before having the opportunity to present a couple workshops, my mind was blown quite sufficiently during the week. Overall, the Advanced Track with Alina Filipescu and Jason Fritze got me thinking about aaaaaaaall the things I’ve forgotten to do, or stopped doing (for no good reason) over the years. Thankfully, most of them are going to be soooooo easy to [re]implement. As for the others, I’ll pick 2 at a time to add—not replace—until they become automatic. This will probably take the entire year; there’s no rush!
Jason referred to high-leverage strategies—those yielding amazing results with minimal effort (i.e. juice vs. squeeze), and I’m grateful that he called our attention to everything Alina was doing while teaching us Romanian. ce excelent! I’ll indicate some high-leverage strategies, and will go as far as to classify them as “non-negotiable” for my own teaching, using the letters “NN.” I’ll also indicate strategies to update or re-implement with the word “Update!” and those I’d like to try for the first time with the word “New!” I encourage you to give them all a try. Here are the takeaways organized by presenter: