How To Teach The Infinitive

But first, what’s an example without a non-example, really? When it comes to pedagogy, I’d call that partial information. Maybe you’ll know what to do after learning something, yet maybe it’s not clear what to avoid while also doing that thing. We can’t just stack practices upon practices and expect things to turn out well.

Typical Instruction (i.e. the non-example)
An introduction to the infinitive is usually taught by first focusing on the form “-re” with an incomplete, yet easy-to-test explanation (e.g. “the infinitive means ‘to X'”). Students are shown examples using different verbs (i.e. multiple meanings) in isolation, phrases, and/or short sentences. Then, students practice identifying infinitives, and changing verbs into their infinitive form. That’s basically it. The kids who memorize the “-re” form (while also not confusing it with the other…hundred?…forms that were taught by now) as well as verb meanings (i.e. the kids who have good memorize) are successful. One thing to note here is that the examples and practice sentences tend to lack meaning or purpose within a context. That is, even if there’s some continuity from sentence to sentence, the purpose is still identifying infinitives, not reading to find out what the messages are about. Stop doing all that. Here’s how to teach the infinitive…

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Things I Don’t Do (That Many Teachers Do)

Technology
I haven’t asked students to take out a phone, computer, or interact with tech in over 6 years. Quite frankly, there are too many constant problems and disruptions right down to not having any battery life, and students are getting smacked in the face with tech the rest of the school day. I’m over wasting all that time. I, personally, use free web-based tools daily, like Google Docs, but there aren’t any laptop days, computer lab time, Kahoot, etc. Less is more!

Grade (especially at home)
I don’t really do this at all. Anything with a score is done as a whole-class, anything collected is marked as completed, and any rubric resulting in the course grade is self-assessed by students (I just check those afterwards).

Quiz/Test Prep
I don’t create any quizzes or tests. Any quick quiz in class is determined on the spot, is input-based, and is scored together, making it part of class. These are also collected and reported as evidence, but don’t impact a student’s grade. Instead, they’re used to show trends of understanding (e.g. a lot of 3s out of possible 4 means “most.” This could fulfill evidence for a rubric showing a course grade of an A that expects a student to understand “most” Latin).

Lesson Planning
Talk & Read covers everything students need. The rest is just rotating out weekly routines, and giving a new activity a try every now and then. The more variety a teacher has actually means the less experience they have with those activities! There’s a healthy limit to novelty. Don’t underestimate the power of simple practices.

Different Learning Targets/Objectives
I don’t create new ones specific to each day. Mine never change. The point/reason for/target/goal/objective/etc. of each class is that at least one of three communicative purposes (entertainment, learning, creating) is being met. So, I make sure there’s a reason for all that input & interaction during class, and keep things comprehensible. There’s actually no evidence that different objectives make any difference in student learning, let alone acquiring a language! In fact, if any measurement shows that learning has taken place after just one class/lesson based on an objective, don’t trust it! Delay testing, and give no advance warning. That will tell you what’s been learned and acquired, and what hasn’t.

Speaking The Target Language
If a student responds in English, that’s evidence they’ve comprehended. Case closed, folks! I don’t need to play mind games. There’s actually no legit reason for speaking the target language in class when everyone shares another language that’s easier to communicate in…unless one wants to. Some students want to. Others don’t. To recognize the classroom as any other context would be role-play (i.e. pretending you don’t speak another language). I don’t pretend. I do have systems in place to encourage target language use, as well as curb chatter and lengthy story-like responses in English, as well as stay focused on input, but naw, I don’t need to hear Latin to know students know Latin.

Corrective Feedback
C’mon, self-explanatory. The evidence is really piling up by now!

Grammar
I don’t expect students to develop any grammar knowledge. I certainly don’t test it. This is a liberating expectation! Grammar knowledge is unnecessary—in any language—and there’s enough to deal as it is with what’s actually necessary.

Homework
When working at a job, I don’t mess with anything that isn’t in my control. What goes on at home is completely out of my control as a teacher—no judgement—and I don’t need to punish and chase down students for not doing something that probably lacks a communicative purpose anyway. My only assignments involve reading, and no products are attached to that reading. **Just read.**

Projects
I don’t schedule any class time for projects. My experience is that most of the research and work is done in English, which is zero input, and most students get bored after a few of those summative presentations anyway. There needs to be input in the first place in order to make it more comprehensible, right?

From the looks of it, I bet it seems like I don’t do a friggin’ thing. But that’s not true. I spend most of the time creating personalized texts, adapting other texts, and seeking out constant PD—mostly grassroots, from teachers still teaching in the classroom, and who share the same *current* second language acquisition principles that I have. It’s a lot of work, actually, but focused, efficient, and enjoyable. Guess what? My students can read Latin. They even speak it. If that seems impossible—because teachers who do all those things above can have students who understand Latin, yet I do none and get the same results—there’s a magic ingredient. It’s actually the oldest source of success the spoken word has ever known:

Input.

We just have to tap into what all humans are hardwired for and prioritize CI, then the magic happens. Now, you might be a teacher who does, in fact, do all those things above, and likes doing them. Carry on. You might also be a teacher who likes some and not others. Unless you’re required—which might be in your control to change—know that you can drop the things you don’t like without any negative impact whatsoever. Try it.

I expect there might be questions. Let loose.

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 message of avoiding grammar is a good one…”

This is the fourth year I’ve been writing about classroom practices that make languages more comprehensible for all students. Recently, one of my replies got quite a bit of support. I’m a little surprised because I haven’t changed my tune, but something in the following simply clicked for people. Perhaps the message contains enough of everything all in one place. I’m not sure. Regardless, I’m sharing it here in case it gets lost in the ether. For context, I replied to comment about both teaching grammar, and providing input:

“Yes it is possible to do both, but you just have to recognize what’s happening when you do. If you like to teach grammar, teach grammar, just don’t expect it to cause acquisition. Input does.

They are two different data sets. In very specific conditions, we can use the grammar data to help communicate. Most people never do. Some people like that. Some hate that. No one actually needs it.

The “grammar is evil” or related message refers to teaching in a way that excludes students, like grading on that separate data set that isn’t necessary for all (but maybe enjoyable for some). Grammar itself isn’t evil, but many teachers unknowingly exclude students because of it.

So, if you include everyone you can, and teach grammar, and they get it, and they’re acquiring, go ahead, please! The message of avoiding grammar is a good one for most teachers until they get to a point of providing enough input and focusing on meaning.”

Reading LLPSI, Teaching NONE of it!

I first adopted more realistic expectations of students after understanding how languages are acquired. This was within the first few months of teaching in my first job, so I was lucky; some have never had that opportunity. However, I was still trying to apply what I learned to a textbook program still focused on grammar, so it was a rocky start to any comprehension-based and communicative approach, to say the least. Despite what some might claim, CI and grammar just don’t mix. That is, whenever we decide to teach grammar, even for legit reasons, students are likely not receiving CI.

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2018-19 Syllabus & Latin Program Mission & Vision

Unless you’re an island of one, a program Mission & Vision is a good idea to keep the department heading in a similar direction, even if things don’t start out that way. I put a lot of time into crafting the document last spring, and just had some help from my admin for the final touches. Once that was squared away this week, I could hand in my 2018-19 Syllabus. Let’s unpack all that…

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Studies Showing the Ineffectiveness of Grammar Instruction & Error Correction

Greek_1st_declension_contract_nouns

How effective is studying these “rules?” Research shows “not at all!” What was lurking beneath all that studying for those claiming it did, in fact, work? Comprehensible Input (CI).

**Updated 1.29.2020**
with Rothman (2008) 

All of this research has been shared by Eric Herman, either in the Acquisition Classroom Memos, his book, “Research Talks…,”or from my direct requests. Thanks, dude! As you’ll see, there is very little support (none?) for explicit grammar, or traditional rule-based language instruction. Even effectiveness aside, it should be clear that the practice has no place in inclusive K-12 classrooms (and probably beyond), since affective factors—alone—are shown to result in enough negative consequences. N.B. The highly-motivated independent adult learner can, and probably will do anything they want, and/or feel is helping them regardless of any proof. K-12 students are NOT those people.

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Former Student Studies Linguistics

So, I got my first “hey Mr. P, remember me?” email from a former student. Oh no, they found me! Naw, it’s not too hard. I’m the only person on the planet with my name, so…

Anyway, here’s the gist of that email:

“It’s ___, your former student, now majoring in linguistics at _____ in no small part due to your teaching style.”

That’s interesting.

Why? Because I didn’t explicitly teach grammar or focus on information about the target language when teaching. We were communicating in the language, co-creating stories in real time, and then reading them. I was providing CI (i.e. comprehensible input…the messages students understand), learning about students, and personalizing content. Grammar wasn’t the focus of class at all, yet somehow this student was inspired to learn more about languages. That’s cool.

There’s still soooooo much resistance to teaching with CI. The classic argument is that doing so “won’t prepare students” for studying Classics, linguistics, or related fields in college. Seeing how most traditional programs aren’t doing a great job of preparing students per se anyway—rather it’s the individual student that makes it happen—I’d say we’ll see the death of the “they won’t be prepared” argument sometime soon. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?