**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?
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…
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).
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.
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…
Someone on Facebook posed a couple questions to those at the college/university level regarding the preparedness, and subsequent placement of incoming students.
These are excellent questions.
One comment reported that most incoming Advanced Placement (AP) students retake a lower level grammar course in college. Most! These AP students were successful in high school because of significant memorization, but aren’t prepared for grammar the way colleges expect them to be. Perhaps we should look at exposing students to grammar a different way, no?
I’ve asked these questions, myself, yet the few Classics Departments I solicited years ago didn’t collect any of that data beyond a handful of students they could remember from the current year. Oh, would that they had done so!