Back To Comprehension Basics: Don’t Speak Latin

No, I haven’t reverted back to the grammar-focused pedagogy of the 90s (and no, not the 1890s, either. Grammar teaching is still the dominant one today, which I predict will hold true for another 20 years). Instead, I’m going to challenge us all speaking Latin in the classroom to do so under just one condition:

Students will understand what you’re about to say.

It sounds too basic, I know, but not everyone does this or does this enough. Hence, back to the basics of comprehension-based teaching, right? So my challenge is now out there. If the condition isn’t met, say something in English, or change what we’re about to say to meet the condition. Of course, this challenge wouldn’t exclude the use of new words. No way. How else would students ever expand vocab?! However, this does mean that we must provide CI by using mostly words students already understand, allowing for just a few new ones during class, and then be sure students understand those new words (i.e., at least tell them what the new words mean in English, demonstrate the meaning whenever possible, and use a picture/realia if applicable).

Speech Rate & Text Coverage
The research of Hsueh-Chao & Nation as well as Laufer shows that a text must have 98% coverage of known vocab (tokens) to have a chance of being read with ease (because even 95% text coverage can get woefully low comprehension scores of 55%!). Well, that’s with texts, when the student able to control the pace and even reread! Speech doesn’t work that way. When we say something, the student can’t control our speech rate. They have to signal us. There’s no 15sec replay. They have to signal us. While we’re working towards training students to self-advocate for comprehension, the reality is that listening to Latin is the MUCH harder mode to process. Therefore, it goes without saying that we should be using 98%+ text coverage in speech. Only speaking the target language in class when students will understand will maximize comprehension. Who doesn’t want that?! Practically speaking, then, I challenge us to all give pause the moment we’re about to say something students don’t understand yet, then do the following:

  1. Say it in English and move on.
  2. Restate using other words students already understand.
  3. Use the new word/phrase, immediately establish meaning, then provide micro-exposure.

This is my term for giving students a little bit of concentrated exposure to what has the potential to be a one-off and out-of-bounds word/phrase. In practice, when a new word/phrase comes up, expect to sit with it for some statements and questions for a minute or two. Yes, a minute or two. This helps keep vocab limited and comprehension high without vocab overload and noise that students start to get used to (i.e., they begin to tune out the input and be OK with incomprehension because there’s so much of it during class).

Consider the alternative for a minute: a class during which we teachers use new words/phrases as a reaction to what students say. That’s basically a translation class (English –> Latin) without much expectation (and hope) that students will ever be exposed to those words/phrases again.

Think of micro-exposure as circling or something if that helps you, too. However it’s understood and whatever it’s called, we must acknowledge that the absence of micro-exposure entirely can result in a ton of vocab and high levels of incomprehension, or some kind of one-off situational experience like the translation class. Only the kids with the best, most freakish memories will absorb all that input, and there aren’t too many of them in class, if at all.

So, are you ready to not speak Latin unless students will understand what you’re about to say? Why or why not?

Content To Pedagogy: The Natural Progression Of [Latin] Teachers

I’ve observed how teachers first start out all about content. This makes sense. Teachers generally really like, or maybe even love their content area. In the classroom, they’re certainly the experts. That doesn’t mean they rival scholars in terms of knowledge, of course, but most college undergrads possess enough content knowledge to teach what they know. You can even obtain a teaching license in some states having never taken an education course, instead passing tests (e.g., Praxis, MTEL, etc.) almost entirely content-based, with just a fraction of items related to teaching. Quite bluntly, the state of education is such that even with some training, many teachers are missing an overlooked aspect of teaching: solid pedagogy…

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Novellas: +2 Forward, -1 Back

With new novellas being published almost monthly at this point, opening up titles to choose from, I’ve been looking at how my own sequencing has been changing in the past year. I no longer feel the need to systematically read a) from lowest to highest word count, or b) shortest to longest book, a practice that constantly increases the demand of learners. If you think about it, what’s really the difference between that and using a highly sequenced textbook?! Such practice of constantly increasing demand also presumes learners have attended all classes, and/or develop language ability at the same rate, which is complete nonsense…

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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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No, this does not describe a juniper and coriander-based evening. Ginput is Grammar-based Input. Surprise! Yeah, I played this one pretty close to the vest this year. In fact, I began writing this post on June 13th—2019—knowing it would be months until actually implementing and seeing any results from what was last year’s springtime idea.

What’s Ginput?
The idea for Ginput came shortly after one of those frequent grammar debates online fizzled out. I still know that teaching grammar isn’t necessary, and I certainly won’t test grammar knowledge, but I also know that even really compelling things get boring throughout the year! I started wondering if grammar had a role to play, if only as a break from all the compelling stuff, especially since I had no plans to test or grade it. However, a question remained: “could grammar somehow be input-heavy?

The Search for Grammar-based Input
Providing CI while teaching grammar is rare, so I began to think…“But what if teaching grammar weren’t the entire syllabus?” and “Could I explore Latin grammar with students knowing that our curriculum is based on their interests (i.e. NOT grammar) under a comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) approach?” I was certainly onto something, but needed a resource for guidance. Oh wait, I wrote one…

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