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

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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CI Sects

If conventional language teaching is grammar-translation, then we’re all somewhat a group of heretics! Still, there are so many sub groups of CI that it warrants a bit of elucidation. At some point, John Bracey and I were talking about if either of us just started discovering CI right now, we’d have NO IDEA what to do or where to begin. Here are descriptions of all the different CI groups I’ve observed over the past 5 years already in existence, or just emerging:

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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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A- in Conjugating, D in Comprehending

**UPDATE 9.28.17** Episode 65 of Tea with BVP, entitled “Does Instruction Speed Up Acquisition,” confirms much of what’s in this post.

I just looked up the 3rd person plural future active indicative form of habēre—or—expressed in a more comprehensible way, I just looked up how to say “they will have.” Before I looked it up, though, habēbunt didn’t sound right in my head. It didn’t sound right because I haven’t received enough input of that word. I also haven’t received enough input of other words with the same ending in different contexts. If I did, I’d have a better chance of being able to extract the parts during my parsing (i.e. moment-by-moment computation of sentence structure during comprehension), and wouldn’t have had to think about how to express “they will have.”

No one dare say that I didn’t study my endings, because I totally did. I got an A- in paradigms. I knew them forwards and backwards, UK and North American order, too! That was after I got a D in comprehension the first time I took Latin because the pace was too fast, and my memory insufficient to learn Latin. Or so I thought…

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Writing for the Novice: Parsing

On Episode 64 of Tea with BVP, Bill mentioned a couple things we’ve heard before, only this time through the lens of parsing (i.e. “moment-by-moment computation of sentence structure during comprehension”). You’ll note immediately that this definition is different from the Grammar-Translation method teacher prompt of “Student X, would you please parse the main verb found in line 2?” in which the pupil gives the person, number, tense, voice, and mood of the verb, which we all know the diligent student can do, though has nothing to do with the psychologically real comprehension of the sentence in which it was parsed.

First Noun Principle
Novice students* of most languages process the first noun they come across (e.g. “Caesarem” in Caesarem canis mordit) as the agent (i.e. one acting, but not necessarily grammatical subject). The savvy language teacher aware of language-learners’ first noun strategy could respond to this by using word order that avoids the misleading tendency.

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Lance’s thoughts on Lance’s Criticism of “Can’t Read Greek…”

Lance Albury just left a comment on my post, “Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised but Angry.” I must say that I get a Highlander kind of feeling whenever I cross paths with another Lance—which is quite rare—so I’m not surprised that Lance and I hold opposing views. We have different definitions and assumptions about the nature of language, language teaching, and education, more generally. This post highlights those differences.

Not meaning to be insulting, but I believe your position on reading ancient Greek is simply naive.

Lance is not off to a great start. He thinks that I have a lack of experience, or poor judgment, which means any response I give is likely to be dismissed. This is the reality of supporting your practices when someone already believes you have no idea what you’re talking about—one of the greatest obstacles against mainstream acknowledgement of CI.

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