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.

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?