Timed Writes, Free Writes and that Whole Grammar Thing

If you know how we do timed and free writes using portfolios and portfolio analysis you may be interested in these ongoing reflections and evolving ideas about students writing in the target language and what we as language teachers do with grammar–teaching and assessing.

I’ve just finished reading my seniors’ portfolio analyses in Latin 4.  They have been in our program for four years and had three of us for teachers (including myself, Caroline Miklosovic and Rachel Ash).  The version of the portfolio analysis is a little different for the senior year (one of the evolutions of the process), and it can be found here.  I found the consistency of the comments made to be fascinating and instructive to me as I continue to teach in a CI Latin program.  I share them here for what they are worth.  What is increasingly clear is that teaching with CI is never a fixed process.  It always involves evolving as we learn and listen to the experience of students acquiring language.

Students wrote the following things in their end of year analysis, with my reflections.  Used here with their permissions.

“I am surprised by the difficulty of concentrating when trying to focus on grammar and ideas rather than content. . . I was so focused on grammar that I disregarded time management.”

In the fourth year, I have done more regular direct grammar instruction which I invite them to take note of in these notebooks.  I promise two things:  I will  never test you on grammar, and you may use these grammar notes whenever you write in Latin.  Why would a Latin teacher ever say such things?  Teaching with CI and its guiding principles has convinced me that direct grammar instruction does not help a learner make any advances in language acquisition, and that the value of grammar itself is in the editing process.  In order to use grammar well for editing our own writing, we must know the rules and have the opportunity and time to apply them to our writing.  This is exactly now what my work with grammar has become.  I show them the structures.  Give them examples from literature.  They take notes, and they reference them while writing and editing their own work.  In short, they are creating their own in-notebook grammar to reference when needed.  They had other comments about this process.

“When we took two days to do a writing and were able to write, read and revise, that was really helpful.”

“Taking two days for a rough draft and then to work out a final draft allowed for thought and reflection on grammar–particularly verbs, and to include information about the story/writing that was left out in the rough draft.”

This was echoed again and again by students.  I gave free write assignments which came at the end of a reading and which allowed for one full class time to write extensively and without concern for editing the first day–that is, a rough draft.  On the second day, they were asked to read that draft and re-write it using their grammar notes and thoughtful reflection to make it their best.  Almost to a student, they identified those as their “best writings.” Krashen notes in his research what I have come to see for myself.  Writing more does not make writing better.  But there is value in writing.  Writing is communication with others and with the self.  My students seem to really value the communications they were seeing from themselves to themselves about all that we had read this year in Latin through their own words.

“I used to think that how many words I wrote was a sign of how good my writing was, but now at the end of four years, I realize that it’s the quality of the writing and not the quantity that really matters.”

“I’ve realized that we have begun caring less about writing sentences and counting words and more about our responses to the questions presented to us.”

The fact is that early on–in Latin 1 and 2 and probably most of 3–the only measure of writing in our program is the number of words they write.  Teachers do read some of the writes, but we don’t grade for errors.  We look to see if they are re-telling the story, adding a detail, reflecting on a part of the story–in Latin.  And, we look to see if their word counts are increasing.  Errors?  Of course there are, just as one would expect from baby language learners.  We also know that time taken to correct errors is wasted both by the teacher and on the student.  There is no evidence at all that for normal learners error correction makes any difference at all in language acquisition unless it’s this:  error correction by the teacher tends to make students less willing to take risks with language.  They keep their writing safe, simple and undeveloped out of fear of the error corrections (and lower grades!).  In these comments, students are recognizing for themselves–after four years of Latin–that it’s about the ability to begin communicating about what they have read to others but mostly to themselves that matters.  Quality is more important than quantity, and many students found that when they allowed themselves to write for quality, their word counts did go down a bit.

“The point of the class is to be able to understand what is being said, and my writings show that I am actually doing that and not just copying down words that I memorized.”  (This student notes that earlier he was doing that–memorizing and copying, but that he has shifted to a lower word count but a greater level of understanding.  Increasingly challenging reading (via Harrius Potter) is what he credits to this shift.)  He goes on to observe about his own writing:

“Some writings show an increase in grammar (Itinera Petri) and others an increase in vocabulary (Harrius Potter).”

Several students noted the huge leap in new and strange vocabulary in Harrius Potter.  That’s why we spent the better part of the semester reading just one chapter (along with other kinds of readings).  It is interesting to me that they felt they gained more in grammar use and understanding from reading Itinera Petri which sheltered vocabulary but not grammar, but when it came to HP all they could do was think about the new vocab, which exploded.

After I had read all of their analyses, I had a discussion with them.  I wanted to know what they thought about the “grammar days” and taking notes.  Without an exception, the high flyers liked the grammar days and note taking and the more normal learners  largely still found grammar confusing or irrelevant.

So, I asked them: without exception you all say that you are clear that your grammar has improved–how do you know and how did that happen?  They gave this evidence of improved grammar:

“When I’m writing, I don’t have to reference my grammar notes as much.”

“My sentences have become more complex.”

” My number of words may drop but the quality of the writing and things expressed goes up.”

“I feel freer to write around words I don’t know using other words.”

“I know that when I can write about Roman virtues in Harry Potter or in a fable of Aesop and express an opinion or an argument all in Latin–and that when I re-read it weeks later I can understand it–I know that my grammar has improved.”

I can attest that all of these things are true about their writing, and it does indicate more control over the grammar and vocabulary (the monitor for Latin is strengthening in them), and they still make mistakes.  The mistakes are normal and appropriate for just four years of study (more like 360 hours of instruction).

What caused their grammar improve?  When I asked that question they almost answered with one unified voice:

“Reading and speaking Latin!”  

One added: “When you speak and we speak back to you, it helps hearing you repeat it correctly.”  This was held in contrast to calling students out, pointing out their mistake and embarrassing them.  “You just say it again correctly, and we can hear that.”  In my opinion, they have become better at hearing that.  In their first and second year, there is less evidence that they are hearing that which only argues for more time with them.

Another:  “After a while–reading and speaking, some things just begin to sound right and wrong.”

At this point, I thought I might just openly weep for joy.  Without knowing, per se, my CI agenda, they were telling me exactly how CI works for them.  

Even as I rejoice over how CI is working across 4 years for our students, I have to honest to say that I am also still left living with a traditional Latin teacher’s brain.  What does that mean?  It means that I continue to experience doubts about what I am doing.  Shouldn’t I be testing them on grammar?  Shouldn’t I be correcting their writing errors? Doesn’t misuse of grammar mean that they aren’t learning Latin?  

Likewise, when I am among a larger group of Latin teachers outside of my program, I find myself lost as teachers talk about a “dative worksheet” or mnemonics for remembering deponent verbs.  I once did all of those things, and I don’t anymore.  I can offer them while doing a “grammar day” but they are no longer standard fair in my classroom. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, and sometimes I feel cognitive dissonance when I hear Latin teachers talking about that.

This CI work works, and it’s changing me.  The change is slow.  As I look back, I have interfered with what I know to work because that traditional Latin teacher brain objects.  I think that’s happening less now, but it’s still a process.

No student makes progress in the language from writing or speaking.  Their writing and speaking are evidence of the interesting and understandable listening and reading they receive.  There is value, then, in writing for two things:

  1. It lets me know how effective my speaking in Latin and reading choices for them are.
  2. It allows them to communicate with themselves in this language about the things we read the conversations we have.

Bob Patrick

Writing Analysis–for level 4

This is a slightly different take on the portfolio analysis that we use in our CI Latin program.  Seniors in Latin 4 keep a composition notebook in which they do timed writes, free writes, take grammar notes and any other notes that they think will be helpful when they do writing in Latin.  They can use anything in the notebook when they write.  The composition notebooks stay in the room all year long.  Here’s what they do at the end of each semester.

  1. Take about 20 minutes to read through ALL of your entries in your composition notebook.
  2. Do all of your analysis on a fresh page in it.  Date it at the top with the title “Composition Analysis–(today’s date)
  3. After your read through, what are you noticing about your writing that surprises you?  Surprises should be both about progress and perhaps some shortcomings.  Explain with examples.
  4. Which of your writings is your best?  Identify it by title and date, and explain with examples why it is your best?
  5. Pretend that this composition notebook were the only evidence of your progress in Latin over the last 4 years.  Write a summary description of what that progress means and looks like.  Write it third person about yourself, and include examples from your writing this semester.
  6. Give yourself a numeric grade for your performance in Latin this semester based only on what is in this notebook.  Give an explanation for this grade.
  7. When finished, fold the pages of this analysis over in half, close your notebook, and return it to the front of the room.