Assessing Grammar: Three Time Frames

To demonstrate increasing skill in identified grammar topics

This is one of the standards that I have my Latin 4 students working toward.  One of those identified grammar topics is to recognize and understand readings in three time frames (generally, past, present and future, though this could include some subjunctive and imperative use as well).

I think that for most of us, a first reaction–certainly mine has been–“well, of course they should be able to.”  In fact, we might think that such a task is more fitting for lower levels–not fourth year students.  My own growing experience is that while I might expect students to easily understand and identify–even produce–three time frames through verb tenses and moods, that the expectation is not very realistic.  Here’s the journey of my own understanding about this.

Show and Drill

For many years, regarding grammar, especially verbs, I would show students how verb tenses were formed, four principal parts on the board, stems, connecting vowels, endings, etc.   I had them takes notes.  I made them practice. We drilled.  And then, when it came to translating a text, it was if none of that had happened.  Intensifying my efforts made virtually no difference.  Only a handful ever seemed to be able to gain control over these verb forms.

Read and Write

When I moved into more of a reading approach, I thought that having students write in Latin would somehow help them gain control over the verb and noun inflections.  I still demonstrated how those changes happened, gave them ample notes, allowed them to use their notes (a change from show and drill), but writing for most of them was painful and tedious, and their control over forms did not show much increase.

Read and Understand

Since I have been using approaches that qualify as Comprehensible Input, my attention with students has shifted dramatically to giving them input that they can understand (speaking to them in Latin that they can understand, placing readings in front of them that they can understand).  It took a while for me to catch on that these forms of input also needed to be interesting, i.e. compelling.  To complicate matters (as well as keep them interesting) what one group of students finds compelling doesn’t always insure that the next group will find the same compelling.  I’ve found that if the input is compelling and understandable, students begin to gain a sense of the meaning of verbs, time frames and inflections of nouns (and it is increasingly my sense that they acquire verb inflections more readily than noun inflections).  I still, from time to time, show them how to create verb forms as I always have.  I invite them to create their own “working grammar” which they are always allowed to access during writing assignments.  I would also allow them to use those notes on tests, but I no longer “test” grammar per se.  I am always teaching it.  I never test it, and students are always adding to their personal grammars the notes they might want to access.

Produce?  Only with Time and Purpose

I still ask students to write.  I am still interested in my Latin 4 students gaining increasing skill with grammatical topics, particularly around time frames.  My current set of priorities looks like this, in this order:

A. Lots of understandable, compelling input from me making rich use of the grammar of the language, but with a limited vocabulary.  Vocabulary increases, of course, over 4 years, but much more slowly than in a traditional program.  The question is not how many words they “know” but how well they can understand Latin as they hear and read it.  What’s the point of them “knowing” a lot of individual words if they cannot understand Latin writing?

B. When students ask about a verb form, I use that as an opportunity to demonstrate how to form verbs.  I try to keep it short and poignant to the context.  I ask them to take notes in their personal grammar for later reference.

C. I ask them from time to time to produce Latin in speaking and writing.  When they speak and make mistakes, I simply repeat what they’ve said back to them correctly.  When they write, I give them LOTS of time and ask them to use their personal grammar notes to help them.  I allow them to ask me questions while they are writing.  This, I am convinced, is the only way to “do” or “use” grammar for most students.  I. They have to have access to the rules (their personal grammar notes).  II. They have to have time to create and then edit their own work.  III. They have to find the work interesting enough to engage it.

To that last piece:  I try to make their writing assignments related to any compelling reading we have recently done. That also means that their grammar notes will contain examples of the words and phrases used in those recent stories.  Their notes will feel familiar.  The content will still hold some interest from the reading, and if I ask them to add a critical or creative piece to the writing, even more so.

Most recently, after reading the first 7 chapters if Itinera PetriI asked Latin 4 students to do a two part writing:

A. Give a breviarium of the book thus far (this, I hoped, would tap into their current interest in the story).

B. Choose EITHER one of the 16 Roman virtues or qualities that we have been focusing on all year and trace it through the story, OR trace the role of magia through the story and its significance.

Students worked on this with their personal grammar notes open for almost an hour.  No one finished early, and the next day, I was able to begin class, Latine tantum, by asking them to tell me about the virtue/quality or role of magic in the story.    As I read their writings, what I am seeing is some increasing control over Latin verbs and time frames.

Today, after reading chapter 8 of the book, I asked them to break into small groups and, in English, discuss the significance of “time frames” in the chapter.  As a whole class, they were able to assemble on the board three time frames represented by one instance of the present tense, one future active participle, and the perfect and pluperfect tenses.  They also drew attention to how even in a past time frame the reader could be made to feel like the event was happening all over again.

Bob Patrick

Writing in the L2 Classroom

Stephen Krashen has just shared, for free, a recent article of his about the appropriate place for writing in the language classroom. You can read the article here.  It is also listed on the links page of this site.
I see several applications to the L2 classroom based on this article, but they are not what we might typically or traditionally have done with writing in second language.
Krashen briefly recalls  previous studies demonstrating that having students write in the second language does not advance acquisition.  Cf. the first major paragraph on the first page.  The link and references are there for those who wish to look them up.
Even a few years ago, I was unaware of this research and would have argued that having students write was part of learning Latin.  I created several practices around that notion, too.  In retrospect, the 4 percenters were able to be successful with their writing (meaning that it was comprehensible Latin and largely grammatically correct), but I had no evidence that this actually helped anyone acquire more Latin.  My own experience in Latin and Spanish composition classes were equally frustrating.  I hated them, and did not feel like I made any progress in either language because of the forced writing.  In the Latin comp class, there was no comprehensible input, and in the Spanish comp class the input was minimal.
So, what’s the point?  I would now offer the following kinds of writing activities in the Latin classroom, based on the elements of composition that Krashen offers:
1. I would not do any of this with absolute beginners.  Perhaps by the end of the first year, or into second, certainly by third and fourth.
2. Ask students to create a short, fun story based on a couple of characters, a problem and its resolution.  My favorite right now is to ask them to create a fable with at least two animals, a problem and a moral instruction implied by the story.  It must be short.  I point out that the best fables are often just a few lines long.  This is not a novela or a short story.  It’s a fable.  For the first ‘writing’ all they do is make a list of characters and some outline of where the story might go.  This is  the “flexible planning” part of Krashen’s paper.  Don’t let anyone skip this.  Teacher can help by walking around and seeing what is going down on the list.  Students with only one character need to be prodded to have at least two.  Students with more than 3 or 4 characters need to be prodded to pare it down.
3. Return that story to them several times through the year–perhaps once a month.  First, ask them to carefully and slowly re-read their story, first out-loud to a partner, and then silently to themselves.  Then, ask them to improve the story. What you know is that in the intervening month, you have been giving them much comprehensible input in Latin. Writing (output) is always the product of input.
4. Offer no corrections on their papers, but read for comprehension.  Point to places where what they have written is not very clear and simply offer:  can you make this more understandable?
5. Suggest that because they are working on their story all year long, they may suddenly get an idea for it out of the blue at some time when they least expect it (like while running track, etc).  When that happens, they should make note of the idea and come in to see you before or after school and add that note to their paper for the next writing day.  Help them learn to expect creativity to happen to them, but also to know that creativity happens when it will.
6. Have them do some creative writing every day–perhaps in a journal–perhaps as a warm up or ending to class each day.  Five minutes.  Develop the daily habit of writing.  It will never be graded for grammar.  Only checked for completion.
7. Invite your students to consider that through writing, especially creative writing and regular writing that we simply give ourselves to, we often work out problems and gain new insights.  That’s what may come as a result of this.
If such a plan is followed over the course of the year, then in the last month of school, these stories that have been worked on like this for 8-9 months can be edited for grammar and polish, and you now have X number of new stories to share with next year’s students.
Bob Patrick