Saturday, April 5, 2014

Writing in Latin, part 1

This will begin a series of postings on writing in the target language

In the past, I have always wanted my students to write in Latin, but I have never been really happy with the results. I never liked the books which had students "translate the following sentences into Latin" because the exercise seemed rather stilted, and the sentences provided were rather impractical (e.g, the queen asked for money, because a pirate is sailing to the island - all 1st conjugation and declension words).  What I wanted was for students to compose in Latin on their own, but I felt like students did not have much to say when they wrote, and when they did, it was full of grammar errors.

When I myself was an undergraduate at UCLA, I had to take a Latin composition class, and I remember that it was such an incredibly difficult course - quite honestly, I do not think that UCLA even offers that class any longer. That class was the first time where I had ever been required to write ANYTHING in Latin outside of verb synopses and noun declensions (and this was after 4 years of high school Latin and 3 years of university-level Latin), and I certainly had never heard Latin before for the purpose of communication. I ended up getting a B in that class, and I was pretty proud of it, considering how tough it was. As I reflect back now, I realize that I really was not writing in Latin per se but rather decoding English into Latin, one word at a time.

These past few years though I have learned three very important points about students writing in the target language.

  1. In order for students to produce "output," they needs LOTS of understandable "input" IN LATIN first. Input includes but is not limited to oral, listening, reading, drawing and singing, with as much student interaction as possible with the Latin IN LATIN so that the Latin becomes internalized. "Output" then becomes a natural response to "input," but it is almost like there needs to be at least 3-4 times as much input than output in order for output to occur.
  2. Students actually do want to compose in the target language, but whatever they write needs to be both of great interest and compelling to them. This is why the stilted "translate-these-senteces-from-English-into-Latin" sentences usually do not work for students. An isolated sentence involving a queen asking for money because a pirate is sailing to the island is probably not of great interest to students.
  3. Expect grammar errors! It is part of the language acquisition process. Based on the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Guidelines, Novice-level students can write lists of vocabulary words and compose rudimentary sentences and memorized phrases; if students have never written in Latin before, even if they are at an AP-level, then this is where they are at. Intermediate-level students can write full sentences and demonstrate basic control over language structures in their writing (note - in the modern languages, this is considered roughly the 4th year of actual usage of the language). I think that we teachers make the mistake of expecting students to write perfectly in Latin right away, even if they know all of their endings, and we push them to start writing complex structures too soon, but the ACTFL reality is, the average student cannot. Moreover, they will make a TON of grammar/spelling mistakes, which is exactly what they should be doing.

So what are some ways you can get your students to write in Latin if they have never done it before (and quite honestly, you have never done it before)?

  1. Don't rush into composition right away. For Latin 1, it may simply be to write a list of all vocabulary words which they know in 5 minutes and then to count them. Granted this is an isolated list, but it is a skill of a Novice-level writer. Maybe students can spit back sentences like "Caecilius est in tablino," "Metella est mater," as these may have become memorized phrases for them.
  2. Give students an understandable story written in Latin to read, with simple comprehension questions which they will answer by writing their response in Latin, using the text as the source. Though they are not composing in Latin per se, the act of copying words/text in the target language is a Novice-level writer according to ACTFL Writing Proficiency standards. Plus, comprehension of the text is needed for students to know what to write down, so both comprehension and writing skills are addressed.
  3. Do a short dictation exercise. I have written an earlier post about dictationes and their benefits.
My next posting will deal with various ways in which I have had students write and compose PARAGRAPHS in Latin. 


  1. Nice post Silvius!

    What is your feeling about a)grading student writing b) correcting errors on student writing? This article has been floating around the twitter-sphere speaking out against writing on student work

    I have also read some the work promoted by Krashen against the effectiveness of error correction. (an article in the IJFLT, I believe). Although that research is certainly controversial.

    Because, the follow-up is that ACTFL expects students to be producing output (granted, very limited output) from the earliest days. Production, not comprehensible input is stressed in the ACTFL standards. (I consider the mentions to CI by ACTFL to be lip-service because in my experience that is the way non CI teachers treat them). The sudents have to write in limited contexts and speak from the first week of class. Obviously the accuracy and language control is very limited.

    So do you grade or correct the writing in any way? Do you push them at all to put in different forms (either verbal or case endings?) Not with the goal of composing perfect sentences, but to keep expanding their repetoire so it's not always "Ego es discipulus". Or do you simply trust in the process that that will come with more input?

    1. Grammar correction is definitely a hot topic among WL teachers, and there are some very polar schools of thought on the subject. I'm of the camp which believes that explicit grammar correction is not 100% helpful, except for a small amount of students. But I do take a look at what students have written to see what it is that I need to give more reps on.

      The idea of asking students to "expand their repertoire by putting in as many forms/cases": I do not believe that it is helpful for students, because then you as the teacher are forcing some parameters on them for which they may not be ready. If, however, I am modeling these forms for them and students are interacting with these forms in a contextual, understandable manner with plenty of repetitions, then they will begin acquire them.

      This summer, I will be attending my 5th Rusticatio, and I am still making plenty of mistakes when I speak. There are many which I catch as I am speaking (Krashen's internal monitor), but there are many more which I'm sure I am making totally unaware. I am grateful that Rusticatio has created an atmosphere of "no external monitors," because I know that it would definitely impede me from producing output. I appreciate the modeling of correct usages/grammar.

  2. Really the desire to want to write in Latin is the biggest piece of the puzzle. You're absolutely correct in recognizing that the standard "Translate these sentences from English into Latin" are both meaningless to students and an utter waste of time.

    The writing has to be organic and that starts with mimicking known phrases and simple sentences in the TL; whether it be from reading, spoken Latin in class, or other places (for example, this is one thing that the second iteration of gear and equipment in LAPIS has attempted to do -- give small bits of comprehensible phrases to help build a core of comfort in composition.)

    I encourage organic writing right from the start; but that's embedded right into the core philosophy in how the mechanics of LAPIS come together.

    Magister T; what I've found to work well isn't direct correction but rather consistent rephrases and modeling correct usage in response to what they've written. So in your sentence "Ego est discipulus", if they were to say that to another character in their response, I might write something like:

    Sextus respondet, "ita vero! tu es discipulus et ego sum magister! ego quoque sum senex et tu es iuvenis."

    Eventually enough modeling subconsciously corrects those very minor mistakes.