Monday, December 5, 2016

Grammar "Errors" in a CI Classroom

Today, in my study hall, four of my Latin 1 students began to converse in Latin with each other. I was rather surprised to hear them doing this, because three of them had NEVER demonstrated any interest during class to converse in the language (outside of scaffolded output). What transpired between the four of them was a rather spontaneous 10-minute conversation in Latin, using language which we had been going over this semester. Now to be honest, it was not a high-level dialogue about anything in particular, and their language usage was FAR from correct - it was messy, full of "errors," and would have hurt the ears of many Latinists - but all I could think was "Oh my gosh, these students are communicating IN LATIN!" I cannot tell how happy I was to hear them conversing in simple Latin, errors and all. I just sat back and let them talk, not even trying to correct them and only giving them corrections when they asked. 

What transpired today reminded me of something which I had seen on Twitter not too long ago:

Which teacher are you - the one on the left or on the right? I can honestly say that I once was the teacher on the left for the longest time, because isn't error correction what we are supposed to do as language teachers? I think, however, that we as world language teachers forget just how difficult it is to for language to come out of the mouths of our students for the purpose of communication, let alone correctly.

How do I know this? Because I myself have been there when it comes to speaking Latin. To understand my situation, you need to understand that I learned Latin in high school, college, and graduate school with the grammar-translation method - quite honestly, I had no idea that any other method existed. Why should there be if our goal was simply to translate classical works into English and to discuss them in English, in addition to parsing the heck out of every word? Yes, being a 4%er, I really liked that (and still do to a degree now)...

So going into my first Rusticatio in 2010, even though I knew that I would struggle some since I had never had spoken Latin before, in my opinion, as I had both my B.A. and M.A. in Latin, and since I "knew" grammar, speaking should not be too difficult. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, although I had a brain full of grammar knowledge, I had never used it for communicative purposes. When it came to speaking Latin, I had no clue what I was doing. I remember how absolutely difficult it was to SAY ANYTHING in Latin, let alone communicate in a conversation in the language. For me, just to get ANY language to come out of my mouth was a major victory. I found myself making TONS of grammar errors, and I was absolutely frustrated that I was making what seemed to be very basic mistakes.

Luckily, Nancy Llewellyn, the leader of Rusticatio that summer, had warned us on the opening night that making grammar errors in the language was part of the process. In what I always call her "red pen" talk, she said,
You are going to make the same kinds of grammar errors that if your own students were to make them, you would skin your knees running to grab a red pen to correct them.
Rusticatio even has a rule about grammar correction: it is to only occur when the delivered message is incomprehensible and not understandable. This is a rule which I believe that we need to apply in our classrooms. But even at that, I think that we need to exercise a degree of caution, because in its speaking proficiency guidelines, ACTFL itself states that even "Intermediate Low speakers can generally be understood by sympathetic interlocutors, particularly by those accustomed to dealing with non-natives." The key word is sympathetic - even if what my students say is horribly wrong grammatically, can I still understand what they are trying to say? At my first Rusticatio, I remember saying "ego cena parat," and even though that is so grammatically wrong on so many levels, I remember as a beginning speaker how difficult it was for me to get that to come out of my mouth, but at the same, those around me knew what I was attempting to say.

I have even heard a number of CI teachers say that in many ways, there is no such thing as "conscious errors" for speakers, since they are applying their known knowledge of the language at that particular moment. Someone once told me that even recasting (the act of restating the speaker's error with the corrected form) is not always effective unless the corrected speaker actively knows that he/she is being corrected. 

So while we can make overt grammar correction for beginning speakers, in many ways, I firmly believe that these speakers simply need more input. If we as world language teachers believe that all students learn at their own pace, then we must also believe that students will produce correct language at their own pace. I believe Michelle Kindt says it best in this tweet regarding language acquisition:

Some random observations based on my students today
  1. Even though I am nowhere speaking anywhere near the 90% target language goal in class, whatever I am speaking and having students read in the target language is still effective, as these students were able to produce language on their own without being forced. That makes me feel good that I am doing something right!
  2. At the end of study hall, I told these students that I was impressed by their spontaneous dialogue in Latin. I told them, "You do realize that I never once made you make flash cards to learn those words." One student responded, "That is really weird. Somehow I just know these words inside me." That is proof to me of subconscious input and acquisition!


  1. How do we grade "proficiency" without requiring correct forms? What is the learning target, if not a correct form? "Students will be able to..." I'm just not sure how to finish the learning target.

    1. Thanks for the question. Performance vs. proficiency is a topic which I feel that most world language teachers do not grasp fully, as they think that both are the same thing, when in fact, they are different. Performance is exactly what its name denotes: performance in a specific context, where the context is a rehearsed and specific, such as buying a train ticket, or ordering food at a restaurant. Proficiency means being understandable in a spontaneous situation to native speakers, where the speaker is not necessarily perfect but is understood. As most students after 4 years will be Intermediate Low/Mid speakers, and as their grammar will not be perfect, they will be understood by "sympathetic" speakers (an ACTFL term). The ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview is based on proficiency and not on performance, i.e., the speaker is not marked down for grammar errors per se but on incomprehensibility; if sympathetic listeners find the grammar errors impeding comprehensibility, then there is an issue. We must also understand that language learning is not linear but a spiral (this is from ACTFL) - we cannot assume that every student will learn at the same pace and will pick up "corrections" at the same time. So to answer your question regarding grading proficiency, if there are errors, focus on just one mistake to correct if needed. Yes, the eventual end goal is a correct form, but as we know from children learning to speak, each child will begin to speak at a different time from others; in addition, each child will arrive at a level of "correctness" at a different time.