Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Rejecting a Grammar Syllabus

One of the common misconceptions about CI which I often hear is "But you CI teachers don't teach grammar." Quite honestly, to a degree there is a nugget of truth in this statement but just not in the way that people think:
Yes, grammar is indeed covered in a CI classroom, but it is just NOT taught EXPLICITLY as we think it should be done.
An adage which you may have encountered with CI implementation is "Shelter the vocabulary, not the grammar." In other words, limit the vocabulary to high-frequency words and other "icing" words, but milk the @*#! out of these words grammatically. This completely goes against a grammar-based textbook/syllabus, since the grammar topic for the chapter determines what is going to be taught, along with a prescribed list of vocabulary words (of which probably half are "Why the heck does the textbook think that this is a necessary word for students?"). 

Traditionally in a grammar-based syllabus, certain language structures are considered upper level grammar topics (subjunctives, indirect statements, gerunds, gerundives, etc), and often we preface teaching these topics by telling students, "These are really hard to learn, so pay attention." But why do we hold off on introducing structures like these until later instead of in Latin 1 when for students, they are actually quite easy to understand in context, and for me as a CI teacher they seem very natural to incorporate? But yet we feel the need to teach all six tenses by the end of Latin 1, when in reality, we know that the future, pluperfect, and future-perfect tenses are not high frequency structures? 

If you learned Latin in the traditional grammar-based way in which I did, you will recall that the opening grammar concepts which we learned were the first declension and first conjugation. Or if you used the reading method, then instead of by declension/conjugation, you first learned the nominative and accusative cases. In each case, however, each chapter's lesson was determined by grammar. 

So if not guided by a grammar syllabus, how does one introduce grammar then? Simply this: Teach the grammar that you need for the situation/reading. If you shelter the vocabulary but not the grammar (and not get into LONG explanations of the grammar behind it), there is no reason why you cannot use periphrastic phrases or indirect questions in Latin 1.

I myself am still learning this concept of "sheltering vocabulary but not grammar." I am currently creating the Latin 2 lesson plans for my instructional team, and as I write them up, I am constantly thinking, "Why did I not introduce this particular strucuture back in Latin 1 when it seems like such a natural structure to introduce there." A good example is the temporal use of cum + indicative to mean express "when" - Latin textbooks hold off on this concept until later chapters because it is lumped together with the subjunctive for causal and concessive clauses. Yet, the use of cum + indicative as a temporal use is perfectly okay, so why not it implement it in Latin 1? 

Last year in Latin 1, I introduced indirect statements very early, because we were reading Brando Brown Canem Vult, and these structures appear very often in the novella. I found that indirect statements were quite easy for students to read in context when I GOT OUT OF THE WAY with teaching these structures explicitly.

When it comes to what my students know about grammar:

  • Do my students know the grammatical mechanics behind the formation of the particular clauses, e.g., what specific change is made to the root form of the verb based on its conjugation, sequence of tenses? No, not at all. 
  • Can they identify grammatical forms by their formal names, such as purpose clause, temporal clauses, indirect questions, and noun clause of characteristic? A few 4%ers may be able to, since I have mentioned them in passing, but quite honestly, no, not at all.
  • Main question: Is it 100% necessary for them to need to know these grammatical specifics? If my goal for them as novice and intermediate level learners is to be able to read level-appropriate Latin, then the answer is quite easy: no, not at all. 

NOTE - after 3-4 years of language learning, ACTFL classifies learners around an intermediate-mid level of reading. Most classical literature rates at the SUPERIOR level of reading, yet tradition says that students should be reading (insert rather, translating/decoding) Caesar (which rates about Advanced Mid/High), Ovid, and Vergil at the 3rd year of Latin.

Many Latin teachers would say that I am failing my students in the long run in not teaching them explicit grammar according to a traditional syllabus. These teachers need to remember that I LOVE grammar and was attracted to Latin because of the explicit grammar teaching, but I also know that the average learner is not like I am. When I do discuss explicit grammar, it is only in passing for about 30-seconds. I still will point out certain grammatical features, e.g, "See this -ba- in the verb? It is translated as "was/were _________ing." If I feel like the explicit grammar is something important for students to know, then I will assign certain students to be the grammar expert for the topic.

If you are transitioning to/dabbling in CI and still wish to use the textbook but want to move away from a grammar-based syllabus, then consider the following: 
  • In the textbook, what MUST I absolutely cover in a semester? What topics are considered non-negotiable? This can be determined by state standards, common exams/assessments, progress on Student Learning Objective (SLO) pre-tests/post-tests, instructional team decisions, etc.
  • If there are restrictions, can I still cover all of these grammar topics but yet on MY timeline? Just because I need to cover participles or X vocabulary words since they are on of the final exam, do I have to teach them in April since that is when the textbook and my colleagues do? Can I introduce these concepts/words in January since that fits better into my curriculum?
  • Leave out anything which is then superfluous. Carrie Toth's Vocabulary Chuck-It Bucket is a great example of this.
I will admit that leaving behind a grammar-based syllabus approach seems very weird and scary, but now that I have left it behind, I actually see that I have a lot of freedom in what I want to do.


  1. Excellent article, Keith! This is applicable to pretty much any language. Leave the grammar on the sidelines until you need it, then give it to them in short chunks. I remember being bored to tears going through all of the conjugation tables for Spanish verbs...

  2. The kids are conditioned to view language as a subject and they need "things to learn" (which has largely been grammar and culture in Latin). The problem is resources. Many, many textbooks and workbooks that use the grammar-translation or reading methods exist for Latin learners. There are really only a handful of CI novellas accessible to intro learners, however. This, for all practical purposes, is a HUGE problem for teachers. The stress of becoming good at story-asking, the other stress that teaching in general brings to a human being, and of course, the variables of learner backgrounds (SES, trauma, etc.) make ditching grammar much less appealing to teachers. This is a not an excuse so much as a "it's not that simple" kind of statement. A final thought: learning Latin for the purpose of acquiring Latin is a much more difficult sell to a "21st century" learning community. Sure, the pure joy of it has intrinsic value; but in an ethos of teaching "transferable skills" and "transfer" it seems difficult (convince me if I'm wrong) to justify learning Latin as a purely fun endeavor without the larger transferable skills. Not to mention personalized learning, UbD, or design thinking (all of which make CI very hard). I raise these concerns only to say that in creating more accessible and acquisition based Latin learning, we may be ironically creating the conditions of our own irrelevance in future schools. Thanks as always for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for your comment. Glad that you read this post and found something of interest on which to discuss.

      To cite Bill Van Patten (of Tea with BVP fame), language is unlike any other subject area in that language is too abstract and complex to teach/learn explicitly - what is on page 32 is not what winds up in students' heads. This definitely applies to Latin.

      You are right in that there are few CI resources for Latin teachers at the moment, but as the CI Latin movement now is starting to gain some critical mass, more extensive resources will become available.

      My argument is that if we continue to treat Latin as a grammar-based language stuck in the 1st century, this is what will further the conditions of own irrelevance, as the pool of students who would normally be drawn to Latin grammar decide to take other languages which they consider to be more relevant in today's global community. I will write a future post on this.