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06.3.Stayskal

This paper analyzes structural underpinnings and assumptions in beginning Greek textbooks that work to disadvantage of students learning from them. Specifically, the standard ordering of verb and noun forms has the effect of backloading material for students who would benefit from more exposure to “difficult” or “irregular” forms but instead receive less. Two simple proposals, with far-reaching implications, can reverse this counterproductive pattern.

As different as first-year books may appear, most are structured around the same patterns and assumptions. First or second declension nouns, for example, are introduced first and only later students are finally introduced to the third declension. Verbs too, have a typical order. The present tense of regular -ω verbs is introduced first and is usually followed by the future and imperfect tenses. Only later is the -ω verb aorist treated systematically, and -μι verbs are usually relegated to later, or even to the very end of the beginning sequence. For both nouns and verbs, the assumption seems to be that it is better to teach “easier” forms first and only later introduce forms that involve stem changes or “unusual” patterns of endings.

The consequence of this attempt to help students by emphasizing “easy” forms at the beginning of their Greek experience is that such an order of topics actually makes learning Greek considerably harder and postpones the ability to read ancient texts. The prolonged exposure to the “easier” forms makes more “difficult” forms seem irregular and also reduces the students’ exposure to forms that simply need more practice. The typical order of topics in elementary Greek also tends to create habits that have to be unlearned later. For example, when the imperfect tense is presented before the aorist, despite what an instructor says, students simply gain the habit of assuming that the secondary -ω verb endings used to show the imperfect tense are imperfect endings. They then have to unlearn that habit when they learn second aorist forms.

There is, however, an order of topics that not only avoids current pitfalls but also has positive benefits for learning the language. For nouns, the third declension should be introduced and assimilated first, and then nouns of the first and second declensions can easily follow. Several critical benefits accrue to this order. From the very beginning, students learn the importance of knowing a noun’s stem and gender. They also learn the principle of agreement, especially the point that an adjective ending (like the article with its third-declension noun) may look quite different from that of the noun and yet still agree in number, gender, and case. In regard to verbs, -μι and -ω verbs should be learned together from the time verbs are first introduced. Students will learn in this way that -μι verbs are not irregular but simply belong to a different but consistent family of forms. The logical starting point for learning different tenses is the present, but the next tense should be the aorist. Students can begin practicing with strong aorist stems, become acquainted with augmentation (given in the third principal part), and ingrain the notion of primary and secondary tenses. The patterns of present and aorist endings, once thoroughly learned, not only equip the students for the two most common tenses but also provide a clear basis for all other tenses to be learned.

Such radical rearrangement of first-year topics would, of course, require new textbooks, exercises, and readings. A prototype has already been put into use with positive outcomes though there is much left to be done. There is also likely to be a certain amount of discomfort stepping out of the order in which almost all Greek teachers have been trained. The extra effort, however, is certainly worthwhile if our goal in Greek pedagogy is to continue to reach new students and give them the best possible experience as they learn the language.

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