Latin teachers recreating their instruction through a process called “comprehensible input” create a new equity in acquiring a classical language that has been missing in Latin classrooms for too long. Simultaneously, these teachers sustain interest and demonstrably higher retention rates in secondary Latin programs.
Comprehensible input (CI) is rooted in the work and research of linguist, Stephen Krashen, whose input hypothesis establishes the way that a student makes progress acquiring any language: namely, listeners receive communications that are understandable in the second language, and their input is aimed at a level slightly beyond current ability (Krashen, 1982). Teachers using CI have come to see that this most consistently happens unconsciously when students are totally engaged in a story or discussion in the target language (Ray and Seely, 2012).
We used to think that language learning was a hierarchical process and that learning the pieces and how each linguistic piece was subdivided yielding meaning and understanding. Foundational to philology is knowing and giving articulate evidence of the forms and structures of the language and using that knowledge to analyse a text in the language. The specialized work of a philologist has little to do with acquiring ability in a language and is not of much use to language learners until they need to edit their own work and analyze the work of others.
Morten Christiansen and his colleagues at Cornell are finding evidence that the human brain processes language sequentially, and that it understands the meaning of language when it comes in chunks presented in a natural order or sequence. This evidence lends itself to a process of language teaching that employs comprehensible input, delivering language in structures or chunks that are understandable and repeated in meaningful communication. The evidence demonstrates why a traditional approach of teaching forms and structures in hierarchical thinking works against the way that human beings learn and understand language. Persisting with hierarchical teaching methods in the face of this research and a natural sequence alternative like comprehensible input creates inequities in the classroom at any level which only a few students can surpass.
A consideration of the value of CI in the Latin or Greek classroom requires examples. At the end of four years of secondary study students in a CI Latin classroom can hold conversations in Latin around a variety of topics at a low intermediate to low advanced level (ACTFL, pp. 6-7). They can write extensively on a variety of topics at a high intermediate to a low advanced level (ACTFL pp. 12-13). They have begun to ask insightful questions of grammar and are capable at this point of receiving explicit grammar instruction using it to edit their own work, the only thing for which grammar study is valuable (Krashen 1984). They can read and discuss in Latin texts that are appropriate for their level--selected material from the Medieval period, fables from many periods, selections from classical authors with appropriate vocabulary work (circling, PQA, timed writes, embedded stories). They handle embedded readings of any author the teacher deems valuable, which then lead to much easier reading of the original texts.
I will present examples in this paper of the various modes used in a CI classroom: circling, personal questions and answers, pop-up grammar, reading and discussion, the use of timed writes and embedded stories. I will cite research that supports the links between reading in the target language and high quality writing (Krashen 1993; Elley, et al., 1976).
Retention rates in a CI classroom are high. I will describe the effects of the CI approach on student demographics and enrollment, student failure rates and Latin program retention rates over the eight years of my current Latin program. CI allows the teacher to address issues of equity in the classics program and make the study of Latin and Greek available to students who are ordinarily excluded from classical studies.
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