Most teachers begin to teach the way they themselves were taught, and test as they were tested. Many Latin teachers were drawn in as students by the puzzle of Latin and the challenge of knowing precisely what every word meant and how it functioned in a sentence. The process was painstakingly slow and generally resulted in a literal translation of the text that all too often did little to convey fully the author’s intent. In reality, good translation is a highly-skilled art, practiced well by a mere handful of the learned and eloquent.
When students are asked to translate a passage, the result is often so stilted and obtuse that they have little or no idea of its meaning. Indeed, how can a teacher expect a student to render cultural concepts like pietas, virtus, fas, pudor or mos maiorum in a language that lacks such constructs?
This paper outlines alternative forms of both formal and informal assessment focused on reading comprehension and language learning rather than translation. In this model, students are full participants in the assessment process, engaging in self-assessment and peer assessment, and contributing questions to classroom assessments, which focus on reading skills and understanding and responding to texts. Translation need not be entirely abandoned, but is limited to select phrases or sentences that are key to understanding. Knowledge of syntax is no less important to student success in this model than it is for literal translation, as the instructor is free to ask specific questions about any element of the text.
This shift in assessment will, of course, require a concommittant shift in instruction, which must focus on teaching Latin reading skills and strategies rather than the puzzle-solving approach required of translation. It is here that modern language colleagues and the results of Second Language Acquisition research can inform the Latin instructor. Perhaps most relevant to Latin instruction is recent work by SLA researchers like William E. Nagy (2007) and Keiko Koda (2008), who suggest that metalinguistic awareness (i.e, knowing how a language works) is a key element in becoming a good reader. Teaching for reading rather than translating will enable Latin students to use their detailed knowledge of the language to become fluent readers who can read both extensively for meaning and intensively for precision.