Delivering Understandable Messages in Latin–A Report from the Field 1

Today we are pleased to present an article and accompanying videos by Dr. Robert Patrick, a NBTC Latin teacher at Parkview High School in metro Atlanta, GA, to talk about a modern language approach to Latin teaching! Dr. Patrick was a 2014 Finalist for the ACTFL Foreign Language Teacher of the Year and is a co-owner/moderator of the Yahoo Latin Best Practices group.
Two Reasons to (Re)Consider Comprehensible Input
Do you know what the retention rate for your Latin program is (the percentage of your Latin 1 students remain through the fourth or last year that you offer)? Do you know why it matters? Twenty-five years ago when I first began teaching Latin (and for the next 7 or 8 years) my retention rate from first year Latin to third year of study was 0%. No one remained beyond the two required-for-college years even though I would have taught four, and many struggled in the second year to stay above water. Only as I began to come into contact with the general theory and practices of Comprehensible Input (hereafter, CI) did that begin to change. Ten years ago, I took over a traditional program from a retiring teacher. The retention rate that year from first year of study to fourth year of study was .2% (yes, there’s a decimal before the 2). At this point in my career, I was dedicated to using CI, and I began that year to transition the program entirely to approaches that clearly came under the umbrella of CI theory. Nine years later, the program has almost tripled in size from 130 to 352 students, from one teacher to three teachers all using CI approaches. Our retention rate this past year was 45%. Our retention rate this year from first to third year is 82%.
Principals, school boards and provosts of universities do not routinely shut down strong and growing Latin programs. They do routinely shut down programs that are weak, have low retention rates, fail disproportionate numbers of students, or programs perceived to be elitist, screening out normal kinds of students. This leads me to another set of questions. For whom is Latin a good language to learn? Who has a right to access its riches? Who deserves to benefit from the myriad connections that Latin makes to science, literature, philosophy, history, art, architecture, religion, ethics, and any professional or technical language that adults have to learn to speak in English? Do average students deserve these benefits? How about special needs with learning disabilities? How about immigrants who have recently moved into American culture who may not even speak English well yet? If Latin offers all of these benefits (most of us agree that it does) then are not access to Latin and success in Latin intentional aims that we owe to every student in our schools? How large are you willing to let your Latin program become?
My aim is not to pummel the reader with endless questions, but to raise these three affirmations that teachers using Comprehensible Input are making their own:

  1. anyone who can speak one language can learn another, including Latin;
  2. using CI along with best practices in classroom management, every kind of student can make progress in Latin and gain from its benefits; and
  3. strong programs with high retention rates ensure the enjoyment of today’s students and the future of Latin in the United States.

CI Basics
What is Comprehensible Input? CI is the name of a theory of language acquisition that originates in the work of Stephen Krashen and his Five Hypotheses. (see, where Krashen has posted most of the essays, papers and books of his career, for free downloads)  More than a theory, however, teachers in many different languages, including a growing group of Latin teachers, have been experimenting with his theory in their classrooms and developing a body of approaches which bring second language acquisition to life–for all kinds of learners. My own short explanation of this theory and set of practices is this: teaching with CI means that I show up every day, every class and deliver understandable messages in Latin. It’s a simple way to remind me of the really exciting, complex kind of work that I can do with students of every kind and every level. For absolute beginners, I show up today and deliver understandable messages in Latin about some basic items in the room and some basic actions that we not only use and do every day but which I know are core to Latin vocabulary regardless of the period from which we aim for them to read. For advanced beginners (Latin 2 into early 3) I show up and deliver understandable messages by telling stories, asking stories, interviewing students, looking at pictures and describing them in Latin. After we have talked about a story or a picture which turns into a story and it is clear to me that they all understand, including the new words I’ve introduced, I ask them to spend 10 minutes on the clock writing everything they can about our story in Latin.
For low and advanced intermediate students (Latin 3 and 4) I show up every day and deliver understandable messages in Latin by asking them about a favorite song, what style it is, what it means, what its theme is (variations on love, sought, lost, rejected, turmoil, difficulties, friendship and grief) knowing that while they love holding these conversations and while I learn a good bit about them, unconsciously they are learning a group of new words that they will need to know for the readings I am about to bring to them in coming days. You and I would know that some of this conversation employs gerundive constructions and conditions contrary to fact. We don’t stop in the middle of these juicy conversations to examine the grammar. We will leave that for another day next week (we do have, at the upper levels, days of intense grammar discussion). My job on any given day as a CI teacher is to show up and deliver messages that the students in front of me can understand, today, in Latin.
Krashen’s five hypotheses are excellent guideposts and reminders for me. Someday, I think I want them large, on the wall of my classroom in these short forms.

  1. There is a difference between acquiring a language and learning about a language. Acquiring a language happens unconsciously and focuses on the message and meaning of the language. Learning about is conscious and focuses on the form and rules. Learning about a language is not the same as acquiring a language. Learning about always interferes with acquiring.
  2. All human beings acquire languages by receiving understandable messages in that language.
  3. There is a natural order to the acquisition of a language and it never corresponds to the grammar structure of our textbooks. We will know what the natural order is when students begin to understand and use what they have understood. The only thing we can do to foster this is to show up and deliver understandable messages in the language.
  4. Rules and grammar correction are only helpful when you know the rules, have time to apply them and are motivated to do so. I always know when students are ready for more grammar stuff. They start asking for it (not one or two, but most in the room).
  5. When stress levels go up, acquisition of the language goes down and vice versa.

Seeing is Believing
I have found over the years that Latin teachers who hear me talk about or read what I write about CI come away with knowledge about CI which they may or may not understand, but that is really not the same as seeing and experiencing language acquisition via CI. Hence, writing another article like this one is filled with complications. Given the wonders of digital media, I’d like to share some very short clips from two of my own classes and describe briefly these CI approaches.
Latin 1–Personal Questions and Answers; Circling, Point and Pause, SLOW
Video Clip #1 (This and the article’s other videos are hosted on Google Drive, but don’t require an account to view. We suggest opening in a separate window!)
In this clip, you see me working with a list of adverbs that are important contextual clues for verb tenses: hodie, heri, cras, mox, and cottidie. In CI work, the first order of business is establishing meaning, which I do both by the word list on the board with English equivalents and a talking explanation of them. My objective in this class is to circle the use of these words in the class with verbs that they already know (videre, habere, ludere, et al) and let them hear the change of tenses in the verbs as well. Within the 8 minutes of the clip, you see me establish meaning, do some personal questioning and answering with single students, circle that information back to the class as a whole, make use of point and pause when I use a new word, and really try to keep my language SLOW. These basic pieces of CI work can be used in dozens of configurations. In a follow up lesson, I put one word on the board–for instance heri–and ask them to tell me “quid accidit heri?” With each student’s response, we begin to paint a “one word picture.” When that one seems to be complete, I change the word to “cras.” We then create a new one word picture.
Latin 3–Popcorn Partner Reading; Read and Discuss
Video Clip #2
This is another example of mixing and matching CI approaches to achieve comprehension of a story. In the first clip, I am beginning the class by asking them to remember the characters, setting and problem of the story that we began on the previous class day. This is an excellent pre-reading experience because it allows them to move into their Latin brains before asking them to read in Latin. After several minutes of remembering these details together, students then partner up and read “popcorn style” meaning that the first partner reads a whole sentence or two and then his/her partner gives back the English meaning. Then, the second partner reads the next sentence in Latin and the first gives the English meaning. Rather than word for word translation, this is reading and checking comprehension that moves along in a quick manner. If the two of them cannot make out the meaning for something, they call me over for help.
Video Clip #3
After partners have read a segment of the story, then we reconvene and I re-read and discuss what they have just read together. I ask questions about sections that I think may have been tricky. I sometimes state information incorrectly to see if they will correct me, which they most often do. Students repeatedly tell me in end of semester evaluations that R and D (read and discuss) is one of the most helpful things we do. Even though you only see a few minutes here, the entire class is conducted in Latin. You only hear English when I need to make an item more comprehensible. Sometimes, the surest way to deliver an understandable message in Latin is to quickly give the English equivalent and then return to Latin. For those who have been influenced by an immersion model, this seems sacrilegious, but I have found my willingness to do this essential to student progress.
My own early experience in Comprehensible Input left me thinking for quite some time that it was all about TPR and TPRS–that is, doing nothing but telling stories and making wild gestures. While physical gestures and storytelling are powerful ways to deliver understandable messages in the target language, what many in the CI field are learning is that there are dozens of ways to deliver understandable messages. One way may be a personal interview with a student in front of the class. Another way may be to elicit comments about a word. Another way may be a reading which we discuss together, one that is at least 90% readable from the beginning.* Another way may be to project a picture or scene about which students and teachers construct descriptions or stories. When the CI teacher discovers that by sheltering the amount of vocabulary that we give to students (general rule: no more than 4 new words in an hour’s class session) we do not have to shelter grammar, the teacher is immediately freed from the march through any textbook. Latin learning becomes about exploring the world of words along any theme that the teacher/students choose. When the teacher does choose to have students read something, it can be from any time period (appropriately embedded) or something written and discussed by the teacher and students together. This kind of Latin language learning is anything but dead.
The number of Latin teachers collaborating together to use CI and expand the varieties of ways to mix and match CI approaches is constantly increasing. We have seen this kind of activity on Latin Best Practices and as a result, the owners of LBP (of which I am one) have recently created a new website for storing and sharing the materials that CI Latin teachers are creating. It’s all free. The transition to a CI approach is not always smooth. Because it is based in the natural abilities of the human being to acquire language, the traditionally trained Latin teacher is challenged immediately to require new things of him/herself and not to require other things of students. Each teacher that I know could tell stories of the challenges. Many start and stop and start again. By sharing stories of success and struggle, we are all learning at a much faster rate than we ever did alone how to deliver this beloved language of ours to larger populations of students. This gives me much joy. I invite those who are (re) considering Comprehensible Input as their way of teaching Latin to enter the conversation. I don’t know of a single CI teacher who isn’t willing to share and help along those who are starting the journey.
* NB.  CI work is making it clear that whenever we give students a reading that it not at least 90% readable from the beginning, we are handing them failure.  For a reading to be “readable” students must know more that 90% of the words found in that text.  This is an incredibly helpful (if not also frustrating) measure to apply to what we ask students to read.  If a story or text is less that 90% readable, then we must create an embedded version of it so that it is readable.  Writing embedded versions of readings deserves its own treatment.

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One thought on “Delivering Understandable Messages in Latin–A Report from the Field

  • Jan Kittok

    Great article! The way I teach (Spanish) totally transformed in the 1980’s when I was first exposed to Dr. Krashen’s ideas. I had a similar experience with a sharp rise in retention. The principal didn’t know what to do. There had always been a 50% enrollment decline from Level 1 to Level 3. That year 100% of the students enrolled to stay in the program!
    For the past 10 years I have been presenting professional development seminars to train language teachers with CI methods: TPR (classical), TPRS, Natural Approach and Content-Based Storytelling. You can read more about my signature seminar, Redefining Possibilities for Learning Languages and my bio on my website: Who would I contact to bring this training to New England? It would make a great regional program for teachers of classical languages or combination of classical and modern languages.