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Comprehension Checks

One way to keep the Latin classroom inclusive is checking student comprehension, and doing so often.

Comp checks occur a) when responding to non-verbal cues from students (see Miriam’s Teaching to the Eyes), or b) asking questions in case students are falling through the cracks in larger classes, or just not self-advocating when Latin isn’t clear. The basic comp check questions we ask are in English:

  • “What does X mean?”
  • “What did I just say?”
  • “Did I just say that…”
  • “What did I just ask?”
  • “Did I just ask whether…”

You might want to check comprehension for other reasons, such as engaging the student who appears unfocused. Often, a comp check shows that the student was indeed listening, and does understand, but not always. Comp checks, then, are an additional tool for classroom management (MGMT).

When we check comprehension, keep in mind that we shouldn’t expect a precise 1 to 1 Latin –> English translation, especially when we ask our slowest processors. If they mix up persons, tenses, or leave out anything that isn’t a big content word holding meaning, they’re right on track. Research suggests that each time we encounter a word in a meaningful context we acquire about 5% of the meaning of the word (Nagy, Herman and Anderson, 1985), so the “gist” during a comp check is just fine.

Safe Comp Check
When it comes to our slowest processors, we can honor their internal syllabus by checking their comprehension often, yet without always calling attention to them. One strategy is to do the comp check on the student NEXT TO the one giving you a non-verbal cue of not comprehending. The slowest processor who didn’t understand will have meaning clarified without being called out.

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The Value of Student Feedback

Teaching inclusively in a language classroom tends to look much different from what’s typically expected. This makes sense, considering that conventional practices are based on teaching subject matter, not languages. In fact, most programs even train teachers to teach language only as subject matter to be learned. This must change, but for now serves as the main  reason behind so much misunderstanding.

Last year, the principal first visited my classroom in December to have the only discussion about my teaching since school began. Needless to say, my teaching was not what was expected. There were even doubts as to whether my practices were having a positive effect. I certainly knew they were, but as a teacher in a new school I had very little influence. I figured that student testimonials would be enough to support and validate what was going on. They did. Here are the two prompts I asked students to respond to:

1) This year’s Latin class is different from other language classes you’ve had in the past. What are some things we’ve been doing to help you learn? 

2) What are some things we could change to help you learn better?

In class, I often make statements distinguishing between “knowing about” a language (i.e. learning subject matter), and “knowing” a language (i.e. acquiring). Since the prompts were student-friendly, however, I didn’t bother with the learning/acquisition distinction. Here’s the first response to start unpacking:


Notice how this student has already had a negative Latin experience “only learning through the textbook.” Some students with that experience drop Latin as soon as they can. This particular student probably decided to take Latin in order to fulfill college entry requirements, and didn’t expect to be so successful. I’m glad they were surprised! Also note how this student recognizes the benefit of higher exposure to fewer words (i.e. shelter vocabulary). A more common term is “repetition,” but that can be misunderstood to result in drill-like practice, or just lead teachers astray in what the actual goal is of providing multiple exposures to fewer words.

Although the second prompt was designed to elicit criticism of current practices, this student’s response actually supports what’s going on by asking for increase in use of one of them! In fact, nearly every student responded this way to the second prompt. I like how this student values our short Brain Breaks. They are important, but often neglected. If more teacher’s could feewhat it’s like to learn a new language again, we’d be in better shape.

There’s a lot we can learn from what our students say about teaching inclusively, so I intend to unpack more student feedback. In this first post, we’ve seen the following practices used to teach inclusively:

  1. Stop teaching Latin only as subject matter to be learned
  2. Untextbooking
  3. Sheltering Vocabulary
  4. Using Brain Breaks
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Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student”

I hear this phrase a lot.

Many language teachers lament about staying after school to help a “struggling student,” that a student is “struggling” with grammar point X, or that they have a group of “struggling students” in their second year, Spanish 2 class, etc.. When it comes to language acquisition, however, there’s no struggling going on, at all. Bill VanPatten recently had something similar to say on Tea With BVP Live From OFLA (Episode 54).

Unless the student has a disability—not a learning disability, but a communication disability in the native language, which even then might not be an issue because students with severe non-verbal disabilities show signs of understanding language spoken to themno student should struggle to understand language in our classes.

These students might have behaviour issues that negatively impact our daily routine and flow of comprehensible input, but that has nothing to do with language acquisition itself. We are all capable of understanding and acquiring a second language. Therefore, “struggling” is only in reference to something else, usually related to explicit grammar instruction, or forced language production, and the assessments that leave students excluded.

For most teachers, then, a “struggling student” is just a student whose acquisition rate is slower than the curriculum pace—a pace that also excludes most students. **Newsflash** ALL LEARNERS have an internal syllabus that WILL NOT CHANGE just because your program moves at speed X, or you explicitly teach Y. In fact, your program’s curriculum is designed for only one student’s pace. The sad part is that you might not even have a student who acquires at that particular rate, this particular year in any particular course!

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Latin’s Dark History With Light-Skinned Learners

Rereading John Bracey’s post got me thinking again…

I used to work at a school that prided itself on being “part of a multicultural community,” but that tends to be the type of thing you find written on a school’s website that’s just for show, or to check a box for NEASC accreditation. I can say that it certainly wasn’t obvious from my Latin classes. In fact, if I didn’t have to walk down a different hallway to use the restroom, I wouldn’t have known that there were so many students of color in the school! I’ve asked myself, just as John put it, “why were so few black and brown students in my Latin classes?”

With a student body of 39% non-white, you would expect there to be more than one student of color in the AP Latin course, but no, there was only one. In contrast, I had 4 non-white students in Latin I—a number that was closer to representing the rest of the school, though nowhere close to the school-wide demographics. This, of course, is representative of the low retention rates we expect in traditionally exclusive programs, but what exactly causes students of color to drop out in the first place? John was looking into why they don’t sign up initially, but there’s also the matter of why the ones who DO sign up don’t continue. The latter issue probably has to do with the same reasons all students drop traditional language classes after 2 or 3 years, namely, the unbalanced and no longer supported practice of explicit grammar instruction and, expectations of hyper-accurate translations, but there’s not enough data to look at because of the the former issue.

The data we do have, though, shows that something remarkable happens to level the playing field when we base our programs on acquisition, so I encourage everyone to think about improving access to Latin via inclusive practices, and eliminate the ones that lead to exclusivity. Yet, what will it take to enact change? I, for one, even voiced my concerns about the exclusivity of the Latin program at that school I was teaching at, but others didn’t want to face the issue. A cowardly move, perhaps, and uncomfortable at the very least, but no one said that fighting discrimination was going to be easy!

So, what are you doing to help, how have you made inclusiveness part of the conversation in your department/school, and what advice do you have for others looking to make a difference? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (3 of 3)

Look, I don’t want to have to say it, but I have to say it…you need to start speaking Latin.

It’s true that the universally agreed-upon sine qua non of language acquisition is Comprehensible Input (i.e. understandable messages one listens to, and/or reads), which could, theoretically, be limited to ONLY written messages, but don’t stop there when basing your Latin program on acquisition! Continue reading “Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (3 of 3)”

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Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (2 of 3)

My last post followed this logic:

  • ALL humans can acquire a second language.
  • Few humans learn about languages.
  • Programs based on learning about Latin are exclusive.
  • Programs based on acquiring Latin are inclusive.

This post addresses how to base a program on acquiring Latin. I’ll begin with an important systematic change that otherwise keeps Latin programs exclusive:

**Stop grading and assessing the identification, manipulation, and/or production of forms.**

Without a doubt, this is the most unintuitive concept for any traditionally-trained language teacher (especially Latin teachers) to fully grasp, but it’s really Step 1. Why? All of that knowledge, drilling, and forced expression has very little, to absolutely no affect on acquisition, and has kept Latin classrooms exclusive and elite. Even if it did, your “struggling” students illustrate that not even daily “practice” guarantees mastery within just a few years, which then leads to exclusion if you expect said mastery. An inclusive classroom is not based on conjugating (i.e. even if it occurs sometimes), which is something you simply must acknowledge and change. If your situation requires you to test these things, realize that your program is already at risk of excluding students. See my posts over at on Reporting Scores vs. Grading on how to not count any of that towards a student’s grade, and instead report scores in a 0% grading category that satisfies most department/school requirements.

**Begin grading and assessing for meaning.**

The student who doesn’t understand the case system, but does understand events in a narrative is doing exactly what leads to acquisition (especially if, or maybe ONLY IF they enjoy the narrative content!), and such an expectation fulfills our updated Standards. The student who retells or summarizes a text in the past tense when all of the forms are present is doing just fine. Even the student who interprets the meaning of vocandum as “having to do with ‘calling'” is right on track. Accuracy increases over time with more language exposure, so your expectations should take that into account. If students understand most of the Latin they listen to and read most of the time, they should get the equivalent of an “A.” N.B. grading as NOTHING to do with acquisition, but certainly something to do with keeping your job and keeping students in your classes. Very few people continue doing something they have low efficacy in, so diminish or eliminate those numbers and letters whenever possible.

There you have it—the first change you need to make—even if it’s just a change of perspective. If you don’t, you risk making class more onerous (vs. rigorous) and even more exclusive once other changes towards basing a program on acquiring Latin are made (i.e. beginning to speak Latin yet still explicitly teaching grammar, and continuing to grade and assess just as before).

My next post will continue on how to base your program on acquiring Latin…

**Read the third follow-up post**

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Your Latin Program: Exclusive or Inclusive? (1 of 3)

Some have described the way I teach languages as ideological or dogmatic—other contributors to this blog are no strangers to that criticism, either—and it’s certainly true that a lot of my teaching is directly informed by definitive research, but I no longer feel the need to espouse and cite research to arrive at the following, in classic chiastic (< chiasmus) form:

1) ALL humans can acquire a second language.
2) Few humans learn about languages.
3) Programs based on learning about Latin are exclusive.
4) Programs based on acquiring Latin are inclusive.

Reasons for #1 should be obvious in that all humans are “wired” to communicate. Reasons for #2 are unclear, though lack of interest is most likely the cause—an example of how important compellingness is—but the result of programs focused on learning about Latin has two crystal clear outcomes; at best, very few students remain in the program; at worst, enrollment is less-affected because the program is already exclusive to the few students who learn about languages anyway. In both scenarios, the few exceptional students serve as validation for a Latin program’s success—this in spite of most students who could have been included.

This is a social justice fail.

The question, then, for another post is “how do I base my program on acquiring Latin?”

**Read the second, and third follow-up posts**