Teaching Grammar in the Latin Classroom

As Carol Gaab (language teacher for the SF Giants), Katya Paukova (Russian teacher at US Government’s Defense Language Institute), and others have pointed out, all CI language teachers teach grammar. They just don’t teach grammar that is out of context, which is meaningless to students, and is not retained in their long-term memory. Teachers who have as their goal acquisition and proficiency (which includes reading proficiency), are moving away from those traditional practices which distract, impede, or undermine student success in acquiring a language.

We Latin teachers have inherited a legacy which confuses, or even identifies, study OF the language with proficiency IN the language. Because of this tradition, our programs will continue to attract students (and parents) who want this kind of study. Some Latin teachers may find that their jobs depend on including explicit grammar instruction in their curricula. While such a situation can be frustrating, it is often (but not always) better than having no job. In addition, it is a way to meet school expectations while educating colleagues and administrators about the benefits of CI.

But let’s say you have managed to get your school on board with a more CI-based approach. The immediate benefit of adopting CI strategies is that struggling students are no longer left behind, which will result in greater diversity, enrollment, and retention. You are still likely, however, to have these traditional expectations in your community and classroom, especially from students who come from high academic backgrounds who want to be challenged in this way. The next step, then, is to work with the faster processors, the students who have always succeeded in legacy Latin courses, to give them a positive experience given their expectations, without compromising our commitment to regular kids.

The purpose of this page, then, is to provide teachers with the resources for providing students with explicit linguistic and grammar study opportunities, without making this central to their curriculum.

By offering grammar resources, and by offering students credit for grammar study, but not requiring it of all students, I think teachers can strike a healthy balance between the needs of all kids, and differentiation for students who enjoy and want to go toward linguistic study.

It is really important that we not REQUIRE all students to process Latin in this way. This is because there is little to no evidence that learning ABOUT a language helps students achieve proficiency (even the reading proficiency required by the AP), but there is a lot of evidence showing that this approach to teaching language is not effective, and discriminates and marginalizes most students, especially students who are not typically found in upper level language classes. (See this article for more on this important issue)

Last year, I offered students extra credit for watching the video page linked here, and keeping a “grammar journal.” I had one student do this, but quite a few watched the videos on their own and during labs for review. In 2nd and 3rd year classes, I will be giving approximately one grammar mini-lecture per week (or show a video on the topic), and students will take notes and keep those notes in their writing portfolios to use during longer “relaxed-writes” (following Bob Patrick on this, of course) throughout the school year. If you are in a school that has traditional “academic” expectations for its Latin program, these are a few ways to keep that group happy while you promote proficiency for all students in the room, and expand your program’s numbers and diversity.

another recourse is to give students the option of working on a grammar-intensive workbook that is in Latin, requiring Latin responses to the exercises. Such a book is Roberto Carfagni’s companion to Oerberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, available here.


References: the ACTFL statement on the role of grammar in the FL classroom https://www.actfl.org/guiding-principles/teach-grammar-concepts-meaningful-contexts-language-learning

Bill Van Patten on his podcast “Tea with BVP” reminds listeners almost every week (including this week in episode 66) that the textbook descriptions of language (e.g. what is on page 32) in no way resemble language as it exists in the brain. In addition, there is no mechanism in the brain which converts knowledge ABOUT language into a mental representation, which is the result of comprehension.