And so my year continues; as does my gentle transition towards more comprehensible input (CI) in the classroom. One of the sacred cows that I had in my mind was, of course, the problem of translating. I have long despised translation. To me, Latin is a living language that was intended to be spoken and open for communication among peoples from all walks of life.
Anyone can learn a language – one of the biggest peeves of mine is the association of polyglots with superior intelligences. It is simply about repetition. Which is why translating from Latin to English was doubly insulting – the undercurrent was that only English could fit as a medium of communication in today’s world and that Latin, as an outdated language, was obsolete. In the process, Latin was reduced to a code that was waiting, like someone trapped underwater, for a rescue to be pulled from the depths only to find voice in whichever modern derivative language it could find – namely, English.
Then I discovered that I had translation wrong – it should be used as a way to establish meaning, not the end product itself. Keith Toda has some brilliant comments about this very topic that helped me take the leap and get over my dogmatic insistence about not translating in class. He’s right; translating is part of the reading process to establish meaning and can only result, at best, in a replication of the original product. This is not high on Bloom’s taxonomy. It is the post-reading activities that we should shoot for with our students as they learn to manipulate and create new products with the target language.
So, I breathed into my paper bag, regained myself, and gave it a try. I followed Toda’s suggestion by displaying the text on the projector at the front of the room for all my students to see. This was to lock in everyone’s attention and encourage full participation from the entire class. One of the advantages of working like this is that struggling students get to blend in and not feel uncomfortable about what they do not know. They also get immediate confirmation about what they do know and can sense their own progress and growth in relation to the other students in class.
The process, for those who do not know, is well outlined in Toda’s post, cited via the link above. I can relate it here, too because there are some tweaks that may need to be accounted for in other classrooms.
Conducting a Choral Reading
First, you should have a PDF of the text. This is great in that you can share it with your students via your LMS (learning management system) of choice for them to go back and re-read later on. We use the Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata text by Hans Orberg but there are various publishers out there whereby you can get a PDF version of your selected text.
- Project the text on the board
- Read the text aloud to the entire class in Latin
- Using a pointing device, have the students translate each word you point out into English as a class (thus, chorally)
It is as easy at that! Remind the students of the rules – they are to listen to the Latin while you (the teacher) read it aloud and they are to translate, into English, the words you point out one by one without getting ahead of anyone. Follow English word order so they can get a sense of how it is done. My only problem with this is that students are still focusing on syntax for meaning as opposed to inflections, but again, this is something that gets done with time and familiarity. You’ll get there.
You should perform the reading so that your students can hear a “native” speaker model the language. They also benefit from having the meaning of the text established as a class without feeling the pressure of being singled out. This encourages students to ask more questions to help with meaning and grammar, too. Positive feelings associated with the language, and your class, increase. This is also a great exercise to review grammatical structures while also pointing out new ones – again, the pressure is reduced.
There are some downsides, which I noticed, but things that can be remedied.
First, this is not an opportunity for formal assessment. If, for example, you find that your class in general is struggling to come up with English definitions – you know the remedy would be more vocabulary practice. That said, you may not be able to identify specifically which parts of speech students are having trouble with or which students in particular are struggling with vocabulary.
Second, students tend to hide. This could be a great thing to help give students a chance to get back into the fold. Then again, you may only get a few students consistently voicing their translation aloud – which you can remedy on the spot by stopping and asking students to individually answer, but that removes the ease and instills anxiety into an exercise that you were trying to remove from it. It is better to just ask the entire class to repeat – coach them up. Call them out on not being fully participatory. They stay within the confines of the herd in order to be “heard” (see what I did there?).
Finally, keep in mind this is a reading activity designed to establish meaning and this is aided by student interest. What you also will find is that students will be more excited about the content of the story as they read it together for the first time and see what is going on. This is another important point – you should try to find interesting reading material that students will enjoy reading. Orberg’s text serves as a mirror of our own lives within a family; the various dynamics between family members but also with a spin on what life was like in ancient Rome that could spawn conversations in class. My Latin I’s were really excited to hear about Marcus’ ad hominem attacks on his poor little sister and identified with that as well as the trouble he and Quintus got into in the impluvium in Capitulum V. It made the story more livelier than if they had been reading on their own or even having me, in the past, read only in Latin and try to nudge them towards understanding the text.
It isn’t perfect, but I think it is safe to say that using English in your Latin classroom is just fine. Yes, it doesn’t quite live up to the vision I had in my head, but this happy little compromise can be done with the earlier stages of Latin study, but also can be used to just switch it up and make sure students are on the right track. Again, you do not want to try and use this activity as an assessment in that you should assign a grade – it would take the fun out of what should be an effortless activity designed to let students relax and just hear and appreciate the language and how it works. Once you have established that, then move on into the post-reading activities to help use as assessments in order to create that feedback loop whereby you can sense how individual students are responding and whether or not more effort is needed.