An approach to translation and assessment
posted to Latin Best Practices 11.19.2011
Vocabulary and grammar structures: As far as my students are
concerned, I treat vocabulary and grammatical structures in the same way. I
establish meaning via translation, spoken and written on the board the first
time they see it. This goes for individual words or chunks of meaning such as
"iter facit." I will also treat different forms as different words,
listing audiunt (they hear) as a separate entry from audit (he/she hears). I
never present it initially as two versions of the same word. I allow students
to make that connection on their own, and most of them do right away. Inducing
an "a-ha!" moment, however simple, is so much more effective than
telling them how and when to think about what word and what form and in what
This approach has made my beginning students unintimidated by even "advanced" grammar concepts, such as future, passive, third declensions, etc. If we are talking about someone walking and they ask how to say "will walk," I simply write ambulabit on the board, with "he/she will walk" next to it, and move on. In a sense this is the opposite of the textbook approach: whereas most books shelter* grammar yet introduce excessive amounts of new vocabulary (i.e. intensive), a Comprehensible Input approach shelters vocabulary (limited to 3-4 new words/phrases per class) but not grammar (any simple and useful grammatical structure is fair game). I will give them any form of a verb, as long as they already know what the verb means and they are asking for it to help the conversation. But I will resist introducing more than 3-4 additional new words per class.
I have students with dysgraphia, visual and auditory processing difficulties, ADHD, etc. Not one of them has difficulty with the translation assessments I give. But I think the reason it works so well is due to the following:
1. translation is done first by me, in establishing meaning of new words/constructions, precursor to conversations/stories in which the new terms are repeated many times.
2. Group translation is next, where no student is on the spot, but all students are following at their level, engaging the text in Latin, but hearing it in English.
3. Then we go through it with me
reading in Latin, and them following each word, with their finger or pencil
physically on each word as I read. This allows me to know exactly who is
4. Next is a dictation exercise, where I read sentences from the story, and they must write it down, then I show them the text and they make corrections. This counts as a test, and I only mark down if they don't make all corrections.
5. I give one or two short true false quizzes in Latin per week, easy questions about what we do in class.
6. I choose a paragraph from the reading, and they translate it. They can have their copy of the story with them, with limited notes/translations.
This sets them up for a translation assessment that every student can succeed on, and truly measures how well they understand our reading on a few levels, and I have already prepared them to be attentive to certain details through the dictation.
One thing that I recently realized, is that the dictation and translation assessments are not really output, or that is not my primary purpose in giving them. Rather, they are opportunities for students to be receiving comprehensible input in very focused and measurable ways. They think they are producing something in the language, and they are to a very limited extent, and administrators who want lots of output early are satisfied, but it's really about giving them as much positive exposure to the language as possible, even during a test.
There can also be a lot of leeway in how you approach translation with students, letting them take the lead when they are ready. Early on this year, when I introduced one of my classes to group translation, of a story they knew well from our conversations, one student asked if the class could translate individually, taking turns, going around the room. I said no and explained that I didn't want anyone to feel on the spot, and maybe we could do that when people were confident and would volunteer. Immediately, students began volunteering and after a minute or two, almost the entire class was BEGGING me to let them translate individually taking turns--something which could easily have been like pulling teeth if it had been my idea. So I got out a stuffed dog that was lying around and threw it to volunteers for them to hold while translating a sentence or two. This had everyone wanting to take a turn, and even the kids who were a bit shakey were encouraged and supported by their classmates to give it a go. This was a great lesson, and though it was almost entirely in English, a lot of Latin was learned.
All this to say that translation into English, when used wisely, is a very efficient way to get students, all students, to use and acquire Latin. There is no dichotomy here between translation and immersion. I use translation the way I do because it allows me to spend more class time in Latin.
*note. "Shelter" and "scaffold" are terms used in ESL circles to describe the process of presenting a word or grammatical concept in a way that avoids translation (either by choice or by necessity), but does not overwhelm the student with new information. There is heavy reliance on what the student already knows, which provides the scaffold or shelter for the new information.
Q and A response
Translation tests make up about 1/3 of my assessments. The others are dictation and T/F quizzes in Latin. All of my in-class translation tests are "seen," that is, we have reviewed the text together as a class previously. I think that some students will always try to memorize a translation previous to taking a test. Indeed, it could be argued that the AP (not to mention most college classes) rewards this method of preparation. Here are a few things I do that minimize, if not eliminate, the incentive simply to memorize the English.
1. The written story is a transcript of a conversation in which the students and I work together to make up a story. The narrative is already in their heads, probably in both English and Latin. During their first exposure to the narrative, there is no authoritative text for them to translate, it is still living and changing and they are still interacting with it.
2. During the course of making up or discussing a story, I conduct frequent comprehension checks, including T/F quizzes in Latin about details of the story. If I see that many students are not understanding the story, in Latin, I go back and re-visit words, phrases, aspects of the story, even translating sections for them.
3. When students see the written text for the first time, they recognize most if not all the words, and hopefully don't have to struggle to translate more than a few words.
3. Students are allowed to have their story with them during the test, with notes, as long as they have not written out a translation. Even with their notes, they are working from a Latin text that is right in front of them. Some students write out a translation during the review process, which I allow, as long as they do not bring that sheet into the test.
Of course I cannot dictate what happens in my students' heads, and some of them will be converting everything into English. As you mention, that's what most Latin and Greek students do. Analytical thinkers will also find it more comfortable to do this. From an acquisition perspective, I think it's assumed that students may do quite a bit of mental translating in the beginning, but as they work more and more IN the language, it simply becomes easier NOT to translate, as comprehension becomes more automatic. If the content is engaging, interesting, fun and comprehensible to students, they will begin to become unconscious of the fact that they are working in a foreign language, and they begin simply to communicate. The language becomes less and less foreign to them as they gain confidence.
As for grappling with the story on one's own, I don't think during the first year or two that there is much benefit for the student to be on their own in this way, especially if the text is intensive (= contains a large amount of new/unfamiliar vocabulary)
I prefer to expose beginners to a text in a more sheltered way, that is, the text is basically a transcription and expansion of our conversation. Most if not all of the vocabulary is comprehensible to them, and they are not put on the spot until they are ready. This reinforces and extends the language learning that has happened during the conversations in which the story was conceived. This will also increase their vocabulary and reading ability in a more efficient way, setting them up for reading unseen passages when they are ready.
I'm sure many of us are all too familiar with the process of staring at a page of Latin or Greek text that is way over one's head. Then the work begins, of looking up 50% or more words and ultimately translating the whole thing into English (in one's head or on paper). the intensive reading approach of all textbooks seems to put students into this kind of mindset.
One way I like to expose students gradually to the challenge of reading a new text is to develop embedded readings. This is where I would copy or write out a simple narrative in a Word doc, copy and paste it below, and add additional information and forms to each sentence. Some teachers will produce 3-5 versions of one story using this method. Students can then begin at their level and then move to a more advanced text, but the meaning of the narrative has not changed significantly--so the comprehension level stays high.
This process can also be done in reverse: taking a reading from a textbook, and simplifying it in one or more stages. I basically did this for Fabula Mirabilis (CLC 7) which I posted to this list just before Halloween. This creates a "step ladder" of as many rungs as you need to get students to the level of the textbook reading. Also, students who are not yet reading at the textbook level can still read the story and be part of the discussion.
I too have that academic cynic in the back of my mind saying: "they're just translating and not really learning the language." But my observations of my students almost daily confirms my decision. It's counterintuitive to many of us, that beginning with translation can produce fluency, but more than ever before, in and out of class, my students are using the language to express themselves, and responding to conversation and text in spontaneous ways that clearly demonstrate comprehension--even ownership--of Latin.
I hope this helps clarify your questions.