Why I (will) ditch the textbook next time

Right now I’m heading into week 11 of a 12 week semester teaching a Greek 1 class Koine. I’ve found it frustrating, mainly because I’m frustrated with myself. And as I reflect on that, I decided that if I’m given the opportunity to teach this again, it will be sans text-book.

To understand why I would now ditch the textbook, you need to understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve taught this module as available to students either (a) in person in the classroom, (b) online-live (video conference) and (c) online delayed (recorded delivery). Honestly, this is a taxing way to teach in general, but it also locked me into certain practices that I think contributed to my frustration – the recording format bound me to a desk and to using slides throughout.

(If I taught this again, I would make it in-person only. I think one could learn from recorded delivery of sessions, but not if that binds me to a desk and slideshow)

Secondly, the combination of the textbook’s pacing and approach, and a set of various ‘expectations’ about what Koine Greek is and how it should be taught, has pushed the stream of my class faster than I would like, faster than my students can acquire, and created an environment that’s more about learning than acquisition, and so in conflict with my own fundamental principles of teaching.

Thirdly, consistent reading and learning in the field of SLA basically convinced me that a textbook, even a good one, dictates the classroom content in a way that isn’t going to optimally produce acquisition. Even though I somewhat resist it, I can still perceive that my students aren’t fully onboard with what I set out trying to do, and the textbook tends to encourage them towards grammar.

Ditching the textbook, I think, would give me a certain freedom. A freedom from various expectations that are working against language acquisition. A freedom to start the class with, “We’re going to acquire Ancient Greek through comprehensible input, and this is how this works” and then follow that with 12 weeks of in-target-language conversation/communication, and come out the other side with genuine acquisition.

If, as the SLA field suggests to me, language is so complex, abstract, and implicit, such that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit, and if I’m committed to providing input such that implicit acquisition can take place, then the textbook has to go. Because at present the textbook is dictating my class, and it’s proven to be a bad master. Perhaps more skilled teachers than I could reverse that, but I strongly suspect that I would do better to say goodbye to it.

Time: one reason why seminaries won’t (ever) embrace language acquisition

The problem with an acquisition-based program in a seminary setting is time.

A standard, seminary-type language course represents a 2-semester sequence in which students get drilled through a traditional grammar explanation of the language, with some practice on translating Greek passages to English, and are expected by the end of those 2 semesters to be able to translate easier portions of Greek into English, and explain the grammar of those texts (Mark, John, being likely candidates). Then you let them loose on upper level exegesis courses with the expectation that they’ll manage to translate more difficult texts in the NT corpus, because if you know a finite-grammar, you can translate finite-texts.

I’m critical of this for various reasons, which are not new here: acquisition vs. knowledge, the linguistic validity of a grammar course divorced from modern linguistics, and questions about ultimate attainment and ongoing utility. In my view, if this is really the approach one wishes to take, you should offer a 1 semester course in “The linguistics of NT Koine Greek” and cram it all in there – because if you’re teaching content, you can just teach content. You can stop pretending that this equips students to read the New Testament in Greek in any proficiency-based sense.

But, I do acknowledge that there is a very significant hurdle for adopting a acquisition-driven Comprehensible-Input-based approach. And that is time. The driving determiner of how far a student will get, disregarding learner internal constraint, is basically time. Well, quality and quantity of input. Assuming we can provide quality input, then it becomes a quantity question.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the episodes of “Tea with BVP”, a second-language acquisition radio-show/podcast that ran for 3 years. There’s a lot of good content on it, and a lot of pointers to other things. As part of my follow-up, I have been reading “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”  (Foreign Language Annals 49 3 (2016):434-454) by Goertler, Kraemer, and Schenker, which examines target benchmarks for the German program at MSU (where Bill VanPatten also is, and which runs on CI-based principles).

The study looked undertook a review of and after review, the benchmarks (using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines) were revised to (after years of college study):

  1. Intermediate Low
  2. Intermediate Mid
  3. Intermediate High
  4. Advanced Low

Correlations with CEFR are difficult, but AL comes out as somewhere between B1 and B2, with IM at A2, and IH at B1. Table 2 of their study also presented different sets of  ‘hours’ recommendation for different levels. MSU classes mean that students receive:

Year Hours Cumulative
1 100  
2 100 200
3 150 350
4 150 500


The study reviewed previous benchmarks and outcomes, and then determined the current outcomes of current MSU students.

If you break down the hours in class by semester, that’s 50 hours a semester, raising to 75 in 3rd and 4th year. About 3-4 hours contact across a 12-14 week semester, up to 6 in the upper levels.

No seminary is going to run this. No seminary is going to run a 4hr a week, 4 year Greek program. Not unless they radically change their outlook on language acquisition and goals. Which is basically why I suspect that acquisition of Greek is not going to get very far in seminaries.

It also continues to highlight the problematic nature of 4 contact hours, across a standard semester. You just can’t get a student, ab initio, to very high levels of proficiency in a 4 year course. Which isn’t just a problem for biblical languages programs, it’s a problem for classics courses that want ab initio students reading high-level literature.

There’s only one solution to this: more hours. More hours of comprehensible input. The hours estimate for Advanced Low at MSU was 500 + study abroad. The (probably less reliable) hours estimates of Liskin-Gasparo for Advanced Mid is 720, A-High and Superior is 1320. I don’t think, based on the modern languages data, that you can really get college students beyond Int-High with a few reaching Adv-Low, within a 4-year sequence, and to achieve that in a classical languages program is going to require a committed, and skilled, teaching-team.

I can only imagine 4 solutions at the programmatic level:

  • you teach based on CI-principles at the high school level, allowing you to get 4-600 hours in before your students even reach college.
  • you raise the contact hours for language majors and make it an all-consuming degree (i.e., nothing but language, ‘content’ courses in the upper years taught in language, and no electives, and turn ‘expected’ hours into contact ones. or else you provide enough reading and audio material that all the ‘expected’ hours can be spent on input).
  • you push expectations of higher level proficiencies into the grad-schools.
  • you push for 1-2 week intensives to supplement term-teaching.



Learn to love your Loeb (or, how to stop feeling guilty about ‘cheating’)

I suspect a lot of people (though perhaps not the general demographic still reading my blog) will find this advice objectionable. There is a school of thought that hates students using Loebs. And, they have a point. If you think the goal of classical language learning is to (a) internalise Smyth, (b) memorise as much of LSJ as humanly possible, (c) and then produce a translation for the purpose of understanding a text, then Loebs are antithetical to your purpose. That is to say, (again) if you think classical language learning is about developing a skill in translating, then that’s exactly what you should practice.

That’s not a position I hold, because translation is not reading. Or, it’s not reading as a proficient communicative user of a language reads. If you want to read Greek as Greek, without translating (mentally or otherwise), then your goal (and mine) is quite different – it’s to acquire Greek to a degree fit for reading texts without needing to translate for understanding.

Let me define ‘translate for understanding’, as it’s a phrase I’m going to be using more often. What happens when you meet a message (text, for instance) that is beyond your proficiency, beyond your ability to comprehend in Latin at that time? If you (like me) are a recovering product of the Grammar-Translation method, you (can) translate – you take your explicit knowledge of grammar, pick up your lexicon, and make a rendering of the text into your L1 in order to understand it. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a useful strategy for rendering an incomprehensible input comprehensible. But it’s not reading, and it’s not comprehending in the L2.

And it’s slow. And painful. And inefficient. Which is why, whenever I’m reading something that already has a translation, if the text is beyond my current ability to read with 90-100% comprehension, I use that translation in parallel. Because reading a translation alongside does the exact same thing for acquisition and understanding that doing my own translation would do – it makes the input comprehensible.

So, this is my permission to you. If your goal is understanding a text as quickly as possible, then of course you should leverage a translation. It does exactly what you need, it renders a text beyond your proficiency comprehensible, efficiently. And that let’s you get on with the text itself, with getting meaning out of the text, and increasing the quantity of your overall language input.

Adapting a story template for Ancient Greek

Below I have adapted (a lot is basically translated) a short story in Ancient Greek. It’s very closely based off a post from Magister P, who runs an amazing blog from which I have learnt a lot of stuff. In particular, I’ve been quite taken by the idea of using that very core ‘sweet sixteen’ verbs. Works not just for Latin!

Anyway, here is the story. Feel free to point out errors! I used this as a skeleton for a TPRS type session, and it went very well. Feel free to use and re-use as you like.

Phillip and the Kithara

Φίλιππός ἐστι μαθητὴς ἀγαθός.

ὁ Φίλιππός ἐστι οἴκοι (τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ). τῷ Φιλίππῳ κιθαράζειν ἀρέσκει.

ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν. οἴμοι, οὐκ ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει κιθάραν. ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν. ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον.


ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἀποχωρεῖ. ὁ Φίλιππος ἔρχεται ἢδη πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον. οἴμοι, ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ἔστι τὸ Σάββατον! ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ τοῖς Σαββάτοις. ἀλλὰ ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.


τὸν δὲ φύλακα ὁρᾷ ὁ Φίλιππος. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φύλαξ. ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; ὁ δὲ φύλαξ οὐκ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου.  ὁ φύλαξ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ Φίλιππος προσχωρεῖ πρὸς τὸν φύλακα. ὁ Φίλιππος· ὦ φύλαξ, ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. ἔχεις κιθάραν; νῦν δὲ ὁ φύλαξ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου. ἀγαθὸς ὁ φύλαξ. ὁ φύλαξ οὐ βούλεται ἀγνοεῖν τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ φύλαξ λέγει κιθάρας μὴ εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. οὐαί.  ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν, ἀλλά οὐκ εἰσὶν κιθάραι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.. ὁ Φίλιππος ἤκουσεν κιθάρας εἶναι ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τῆς Μελίσσης. ἡ Μέλισσα ἐστι φίλη τοῦ Φιλίππου. νῦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης.


ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος ἀποχωρεῖ ἀπὸ τοῦ διδασκαλείου. ὁ Φίλιππος πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης προσέρχεται. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φίλη, ἔχεις κιθάραν; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. βούλῃ σὺ κιθαρίζειν μετὰ ἐμοῦ;


ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα ἔχει κιθάραν. εὔγε. ἡ Μέλισσα φέρει τὴν κιθάραν πρὸς τὸν Φίλιππον, ἀλλὰ κατατίθησιν τὴν κιθάραν. οὐ δίδωσι ἡ Μέλισσα τὸν κιθάραν τῷ Φιλίππῳ. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος ὁρᾷ τὴν Μέλισσαν κατατιθέναι τὴν κιθάραν. ὁ μὲν Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν, ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα οὐ δίδωσι τὴν κιθάραν αὐτῷ. ἡ Μέλισσα ἀργύριον ἔχειν βούλεται. οὐαί. ἡ μὲν Μέλισσα βούλεται τὸν Φίλιππον ἀργύριον διδόναι αὐτῇ. ἡ Μέλισσα οὐκ ἔστι φίλη. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει ἀργύριον. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ δύναται κιθαρίζειεν.


What I’m currently listening to (Latin podcast mini-reviews)

Lately, I’ve been really getting into…. podcasts.

Previosuly, I’d never quite had a good ‘set-up’ in my life to make listening to them useful, but that changed and now I’m on the bandwagon. I mostly, though, listen to target language podcasts and similar. Here I talk through those I currently listen to…


Quomodo dicitur (punct dot com)

There’s a lot to love about listening to Justus, Iason, and Augustus discuss ‘quomodo libet’ for 20 or so minutes a time. The general comprehensibility is high, the discussion flows well, audio quality is also good, and the conversation itself is iucundissimum and salsum; after a good 10 episodes you’ll be hooked for life. Recurring jokes, group dynamics, guests, on-location episodes, and longevity of the program all make it ideal listening.

Sermones Raedarii, by Alexander Veroniensis

Alexander is a Latin and Greek teacher and records this wonderful monologues, as he talks to himself, I mean to us, while driving (originally, now when walking!) to and from school (and other places, I would suppose). Alexander’s Latin comes with a beatiful Italian accent, which makes a nice difference if you’re mainly used to NorthAm speakers. He ranges across all sorts of topics, from the quottidian, to issues of singing latin, and pedagogical positions.

Satura Lanx,

Is a twice-monthly podcast coming from an Italian magistra now teaching in Belgium, “about Latin books, education and much more.” Another monologue style podcast, but more reflective and a little less fast-paced than Alexander’s!

Legio XIII, by Magister Craft & L. Amadeus Ranierius

I’ve only recently started listening to this one. It’s interesting, it’s good to have other speakers! Magister Craft is well known from YouTube. And, I can’t say any more until I’ve listened more.



βαρβαρισμός , by Alexander Veroniensis

Buried in the sequence of Sermones Raedarii, our Veroniensis amicus aforementioned also recorded some Greek episodes (albeit only 10, I think). You can tell immediately that he is more more ‘fluid’ (let’s not talk fluency) in Latin than in Greek, but he still speaks well, clearly, and comprehensibly. Given the sheer paucity of anything in Greek, it’s worth taking the time to listen to these.


Tea with BVP

Run as a live call-in talk-show with Bill Van Patten, a leading SLA researcher, and two co-hosts. The show ran for about 3 years, and ended recently, but the episodes are still great value. They do have a lot of ‘radio’ padding, and Bill is a bit of a comedian. Nonetheless, I’ve been getting a lot out of listening through the archives.

Quantity and rate of comprehensible input, revisited

Recently, I crunched some personal numbers. Using Italian Athenaze, a text I’m reading for CI purposes, I clocked myself reading about a page of text (approx 130 Greek words) at 50 secs a page, which calculated out at 156 wpm. That’s pretty decent, I would say, and especially since I expect Greek to be more ‘word dense’ than English. For me, this represents reading (i) faster than I could possibly parse, (ii) with some vocalisation and sub-vocalisation (so it could be faster), (iii) at a level appropriate to my understanding.

I would probably make a vocab note at an average rate of 1-1.5 per page, and this includes words I’m unfamiliar with, or constructions I’m semi-familiar with but think are not entirely transaparent in context and a note will help me later. So that’s a comfortable 98% vocabulary/comprehension factor.

I think this supports the kinds of numbers I came up with in that earlier post, though I’d want to downgrade reading speed estimates for most people. It also highlights some problems…

You can’t give beginning students 4 hours of reading a week. There’s no way a student can cope with 280 minutes, say even at 100wpm, 28,000 words, when their effective vocabulary is so low. And there’s not enough in the way of sheltered-vocabulary texts. It’s just not feasible to have them learn 2 words every 100, meet those words several times over, and then write your next story with 102 words + 2 new ones.

So early level students are going to have to do more intensive reading than extensive reading. That’s fine, they should. Because they’re at a level that even simple communicative messages in the TL are full of overwhelmingly ‘unknown’ information.

And even at more intermediate levels, well, quantity of suitable text is always going to be a problem. It’s a little hard to estimate exactly how many pages/words of Greek text It. Athenaze has, but if you really did read 4 hours a week in a college level course, *and* had the implicit acquisition required, you could read the whole 2 volumes within a few weeks. This is not actually possible and not actually feasible.

However, I point out these problems to continue saying, “more reading is better, more reading is possible, and lack of suitable texts, more than anything else, is the external factor holding us back here. But anything is better than nothing. We don’t need to shoot for the stars. 10mins a day, 70 a week, 7,000 words of comprehensible extensive reading a week, that’s a great start for anybody, whatever their level.

How my next interview for a seminary will go:

Interviewer: So, your CV has a lot of Greek on it, but Bill Smith the Third here is our New Testament lecturer and will be covering that area.

Me: ὦ, καλῶς. σὺ εἶ διδάσκακλος τῆς ἑλληινκῆς γλώσσης;

Bill: Um, what did you say?

Me: σὺ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἑλληνιστί; ἐγώ σοι ἑλληνιστὶ λαλῶ.

Bill: Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

Me: οὐ συνίης; διδάσκαλος τῆς γλώσσης τῆς ἑλληνικῆς ὤν, οὐ δύνῃ λαλεῖν ἢ συνιέναι; οὐκ εἶ διδάσκαλος καλός, ἀλλὰ μαθητὴς κακός, ὥς μοι δοκεῖ. πῶς τὰ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης βιβλία ἀναγιγνώσκεις; ὦ μαστιγία κάκιστε…

Inteviewer: I think we’re done here. We’ll be in touch.