Writing and Speaking for comprehension, some ideas.

Here are some ideas I was tossing around with some students last week. Let me list the exercises first.

  1. Read a passage, 10 or so verses or more, at a measured pace. No analysis, just ask yourself, “what percentage of that did I understand?”
  2. Read a passage and translate meaning word for word without analysing forms or trying to put into English word order.
  3. Listen to someone else read a passage aloud that you’re unfamiliar with.
  4. Listen to someone else read a passage aloud that you are familiar with.
  5. Transcribe out a passage by sight.
  6. Transcribe out a passage by dictation.

I think of no.1 as a kind of gauging exercise. It gives you a sense of where your language is at in relation to a text/author. Generally I think you want to do free reading at around the 90% and more range, with some work in the 90%-80% range. Below 80% the amount of comprehension drops significantly that it’s hard work and not as rewarding, below 70% and you begin to miss too much to be really worthwhile for free reading. If it’s 100% then, on the one hand ‘Great!’, but on the other hand you are not really stretching yourself to acquire new input, though you are reinforcing and solidifying your current competency.

I like to do no.2 with students sometimes because it forces them to stop parsing, analysing, and especially second-guessing. I want them to blurt out what they are thinking, and move on. If we get to the end of the sentence/passage and it’s all a mess, then we can say, “okay, let’s back up, let’s see where this language train de-railed.”

3 and 4 are really challenging, especially if you’re working in a language that you primarily focus on text-based work (Greek, Latin, etc..). If you’re the listener, you are doing something you’re not really used to, and that’s giving you input in a different way to reading. The use of familiar passages is going to give you better comprehension and so it’s going to work at a different level. Meanwhile, working with similar but unfamiliar texts (Apostolic Fathers, narrative portions of the Greek OT translations, etc..) is going to put you in a familiar field, but out of your comfort zone. On the reading side, students have a tendency (I think), to subvocalise, but not to vocalise, and there’s a big difference! The reader gains benefits in being forced to read aloud for someone else’s hearing. As this kind of exercise developed, you would work more on phrasing, emphasis, diction, discourse and rhetorical analyses.

5 and 6 are things I’m experimenting with. On 5, I have recently started an ambitious project to transcribe my own copy of the Greek NT. I think it will take about forever, but copying out a text is again a different kind of practise. It’s input, because you are getting the language, and it’s a kind of highly structured output, since you are reproducing it. Having written out …δὲ ἐγέννησεν more than a few times in Matthew 1, I have the written form of that particular verb inflection really solid! I suspect the pay-off of a lot of transcription would be much better composition and probably speech.

I haven’t done 6, but I suspect it would be a nice and very challenging combination or 3-5. In fact, I would assign exercises 5 and 6 to those parts of NT/Greek courses that deal with textual criticism. There’s no better way to experience the kind of errors scribes make than to face the challenges of scribing oneself. Give them a copy of a majuscule manuscript and ask them to transcribe it, perhaps even to put it into miniscule with accents, or whatever, you could have a lot of fun and variation on this.

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