Composition Exercises: some thoughts

Last week I got to some chatting about the difference composition exercises might make between classical Greek students and Koine/Seminary students’ learning outcomes. Here I share some thoughts on composition exercises.


If you look in most traditional textbooks for classical languages, exercises typically focus on translation. The bulk of exercises involve translation of sentences from a target language into a native language. Then, depending on the style of textbook, and the pedigree of the pedagogy, they might include some native to target language exercises.


Sitting on my desk right now is Mastronarde, who has both directions, I know Duff does, and if I dug up a few more, we would find that they do to. Some textbooks don’t have them, notably I have Mahoney’s First Greek Course which focuses more on reading, writing, and composition, than translation per se. Decker’s Reading Koine Greek doesn’t bother with it at all. I suspect that textbook wise, classical Greek textbooks tend more towards ‘translation as practice’ than Koine textbooks have.

1. Translation is only a minimal learning experience.

That is, the actual practice of tranlsation doesn’t provide much in the way of meaningful input for the student. It only asks them to perform transformations using the knowledge they already have. It is skills-practice not learning-input. Furthermore, the main learning that goes on is looking up and checking words and forms. Which isn’t negligible, but it’s not significant.

I suspect if we dug a bit more into the history of composition exercises, we would find that they emerged at a time when Latin education was under pressure from German philology, and speaking Latin was going into decline, but there was still as sense that students should learn some ‘practical, active’ Latin, and that the solution was to teach them to ‘compose’.

2. ‘Composition’ exercises are not really composition.

To be fair, all those volumes that are called composition very rarely involve composition. They are almost entirely translation, starting at the short sentence level and working up to connected paragraphs. I also happen to have a folder on my computer that is pdf scans of a range of Greek and Latin composition books. Only the most advanced go on to paragraph length texts and discuss matters of style and expression. So let’s not delude ourselves that students are doing composition when really they are learning the reverse of overly-literal translation skills, simply reversing the direction of the languages.

3. Even minimally helpful things are helpful.

However, let’s keep in mind that even if composition isn’t that great, because it doesn’t provide much in the way of genuine comprehensible input, it does provide some valuable things: practice in using the language, testing of one’s knowledge, and reinforcement of forms. Especially where other forms of this kind of articulatory practice are absent (oral conversation, for instance, or target-language-only written communications), translation exercises are of benefit to students.

4. Translation is a high-level skill, not a low-level one.

I have to confess, I use translation in teaching students far more than I am happy with. Why? Because it’s a very easy and non-intense way to test whether comprehension of a target-language text has taken place. To do so by other means requires more creativity, more set-up, and more effort. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good way.

If you forget classical languages for a moment and think about languages that you know actively, communicatively (assuming you know any), you’ll know that translation is actually a very difficult skill to do well, orally or written. It requires a solid grasp of both languages, idioms, culture, field-of-reference, and moving between the two. We are all familiar with the fact that translation is tricky! (and treasonous). So let’s not pretend that translation is actually an entry-level skill for language learning. It’s a high-order skill that demands a lot of language before it can be truly effective.


What’s the answer? I don’t think composition is bad. But I do think it’s inferior. I think there are better options for what composition exercises do. Those better options are: question and answer in the target language, target language comprehension questions, target language composition (without translation), and so on. But they require more set-up, more from the teacher, and more from the student.

How to get there? If you’re already working in a text-based, translation-oriented set-up, the first step I recommend is to get down some basic grammatical vocabulary and questions and begin to introduce them one by one. For example, quo casu? is probably one of my most used questions for Latin students. It’s the first step towards discussing the grammar of the text in the language of the text.


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