Latin Pedagogy: thoughts on the conversation between Gallagher, Dickey, and Fontaine

There was a great recent article on Eidolon, “What is the Best Way to Learn Latin?”, which is a conversation between Daniel Gallagher (student of Foster) and Eleanor Dickey, mediated by Michael Fontaine.

The article is great for a few reasons. Firstly, Dickey has done some great work on ancient pedagogy, both Latin and Greek. Lately I’ve been working through her Greek Composition Book as well. So ED is really ‘up there’ in a knowledge of (a) ancient pedagogy and rhetorical school practices, (b) her own Greek and Latin!, (c) teaching. Gallagher, on the other hand, ‘represents’ the Reginald Foster ‘school of thought’. Having been slowly reading through Ossa Latinitatis Sola myself and trying to understand that school, it was great to see him in dialogue here.

The early discussion of chreia type exercises – the systematic substitution of elements in a sample sentence and manipulation of those forms (case/number), is interesting because this type of exercise has become more popular in recent years in textbooks, but I’m yet to be convinced that it is truly pedagogically effective. I do think it’s a more effective way to force students to master morphological forms through active manipulation, but I’m yet to be convinced that this pushes us in the right direction overall.

Both Dickey and Foster emphasise “total philological mastery”, though they differ in how they think this should be achieved. Foster’s approach eschews reliance on rote memorisation of tables and charts, but it still appears to end up in an ability to take any form and manipulate it any which way. It remains hard to see how this is emphatically different than a rote mastery of those forms.

Dickey is on file elsewhere as not being a fan of communicative methods, and thinking that the “tried and true” ways of grammar remain the best. For that, I likewise remain sceptical.

There’s a great line from ED about halfway through:

There is definitely something that I do not understand about Reginald’s method, namely what the students are actually doing.

Yes, I have often wondered the same thing. Gallagher goes on to give a decent example of what Reginald would be doing in class.

Another great line comes later on, this time from Gallagher:

Although the ability to speak Latin used to be the goal, today it is literacy. Developing our students’ ability to understand and digest ancient texts is the reason most of us have dedicated our lives to teaching Latin.

I whole-heartedly agree. The goal for almost all our students is literacy – an ability to fluently read target texts in their target language. However, speaking Latin, or more precisely, an oral/aural communicative fluency developed of comprehensive input, is (I am convinced), the best, fastest, and most effective way to reach that literacy goal.

That’s where my pedagogy is headed – active communicative Latin/Greek/whatever is a primary outcome because it’s a better guarantor of reading fluency than merely aiming for reading, or worse yet, aiming for grammatical analysis + translation.

2 responses

  1. It doesn’t really seem like Foster’s approach is actually much in line with the CI approach, since there’s so much manipulation, and little actual communication (like the “put everything in plural” drill, and how many students are going to actually have any reason to say that stuff about receiving two letters!?). Dickey did have an interesting line at one point, saying:

    “Realistically, students learn not from what teachers say, but from what they do themselves: it is the direct encounter between student’s brain and Latin text that really causes learning, and all we teachers can do is facilitate that encounter.”

    That’s actually a similar principle to the CI approach: all we as teachers can do is provide comprehensible input, and the student’s brain is what creates the learning (or acquisition, to be more precise).

    Just looking for common ground…

  2. Good points. Without having experienced Foster’s teaching itself, I can’t really comment on what it looks like in practice. Is it a lot of non-CI? How much does it facilitate interaction with Latin texts in Latin?

    Dickey is not really a CI advocate either, from what I’ve heard.

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