Upper Level classes in communicative approaches

This is third in a series of answers to Critiques and Comments to Communicative Approaches to Ancient Languages. See here for parts one and two.


not a critique, but I’m curious about how proponents of communicative approaches handle the transition to upper level classes, where literary and historical analysis, secondary readings, etc., begin taking up more class time. Most of the conversations center around intro classes.


I’m going to split this up into three sections: what I’ve heard from others, what I do, what I can imagine.

It is true that a lot of the conversations about communicative approaches focus or centre on intro classes – that range of classes designed to bring learners to a point where they can read and understand texts for themselves. Let’s just pause and recognise that the notion of upper level classes (and I have college classics in view here) strongly revolves around the notion of “intro classes teach them grammar, vocab, and enough translation skills, beyond that they can read authentic texts with minimal help” which I consider patently false. Nonetheless, we do want learners to reach the point where they are reading texts and thinking about the content of those texts (among other things), not simply wrestling their way to an understanding of the words and sentences at a basic comprehension level.

So, as I understand it there are some camps of communicative proponents, in high schools, who have basically said, “given the time we have and the rate of acquisition, we cannot meaningfully get students to acquire enough Latin/Greek to read high register literary texts within our 2-6 years. So we aren’t aiming to.” I have reservations about that position, but I don’t think this is the post to go into them.

Among non-institutions, e.g. the various conventus, conventicula, summer schools, etc., at the intermediate and advanced levels you see courses offered that are basically, “we’ll read and discuss this in the target language”. But these tend all to be short-courses, not college-type upper-level classes. So let’s take a step sideways and think about what a ‘traditional’ college-type upper-level course looks like…

I don’t want to profile a particular course and professor, but using a mostly real example, a course in Greek Drama – we’ll read 3 plays in the original, then some others in translation, and you’ll read a range of secondary literature. Lectures will discuss historical contextualisation, literary features, etc. Students will read a great deal outside class both in and out of Greek, and write various types of papers.

At this point I have two thoughts: Firstly, if you’ve really, comprehensively embraced a communicative approach in your learning, as a student, and are at the point where you can read Greek Drama reasonably well, you should be able to handle a course like this on the Greek side, without much difficulty. A student with communicative competency and reading proficiency can handle being put in a non-communicative program.

My second thought, I’m going to delay until further down. Let’s talk about what I do at SeumasU instead. I don’t have that many ‘upper’ classes, partly due to student numbers. I have tried to offer 200 and 300 level courses – at the 200 level I envisage students who have covered most of the introductory language material, and have had some, though sometimes minimal, exposure to communicative approaches. We read simpler texts, and we work through them at a simpler level – I use the same q&a style that I mostly use in my intro classes, and we’re focused on understanding the texts at a comprehension level. But we’re still doing it mostly in the target language. So this is part of training students to read and comprehend *and discuss* while staying in language.

I’ve started to offer 300 level courses, where my expectation is that students (a) will prepare outside class, (b) can read the text with a degree of fluency, especially with pre-preparation, (c) we’ll read and discuss the text at a meaning and content level, not simply a comprehension level, though we’ll pause to unravel anything that’s not so easily understandable. That’s what I’ve done with Boethius last term, and with Ysengrimus this term. It’s still a long way short of the above college type course, but I’m also not teaching 2-3 hours of a course each week and expecting students to do 8-10 hours on their own over 14 weeks. Nor do I pull that kind of salary.

But could you teach an upper-level college course in the target language? Yes. Here let me draw on a parallel set of experiences. I’ve just finished taking a 200 level college course in Scottish Gaelic poetry from 1900 onwards, taught entirely in Scottish Gaelic. So here’s a college level course with target language texts, taught in the target language. Students need to be at a level where they can comprehend the lectures in the language, but naturally for those who are not natives, their output abilities are likely to lag behind. Much of the secondary literature, an overwhelming majority, is written in English. So that’s unavoidable, as it is in classics (not just English too!), but that reading can be done outside class hours, and it can be discussed in the target language. Assessments, both oral presentations, exams, and essay, all done in the target language.

I raise this example because it’s a minority language, very many of the students are non-native speakers, and even those that are native speakers may not have developed advanced literacy and academic skills yet in the language. And yet it’s possible.

Which circles me around to my delayed thought from above – one can envision an upper level course taught communicatively, if it were developed and supported appropriately. Both students and teachers would need to develop, gradually, the linguistic means and tools to discuss the range of critical, literary, and historical topics that you want to discuss in upper level courses. But of course, that is possible! Students, too, particularly need to be helped, very gradually, to write and express themselves in more complex ways and more academic ways than are often encountered in intro classes. Nobody wants to get to 200 level Latin and be asked to write a 2000 word Latin essay unless they’ve been given the chance to write 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, etc etc, word pieces along the way.

As far as I know, Polis Institute is one of the few places that really teaches some upper level courses in the target language. I don’t have any experience of them, but I know a few of their alumni are occasional readers, and I’d love for them to chime in.

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