What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 3 – Addressing the language challenges

In this post Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part one of this series. As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting. In our final fourth part, we will discuss in more depth issues related to post two, content.

1. Assuming that once you understand it once, you know it forever.

Seumas: One of the maxims I apply, which I’m pretty sure I got from J.S. Bailey, and now repeat freely to students is, “if you don’t know it, you just need to see at least one more time”. It’s okay not to have learnt things, or to have forgotten things, or not to know them ‘on the spot’. Helping students let go of that, and recognise that knowing might be a binary thing (know/not-know) in that moment, but it’s not a binary thing overall. ‘Knowing’ Latin, or even any discrete element of Latin, is a complex phenomenon, and as long as students keep going, they will learn these things.

Gregory: Perhaps the most important maxim I apply is one of the first things I learned from my mentor Jacqui Carlon in my Latin Pedagogy program at UMASS Boston:  “Just because you taught it, doesn’t mean they learned it.” In fact, I think this is perhaps the biggest problem with the grammar-translation method, though LLPSI or CI-based instruction is not immune from it either, the (mis-)conception that as soon as the book or teacher has introduced a word or a structure and given the students a few exercises to work toward mastery, that everyone should know it thereafter, when of course, language acquisition is neither linear nor, as Seumas says, binary in that way. LLPSI generally does a much better job of recycling vocab and structures than something like Wheelock’s or Shelmerdine, but of course what ultimately “clicks” and “sticks” for students is highly individualized. As for how to deal with that, as Seumas implies, moving away from what I call “gotchya” pedagogy, where we put students on the spot to name grammatical structure (a case, a tense, etc.), especially those we’ve just recently taught and/or haven’t looked at in a long time, is one important way to help students let go of a lot of insecurity. For most students, that sort of thing only serves to make them anxious (raise the ‘affective filter’) and make it even more difficult for them to acquire the structures we are trying to teach.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Seumas: So, for my part, I just lean into it. If you’ve got a book and you’re committed to working with it, just go with and work around that one issue. Almost any textbook is going to be sequenced in one way or another. In the case of this book, yes it’s not ideal, but you can walk to mitigate some of those issues directly and indirectly. The only alternative, really, is to adopt a non-grammar curriculum, but then you need to have a different organising principle. Which, I think, is also a totally fine approach. E.g., you can choose to untextbook, build your sequencing around vocabulary alone, and unshelter grammar entirely, but then you’re going to have to either not use LLPSI, or use LLPSI in a quite different way – as a supplementary book students can read (probably at a relatively late stage, given the vocab restraints)

Gregory: I likewise lean into it, but, as I said above, I’ve largely moved away from the “gotchya” pedagogy, where we look for particularly unusual or “tricky” grammar, case usage etc. and then either cold call (the worst) or ask for volunteers (slightly better) to essentially guess what’s going on. Instead, for all grammatical structures, I practice something called “spiral teaching” where I do formally introduce a concept when LLPSI does (at the end of each chapter, after many meaningful encounters), but then I don’t hold students immediately responsible for “knowing” it. Rather, I intentionally return to these concepts periodically and in the meantime I reassure students who don’t yet “get it” that “the bus is coming back around” – as in, students will see the ablative absolute or the jussive subjunctive or whatever many more times during their Latin career, so it’s completely ok if some of them still don’t “get it” even after the initial introduction and having seen it several times. I think much of it has to do with us as teachers just relaxing and letting go, along the lines of Lightbrown and Spada’s concept of “get it right in the end.” It’s completely ok if beginning and intermediate and even advanced students can’t parse every word, as long as they are continuing to read and acquire new vocabulary, with the understanding that if they stick with it, every student can get there eventually and we should build our curricula and our assessments accordingly. In my experience, there are many students who struggle with abstracting about grammar in the beginner and intermediate levels (especially the younger the students are), but as time goes on it begins to “click” with them. But when we structure a curriculum wherein they must “prove” their mastery of grammar in order to move to the next level, we effectively force out a lot of students along the way who might otherwise have stuck with it. So in the end, it’s ok to teach a grammar syllabus as an organizing principle, as long as we don’t expect that students will “know” the grammar just because we’ve taught it, as Carlon says.

(By the way, if you are teaching in a department where “gotchya” grammar pedagogy is nevertheless part of what is expected of students and so you don’t want them to be totally unprepared for it, instead of doing the same to them yourself, much better would be to use that time and effort to reinforce the basics and only cold call or take volunteers for what is usual and then you as the teacher continue to point out what is unusual until such time that a construction has been seen enough to be reasonably confident that at least several students will be able to identify it, then, and only then take volunteers.)

3. Vocab and volume

Seumas: There’s no easy solution to the question of vocabulary and volume. In an ideal world, students read texts in which unknown items (a) are only a small percentage of all items (e.g. the 95-98% should be comprehensible, 5-2% new), and (b) vocabulary items get repeated frequently enough, both immediately and in an ongoing way, to develop enough exposures. If you keep those two constraints – low density of new items plus significant repetition of new items, then you must keep increasing the volume of text students interact with.

For my part, I wouldn’t change the amount of vocab in Familia Romana, or really want to lengthen the text itself. The solution then is to find other ways to increase the volume of text/speech students encounter. On the reading side, it means reading the supplements, reading novellas, getting students to read anything they can. On the spoken side, it means making sure class time happens in Latin with lots of exposure to words in communicative contexts.

Gregory: I agree with Seumas that there is no easy answer. And even though LLPSI does a much better job of recycling its 1800 vocabulary words than any other book (for comparison, Wheelock introduces about 800 words, more than half of which only appear once!), it’s still ultimately too many new words per line of Latin. But I think the volume of vocab is definitely more of a problem for students trying to use LLPSI on their own or in classes where a lot of time in class is spent on explicit grammar instruction. For my students, we build in quite a lot of repetition, as Seumas says, via reading all the supplements, reading novellas, and doing speaking and writing exercises that use the words in even more compelling contexts. I also do a lot of what I call “sewing vocabulary seeds” via pre-reading vocabulary building games like Quizlet Live, Gimkit, and Blooket. Those things on their own won’t do a ton to build long term vocabulary acquisition, but when used as “previewing” for the vocab students are about to encounter in meaningful use, they seem to lead to greater uptake of new words as we read. Crucially, I do all of that vocabulary work via Latin to Latin synonyms, antonyms, and short definitions (rather than via English) which has the dual effect of recycling even more of the earlier vocab, while also helping students move away from conceptualizing Latin as merely English in code. Finally, LLPSI was meant to be read and re-read, not just decoded once and then tossed aside. One way to get students to engage with the text multiple times without losing too much time is by having them listen to recordings of the text. Of course, the more times students encounter a text, the more comprehensible it will be, however, there are also diminishing returns over time because upon each encounter, the input becomes less compelling. A technique that I have found to be very effective is having the students listen to a high quality, well intoned recording of the reading once or twice without the text in front of them before looking at it. Then, have the students listen a third time with the text in front of them. If you’ve been doing a good amount of pre-reading with them, this is often enough for students to understand the whole reading without stopping and parsing or looking up a single word.

  1. Some grammatical features come too late

Seumas: While getting away from a grammar sequence altogether is not feasible while using LLPSI as a main teaching tool, it can be tweaked. To pick up some specific examples: I bring forward some things, e.g. I introduce the 1st and 2nd person forms early, by doing personalised questions early on (habesne tu villam? egone? villam non habeo!). Other things I try to at least subtly introduce without fanfare. e.g., I’ll use a few tenses here and there in spoken form, and flag them with hand gestures, temporal adverbs, etc.. Likewise with hortatory and jussive subjunctives.

Gregory: I believe a lot of this concern is alleviated if we move away from ideas of linear acquisition and “easy” and “hard” grammar – each book has its own grammar sequencing based on a variety of factors, including statistical frequency, deviation from structures in the students’ presumed L1, etc. but this easy/hard concept is generally lurking somewhere and that is no less true for LLPSI. To his credit, Ørberg did seemingly try to intuit an “order of acquisition” based on other languages, but e.g., he holds off on complex conditionals until the end of the book seemingly because of an assumption that they are “hard.” But there really isn’t much strong evidence for some grammar being intrinsically “more difficult” for students to acquire or, even if it were true, that withholding “difficult” structures is the best strategy. In fact, the opposite may be true, since, like vocabulary, students simply need more meaningful exposure to these structures in order to acquire them. So like Seumas, much of this I approach by bringing things forward and using them with the students in spoken and written contexts long before LLPSI introduces them, and doing so in compelling, meaningful contexts. So, for example, a “speed-friending” activity where students answer scaffolded questions like “if you could be any superhero, which superhero would you be?” can be a great way to introduce students to contrary to fact conditionals long before Capitulum XXXIII but without needing to explain all the underlying grammar. (e.g. give the students the format “si tu quilibet superheros esse posses, quis esses? Ego essem…” with some common choices added Femina Mirabilis, Vir Ferreus, Femina Felina, Vir Araneus, etc.). Likewise, narrating the previous day’s story in the perfect and imperfect (Quintus arborem ascendebat et tum subito ramus fractus est et Quintus de arbore cecidit!) is a great way to get students used to hearing these two tenses long before chapters XVIII-XIX.