Why I (will) ditch the textbook next time

Right now I’m heading into week 11 of a 12 week semester teaching a Greek 1 class Koine. I’ve found it frustrating, mainly because I’m frustrated with myself. And as I reflect on that, I decided that if I’m given the opportunity to teach this again, it will be sans text-book.

To understand why I would now ditch the textbook, you need to understand a few things. Firstly, I’ve taught this module as available to students either (a) in person in the classroom, (b) online-live (video conference) and (c) online delayed (recorded delivery). Honestly, this is a taxing way to teach in general, but it also locked me into certain practices that I think contributed to my frustration – the recording format bound me to a desk and to using slides throughout.

(If I taught this again, I would make it in-person only. I think one could learn from recorded delivery of sessions, but not if that binds me to a desk and slideshow)

Secondly, the combination of the textbook’s pacing and approach, and a set of various ‘expectations’ about what Koine Greek is and how it should be taught, has pushed the stream of my class faster than I would like, faster than my students can acquire, and created an environment that’s more about learning than acquisition, and so in conflict with my own fundamental principles of teaching.

Thirdly, consistent reading and learning in the field of SLA basically convinced me that a textbook, even a good one, dictates the classroom content in a way that isn’t going to optimally produce acquisition. Even though I somewhat resist it, I can still perceive that my students aren’t fully onboard with what I set out trying to do, and the textbook tends to encourage them towards grammar.

Ditching the textbook, I think, would give me a certain freedom. A freedom from various expectations that are working against language acquisition. A freedom to start the class with, “We’re going to acquire Ancient Greek through comprehensible input, and this is how this works” and then follow that with 12 weeks of in-target-language conversation/communication, and come out the other side with genuine acquisition.

If, as the SLA field suggests to me, language is so complex, abstract, and implicit, such that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit, and if I’m committed to providing input such that implicit acquisition can take place, then the textbook has to go. Because at present the textbook is dictating my class, and it’s proven to be a bad master. Perhaps more skilled teachers than I could reverse that, but I strongly suspect that I would do better to say goodbye to it.

Adapting a story template for Ancient Greek

Below I have adapted (a lot is basically translated) a short story in Ancient Greek. It’s very closely based off a post from Magister P, who runs an amazing blog from which I have learnt a lot of stuff. In particular, I’ve been quite taken by the idea of using that very core ‘sweet sixteen’ verbs. Works not just for Latin!

Anyway, here is the story. Feel free to point out errors! I used this as a skeleton for a TPRS type session, and it went very well. Feel free to use and re-use as you like.

Phillip and the Kithara

Φίλιππός ἐστι μαθητὴς ἀγαθός.

ὁ Φίλιππός ἐστι οἴκοι (τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ). τῷ Φιλίππῳ κιθαράζειν ἀρέσκει.

ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν. οἴμοι, οὐκ ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει κιθάραν. ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν. ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον.


ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ τῆς οἰκίας ἀποχωρεῖ. ὁ Φίλιππος ἔρχεται ἢδη πρὸς τὸ διδασκαλεῖον. οἴμοι, ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. ἔστι τὸ Σάββατον! ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ βούλεται εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ τοῖς Σαββάτοις. ἀλλὰ ὁ Φίλιππος νομίζει κιθάραν εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.


τὸν δὲ φύλακα ὁρᾷ ὁ Φίλιππος. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φύλαξ. ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; ὁ δὲ φύλαξ οὐκ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου.  ὁ φύλαξ ἀγνοεῖ τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ Φίλιππος προσχωρεῖ πρὸς τὸν φύλακα. ὁ Φίλιππος· ὦ φύλαξ, ἆρα ἔστι κιθάρα ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. ἔχεις κιθάραν; νῦν δὲ ὁ φύλαξ ἀκούει τοῦ Φιλίππου. ἀγαθὸς ὁ φύλαξ. ὁ φύλαξ οὐ βούλεται ἀγνοεῖν τὸν Φίλιππον. ὁ φύλαξ λέγει κιθάρας μὴ εἶναι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ. οὐαί.  ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθάραν ἔχειν εἰς τὸ κιθαρίζειν, ἀλλά οὐκ εἰσὶν κιθάραι ἐν τῷ διδασκαλείῳ.. ὁ Φίλιππος ἤκουσεν κιθάρας εἶναι ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τῆς Μελίσσης. ἡ Μέλισσα ἐστι φίλη τοῦ Φιλίππου. νῦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος βούλεται ἐλθεῖν πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης.


ὁ οὖν Φίλιππος ἀποχωρεῖ ἀπὸ τοῦ διδασκαλείου. ὁ Φίλιππος πρὸς τὴν οἰκίαν τῆς Μελίσσης προσέρχεται. ὁ Φίλιππος· χαῖρε, ὦ φίλη, ἔχεις κιθάραν; βούλομαι κιθαρίζειν. βούλῃ σὺ κιθαρίζειν μετὰ ἐμοῦ;


ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα ἔχει κιθάραν. εὔγε. ἡ Μέλισσα φέρει τὴν κιθάραν πρὸς τὸν Φίλιππον, ἀλλὰ κατατίθησιν τὴν κιθάραν. οὐ δίδωσι ἡ Μέλισσα τὸν κιθάραν τῷ Φιλίππῳ. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος ὁρᾷ τὴν Μέλισσαν κατατιθέναι τὴν κιθάραν. ὁ μὲν Φίλιππος βούλεται κιθαρίζειν, ἡ δὲ Μέλισσα οὐ δίδωσι τὴν κιθάραν αὐτῷ. ἡ Μέλισσα ἀργύριον ἔχειν βούλεται. οὐαί. ἡ μὲν Μέλισσα βούλεται τὸν Φίλιππον ἀργύριον διδόναι αὐτῇ. ἡ Μέλισσα οὐκ ἔστι φίλη. ὁ δὲ Φίλιππος οὐκ ἔχει ἀργύριον. ὁ Φίλιππος οὐ δύναται κιθαρίζειεν.


Why teach communicatively if your goal is reading?

It’s a fair question (raised by my also-interested-in-linguistics-wife). Here’s my short answer: a communicative approach will produce better readers, with better reading ability, faster.

To understand why I hold that position, we need two puzzle pieces: how Grammar/Translation thinks it creates readers, and how CI can be geared towards a text-oriented goal.

Grammar Translation tends to operate along these lines:

Front-load the explicit teaching of grammar so the learner knows all about how the language operates and how to analyse utterances. Teach them a lot of vocabulary by having them memorise L1 glosses. Have them translate sentences into their L1 to solidify grammar + vocab. Eventually let them loose on passages once they’ve accumulated enough of grammar + vocab.

This is why most G/T approaches don’t see students tackle extended connected text until late in a 1st year (if we’re talking about a tertiary education setting) course, and they don’t really get a huge amount of ‘reading’ (i.e. translation) until they hit second year.  By this stage a “parse/gloss/translate” mindset is pretty set-in-stone and you can get through a whole 4-year university curriculum doing that and still not feel, or read, fluent(ly) – I certainly did, and I’m not alone.

Most graduates of a G/T approach will never make the transition to reading, with high accuracy and speed and without mental translation, their L2 texts.

Gearing CI to a text/reading goal:

It’s not at all the case that a communication-based approach needs to be all “may I go the bathroom?” and “A double-shot piccolo latte with a marshmallow on the side, please.” Indeed, learning such things is neither here nor there, a question that’s independent of CI.

While the very initial stages of CI will probably be physical, concrete, classroom-based, oral work, it doesn’t take that long until you can develop some structures and vocabulary to read simple texts. And once you do, you can introduce simple, but accurate, language to talk about texts. Whether that’s “subject/protagonist, theme, symbol, context” etc., or even grammatical, “(grammatical) subject, predicate, complement, verb, adjective, case”. If your end goal depends upon discussing the grammar of texts, there’s no reason you can’t do that in the L2. If your end goal is more ‘literary’, you can do that in L2, and neither of these necessarily depend upon “advanced”, or more accurately, technical, language. 4th grade kids discuss L1 texts, using 4th grade vocabulary. Post-beginner classical students can do the same in a classical language, if you give them the tools to do so.

The difference will be this, though : a CI approach that makes texts the topic of discussions, and encourages reading, especially extensive reading, is going to expose students to a ton of language, spoken and written, more than a G/T approach. Yes, it may take longer until they encounter/are able to read certain structures, because you haven’t front-loaded all the grammar. However, I think hour for hour the outcomes will be better, provided we are assessing the right thing.

I would love to hear from you if you have either personal anecdata on this, or links to peer-reviewed research.


An entrée into the world of 18th and 19th century Greek textbooks

Let me tell you about a little side-project I’m cooking up.

One of the great advantages Latin students have in seeking a lot of reading content, is that between the easy reading material that some Latin teachers are pumping out, and the products of the Direct Method, there’s a fair amount of reading material to get stuck into. (See here, here, here).

Not so with Greek. The Direct Method advocates produced not very much Greek, unfortunately. You can see some on the second half of that vivarium novum page. However they are not very accessible either.

So, what I’ve been doing is scouring the 18th and 19th century textbooks, a range of books with endless variations on “A First Greek Reader”. I have almost 30 in scanned pdfs. Some are more “directish method”, others are very traditional, almost all are far more advanced than “easy greek reading” should begin at.

The project:

  • Digitise: create plain text copies of all the readings in these books.
  • Lemmatise: lemmatise all the texts as well
  • Gloss: produce a version with appropriate glossing to help readers
  • Annotate: provide notes to go with each text to help readers
  • Record: audio files for each text
  • Scaffold: write Greek language content as both pre-reading and post-reading material.

Actually, there are some more things going on behind the scenes as well. Most of my side-projects these days involve overlapping and interlocking methods and goals. In this case, the goal is to create a digital resource of freely available material that helps bridge the long plateau between “1st year Greek” (not a real thing) and “fluently read authentic high-register ancient texts” (a real thing and quite difficult).

More on this, obviously, as it develops…

Actually, since I’ve penned this post, there are at least 2 people doing OCRs of this kind of material. So that means I’m probably going to shift my focus from simply digitising, to making more of this material more usable.

Parse + Translate ≠ Reading

Recently I was reading an introductory Greek grammar for which the ‘reading’ exercise had the instructions (non verbatim):

  1. Read aloud
  2. Parse all words fully
  3. Translate

Firstly, commendable at all that “read aloud” is an instruction at all. But as usual I think this is a terrible way to teach people to read, because there is very little, if any, ‘reading’ going on. This is how a linguist reads (no offence to linguists, very fine people and one of my favourite disciplines!). But this is not ‘reading in a language’ and it’s not likely to produce a reader of a language anytime soon (it will eventually, but only incidentally and with  great deal of inefficiency).

This is analysing a sentence/utterance, describing its morphosyntactical features, and then rendering it into one’s native tongue in order to understand. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but reading a foreign language doesn’t have to be like this and doesn’t have to be taught like this.

Here’s where I’m coming from (and pretty much where I’ve been ‘coming from’ for the last decade). The goal of most historical language programs is to produce readers, but ‘reading’ ought to mean “reading texts in the target language while processing them mentally in the target language.” It does not mean translating. It does not even involve translating. Translation is a different act, “understanding a message in one language and rendering its meaning in a different language.”

So, how do we learn to read in the language without translating?

We need Comprehensible Input, and a lot of it. Comprehensible input means that we need input (i.e. a message in the target language) that is comprehensible (i.e. the learner can understand the meaning). They don’t have to understand, far less analyse, every aspect and word and morpheme in that message, they just need to understand it.

At the simplest level this can be the simplest of sentences: δός μοι τοῦτο. τί ἐστι τοῦτο; τοῦτό ἐστι ποτήριον, δός μοι ποτήριον.

These can easily be rendered comprehensible if you are standing there, with a person, pointing at a cup. Or they can be understood by translation, yes, by translation! I said that dirty word. Translation makes a message comprehensible. It’s not the worst thing in the world. But then we have translated in order to understand, which is a learning activity. But what we really want is to understand in order to translate. That’s actually the order of operation we seek. So if we do translate to understand, we still want to go back to the target language and stop translating.

And from here, it’s about i + 1i represents what the learner knows1 is the smallest possible unit of unknown, new information, which is made comprehensible by the i, but it’s the 1 that we are ‘learning’. So you learn something new, you add to your i, and then repeat. That’s language acquisition.

At no stage of this process is it (a) essential to parse/analyse/tag/etc.., though we can/might do that for other reasons, (b) essential to translate, though we might choose to do so.

Practically, for Greek, the main problem is this: getting enough reading material to continually climb a ‘slope’ of texts that’s as gentle as possible. Such a mass of texts, particularly easy texts, simply does not exist. Conversational work is important, but reading is going to be essential, for reasons I discuss in my next post on this topic.

Adventures in LSJ: From J to Cypriot Epigraphy

One of the many current things occupying my overfull plate is trawling through betacode entries of LSJ headwords to sort out things that are ‘odd’. And LSJ has some odd things. Like


Why is there a j there? That ain’t no Greek letter. So off we go to the print version.

The print version of LSJ is a host of mysteries, and mystery resolution. Most mysteries are far less interesting than this one. Lo and behold, there is a j in the entry. It’s not a typo in LSJ, and it’s not a typo in the data-entry.

So next we look at the entry.

= πεδιεινός

Now, if you happen to look up the page, you see πεδινός is also listed as equivalent to πεδιεινός. So it’s also worth looking at πεδιεινός, which finally yields an actual gloss and meaning: flat, level, of the plain.

But back to πέδιjος. We clearly need to look at the source:

E. Schwyzer, Dialectorum Graecarum exempla epigraphica potiora, Leipzig 1923. 679.18 (Cyprus).

Sadly this doesn’t appear available online. A copy resides in my erstwhile institutional library, controlled by robots. But in this case an easier alternative is at hand, a more recent collection of Cypriot inscriptions (Les Inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques, O. Masson, Paris 1964 [1985 with Addenda nova]. And we are after 217, the Tablet of Idalion, B side, line 18, and this can be accessed online! (This last sleuthing by none other than J. Tauber again).

So 217 B18 gives us the syllabic transcription pe-ti-ja-i, and the alphabetic transcription πεδίjαι

And so the j represents a consonantal iota preserved in Cypriot epigraphy, and there’s no mistake in the betacode headword anyway. Thus we carry on. In my next installment of LSJ adventures, we shall discuss the mystery of the upside-down smiley face.



Digital Nyssa Project: From OCR to Plain Text

So the first step in my project is getting from a print text to a digital text.

There are a few options for doing OCR. Bruce Robertson at Mt. Allison University is involved in LACE: Greek OCR, a large scale project to produce high quality OCR of ancient Greek texts. But apart from submitting a request, this is not really scalable to personal use.

Antigraphaeus allows you to do Greek OCR in your browser. It’s the child of Ryan Baumann, and basically instantiates online what I describe below.

Ancient Greek OCR provides a number of options (platform dependent) for using the Tesseract OCR engine trained for Ancient Greek. It’s the work of Nick White.

I followed the instructions to install and set-up gImageReader and found it pretty straightforward.

For a pdf input, I grabbed Patrologia Graeca 46 of Archive.org. I then created a pdf of only the pages I needed for DDAE (6), to save loading time. Here’s an image with the first page open, and about to click “Recognize” which will run the OCR process on the selection and output it to the sidebar on the right.

It takes around 3 minutes to run a full page (well, half-page) of Migne. I cut and paste the results to a text editor so that I could save the result as a UTF-8 encoded .txt, rather than the default in the program which appears to generate an ANSI file (which is not useful).


Then I worked with pdf and text side by side to manually correct the OCR results. This is slightly laborious, and using some kind of editing process like Robertson has up on the Greek OCR Challenge page would probably speed this process.

Instead, I did this:

The general quality of the OCR was good, but it did need corrections. I’d love to speed up this process, because it takes me circa 10 mins to do a page.

So, 13 mins a page, 6 pages, looking at almost 80 mins work to do the OCR work to produce a corrected text. Then a bit of quick editing to remove line breaks and generate a single continuous text.