Quantity and rate of comprehensible input, revisited

Recently, I crunched some personal numbers. Using Italian Athenaze, a text I’m reading for CI purposes, I clocked myself reading about a page of text (approx 130 Greek words) at 50 secs a page, which calculated out at 156 wpm. That’s pretty decent, I would say, and especially since I expect Greek to be more ‘word dense’ than English. For me, this represents reading (i) faster than I could possibly parse, (ii) with some vocalisation and sub-vocalisation (so it could be faster), (iii) at a level appropriate to my understanding.

I would probably make a vocab note at an average rate of 1-1.5 per page, and this includes words I’m unfamiliar with, or constructions I’m semi-familiar with but think are not entirely transaparent in context and a note will help me later. So that’s a comfortable 98% vocabulary/comprehension factor.

I think this supports the kinds of numbers I came up with in that earlier post, though I’d want to downgrade reading speed estimates for most people. It also highlights some problems…

You can’t give beginning students 4 hours of reading a week. There’s no way a student can cope with 280 minutes, say even at 100wpm, 28,000 words, when their effective vocabulary is so low. And there’s not enough in the way of sheltered-vocabulary texts. It’s just not feasible to have them learn 2 words every 100, meet those words several times over, and then write your next story with 102 words + 2 new ones.

So early level students are going to have to do more intensive reading than extensive reading. That’s fine, they should. Because they’re at a level that even simple communicative messages in the TL are full of overwhelmingly ‘unknown’ information.

And even at more intermediate levels, well, quantity of suitable text is always going to be a problem. It’s a little hard to estimate exactly how many pages/words of Greek text It. Athenaze has, but if you really did read 4 hours a week in a college level course, *and* had the implicit acquisition required, you could read the whole 2 volumes within a few weeks. This is not actually possible and not actually feasible.

However, I point out these problems to continue saying, “more reading is better, more reading is possible, and lack of suitable texts, more than anything else, is the external factor holding us back here. But anything is better than nothing. We don’t need to shoot for the stars. 10mins a day, 70 a week, 7,000 words of comprehensible extensive reading a week, that’s a great start for anybody, whatever their level.

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.

 

Listen-Read-Listen

Technique: Listen-Read-Listen

Here’s a technique that works well if you’re intentionally trying to develop aural comprehension skill. You need an audio source with text, so generally either (a) a recording that has an accompanying transcript (I use this for Gaelic with a 5 minute podcast that comes with transcript), or (b) a text for which a good audio recording has been made (for Latin there are quite a few good recordings of poems/letters/etc., which come to mind.

Step 1: Attentively listen to the audio.

Your goal here is just to understand as much as you can. If it’s totally incomprehensible then there’s probably some factor making it too difficult (accent? text? you’re not ready for this particular text?). You’re not trying to recall everything, and definitely don’t try and transcribe it (a different skill and a different task).

Step 2: Read the text

Now it’s time to pull out the text. Depending on your level and the text’s, this might be extensive reading, or it might be intensive. Reading will help make sense of what you heard. My suspicion is that the previous listening doesn’t contribute very much to how much you comprehend reading, but the reading does to the listening.

Step 3: Back to the audio.

So now you go back and listen attentively to the audio. You should understand a lot more this time! There’ll be things you can more accurately ‘pick out’ and recognise, and overall your comprehension will improve. You probably won’t understand everything, and you will feel like there are things you just read that you can’t quite remember while listening. Don’t stress, just listen and seek to understand.

 

And that’s it! Simple, effective, a good way to use audio but leverage it with written material.

Reading to Learn v Learning to Read

Recently I was reading a document about extensive reading and it highlighted the difference between intensive and extensive reading in the above terms (reading to learn, learning to read).

Intensive reading is reading ‘above’ our level, or sometimes below our level but with a lot of analysis thrown in. This is “learning to read”. It’s when we encounter a whole lot of ‘unknowns’ – unknown words, concepts, structures – and we need to do “work” to make a text comprehensible. It’s slow, and because the amount of “unknowns” is so high, we are not really reading. We are learning to read. We are using a bunch of tools-that-aren’t-reading in order to make reading possible.

Which is fine, there’s a place for this. Unfortunately this is almost everything that historical languages students (looking at you, Greek, Latin) do. They read texts that are far, far too difficult for themselves, and they agonisingly pull them apart until they understand the meaning. And then they go on.

Extensive reading is reading that is at, or even ‘below’ our level. It’s when you read for the sake of the message being transmitted by the text, you operate mentally in the language of the text, you don’t stop to analyse the text per se, though perhaps you might linger to savour the text! You can read a lot faster at this level, and you’re not looking up unknowns, except maybe a very occasional one that you kind of thought you knew the meaning of, but wanted to check or were just interested.

This is reading to learn. The skill being practices is reading, and the object is learning, not vice versa. This is what is missing from most language students’ practices. And this is what’s particularly hard for classics and biblical students. There simply isn’t enough material at an easy enough level to do “a lot” of reading. Better for Latin than any other classical/historical language, but still difficult to obtain. For Greek, a nightmare. I’m working on a little side-project to help with that (btw).

So, if you want to improve as a reader, or a language learner in general, you almost certainly need a lot more extensive reading.

(The document I was reading is the Extensive Reading Foundation’s  Guide to Extensive Readering, see here;

For a great presentation of this applied to Latin, see Justin Slocum Bailey here (31 min video))

A much shorter presentation of the case for Extensive Reading, again by JSB, here (6 min video)

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.

Know/Don’t Know: the myth of binary knowledge in language learning.

The other day I was in a conversation and couldn’t for the life of me retrieve the Gàidhlig word for “question”. All I could think of was freagairt, which is “answer”. I had to ask what it was. It’s ceist, of course. Duh. That’s a word I “know”, or “am meant to know.”

But the real question is never ‘do you know this “word/phrase/structure/chunk of language”?’ It’s always, ‘can you comprehend this chunk of language right at this instant, or produce this chunk in a way that effects communication?’

Which means the strongly binary model most of us inherit of language learning, which includes “Teacher taught word X, therefore student learnt word X” (wrong not just for languages, but for instruction in general), and “You memorised word X, therefore you know word X in all circumstances” or even “you once got X right on a multiple choice question, therefore you can actively recall X for communication production”, and so on – these are just wrong.

‘Knowing’ is a lot fuzzier. It’s a huge range of contextualised, circumstantial, bits and pieces that determine whether communication is going to take place in any particular instance, and how well a message is going to go from producer to receiver.

Which is why, at the end of the day, “vocab testing” is mere approximation. It’s testing, “can you on particular occasion X, recall particular word Y (actively? passively?) in particular context/decontext Z which may or may not bear much relation to any genuine language encounter?”

It’s also why we should basically ‘lighten up’ on students. “I taught you this” has no real place in a language teacher’s teaching vocabulary (except maybe as a joke?). Students don’t really need to feel shame/guilt/frustration at not knowing a chunk of language in that moment, they just need the minimum amount of help to make the utterance comprehensible, so they can get on with getting meaning and so acquiring language. And the next time they encounter, or need, “chunk X”, it will hopefully come a little easier. Or the next time. Or the time after that. Or however many times.

Translation is not meaning

One of the downsides of training students to translate in order to understand, is that they very often develop the erroneous notion that translation is meaning. “The meaning of Greek word X is English word Y”, or slightly more complex versions of the same.

No, no, no.

Greek (or whatever language) means what it means, with reference to Greek, with reference to reality, with reference to its referents. Sure, I can concede that “Greek X means English Y” is sometimes just shorthand for “English Y is a suitable translation of Greek Y in this context”, but very often it’s not, it’s shorthand for “Greek X really means English Y, why didn’t they just write in English in the first place and make my life easier.”

Don’t fall for the trap. Figure out meaning first, then figure out how to render that meaning in your other language. That’s what translation is.

(I’m going to start trying to micro-blog more language/Greek/Latin/etc. mini-posts like this)