Ordo Recta?

Gratias maximas iterum to my faithful readers, and to all the recent visitors!  It’s good to know that there are so many folks out there for whom the concept of Joyful Latin Learning is appealing!

As promised, today I want to talk about the “right” or “best” order for introducing grammatical topics – or, to be more precise, the considerations that would cause a particular order to be “right” in a particular circumstance.  If time and space permit, I’ll then muse a bit about the “right” order for the Tres Columnae project.

The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to introduction of grammatical concepts is that there are many “right” ways.  In the end, no matter what teachers do, our students come to “own” the grammar of a language in their own ways, at their own pace – and those ways and paces are different for different learners.  One overarching goal of Tres Columnae is to provide multiple pathways to understanding so that all kinds of learners can find the support and encouragement they need.  When there’s confusion or difficulty, I want to provide clarity and comfort, unlike a nameless colleague of mine (not a Latin teacher) at some-school-or-other who would forbid her students to ask questions if they hadn’t been able to complete the homework assignment … which she of course did not explain the day she assigned it, either.  Words failed me when I first learned of her system (and she was very proud of it indeed!), and they still fail me today!  I suppose, if she were a lifeguard, she’d tell those drowning swimmers to be quiet and stop splashing around??!!  Tres Columnae, by contrast, will be a safe learning environment where mistakes are embraced, held up as positive examples, corrected, and used as the basis for future learning.

Returning to our immediate topic, though, I want to address the considerations that seem to guide most textbook authors and curriculum designers when they/we are thinking about an order of instruction.  Despite the vast numbers of Latin textbooks that have been written over the years, there really are only two “big picture” approaches for making these choices – the “go down the chart” approach and the “more useful stuff first” approach.  Grammar-translation curricula, in general, choose the first approach, though the structure of that “chart” obviously varies from one curriculum to another.  But, stripped to the core, the idea behind a grammar-translation approach is that Latin (or any other language to be taught) is a system of rules and principles that need to be presented in a logical order.  “The chart” is already in a logical order, so it only makes sense to start at the “top” and work “down.”  So a grammar-translation text will begin with first-declension nouns and first-conjugation verbs (after all, they’re called “first”) and move in number order.  The goal is for students to internalize this logical system and be able to use it in their own reading and writing of the language – which may not happen (at least beyond the level of isolated sentences or individual words) until the learner has, in fact, been presented with the whole system.  If you happen to be a logical-mathematical learner, the appeal is obvious; if you don’t, you may never get to the point of grasping the “whole system” and putting it to use.

By contrast, proponents of reading-method and oral-aural teaching methods would say that the “logical order” for learning Latin is to learn the most important stuff first, then the less important stuff.  Of course, they may well disagree about which “stuff” is most important!  Whether by a sophisticated analysis (like Paul Diederich’s work in the 1920’s and 1930’s) or by a more informal survey, proponents of these approaches select “more common” or “more useful” language features, which are presented earlier, and “less common” or “less useful” features, which are saved for later.  With a reading-method approach, the emphasis may be on recognition of the forms rather than production; with an oral-aural approach, there is obviously an emphasis on both.  Over time, however, there’s an expectation that the language learner will develop an understanding of the “whole system” through repeated use.  If you are a verbal-linguistic learner, and if you relish finding patterns for yourself, the appeal is obvious; if not, you may become endlessly frustrated long before you’ve developed that understanding.

I would argue that the dichotomy is false and that a “third alternative” or creative synthesis is both possible and essential.  In the end, both the “down the chart” approach and the “useful stuff first” approach are seeking the same end – a student who approaches Latin (whether to speak, hear, read, or write) in a confident, independent way.  Personally, I think it makes sense to work with “important” stuff first, but I think we need to be careful to define “important.”  For example, one common reading-method textbook waits until late in the first year of study to introduce the genitive case on the grounds (logical enough) that genitives are less common, statistically speaking, in Latin literature than the other case forms.  It’s a perfectly reasonable choice, but it does mean that the student is unable to use a standard Latin dictionary very well, since standard dictionaries list nouns by their nominative and genitive singular forms.  This would not bother the authors of the book, since their goal is to produce confident readers (and/or translators – but that distinction is a post for another day!) rather than writers or speakers.  A confident reader needs to recognize that vīribus is a form of the word vīs (strength or violence) rather than vir (male human being), but that confident reader won’t necessarily need to make the form vīribus or vīrēs.  A speaker or writer, by contrast, will need to have a stronger command of the production of the language.

So the “right” order may very well be different, depending on the goal.  In the case of Tres Columnae, we want our participants to be joyful learners in community with each other, and we want them to use Latin creatively.  We aim for a balance of interpretive skills (reading and listening), interpersonal skills (writing and speaking to an audience that can respond and seek clarity), and presentational skills (writing and speaking to an audience that can’t respond or seek clarity).

So, dear readers, what would be the “right” order of presentation for the Tres Columnae approach, and why?  Tune in tomorrow for more details ….

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Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 2:37 am  Comments (3)  

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  1. This is stuff of great interest to me, Justin, and I enjoyed your comments here. I’ll never forget when I was learning Russian (the first foreign language I ever studied) – very oral approach – and the teacher was going around asking us all if we had a car (this was in college). So every was going around saying, yes, I have a car – but when it got to me, I didn’t have a car… and to say that, we had to put the car into the genitive case because of how the Russian idiom works. It made a huge impression on me: exactly because the system broke down at that moment, I would never ever forget the genitive of negation in Russian, ha ha. So in a practical sense, not only does it help to have a good instructional plan in place (and by the way, Russian was taught to me on an “as you need” approach – case by case, not paradigm by paradigm); we learned the most important case first), it also makes sense to take advantage of every moment when the instructional plan “breaks,” so to speak, and to turn that into a learning moment, too. 🙂

    • Laura,
      I really appreciate your Russian story – it speaks so well to the two-fold nature of what we do as language teachers! There needs to be a plan, but we need to be able to deviate from the plan to take advantage of the teachable moments that create lasting learning opportunities. The combination of planning and spontaneity is a critical part of what I’ve been calling a Joyful Learning Community. 🙂

  2. […] explored the pedagogical implications of the Tres Columnae approach in this post, this one and this one . Then, in this post and this one, I explained why the Tres Columnae […]


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