Ownership of Reading

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs, et lēctōrēs recentiōrēs. eugepae! I’m amazed and humbled that so many of you are interested in the Tres Columnae project. Please keep reading, invite your friends, and keep those comments and emails coming. 🙂

As promised, this week’s posts are about reading. For you non-Classicists in the audience, Latin teachers tend to stress reading over other skills because it’s our best point of contact with native speakers. We can’t exactly hop on a train or plane to ancient Rome (or even to the Middle Ages), and most ancient Romans still don’t have Internet access! 🙂 We’ll look at listening and speaking before too long; they’re obviously a critical part of language learning, and they’ll be a big part of the Tres Columnae project. But we’re starting with reading for a good reason.

So what might it mean to own reading? Does it mean that you own a specific text, or that you own the process by which you read and understand the text? Or both? Or something else? And how might you know – or prove to someone else – that you do own a text or a process? The answers are probably different according to your prefered metaphor for learning.

I suppose a factory-model approach would focus something measurable and standardized, whether that “something” was a prescribed process, a prescribed list of texts, or some combination.  And, in fact, that’s how American standardized tests from the National Latin Exam to the SAT II Subject Test for Latin to the Advanced Placement: Vergil Examination do, in fact, work.  Standardized tests in other nations may vary in format, but they also (and understandably!) prescribe either texts, methods, or both.  It would hardly be possible to run a factory without standardized processes!

By contrast, a retail model would focus on highly differentiated process and content: different readers might choose completely different texts, or only read texts that appealed to their interests, and they’d decide for themselves how to prove that they understood the text. And, in fact, a lot of project-focused, non-AP ® upper-level high-school Latin classes work that way.

On the other hand, a workshop model would focus, above all, on quality.  While there would certainly be an element of choice, all the available texts would be  high-quality texts, any processes employed would be high-quality processes, and there would be a constant focus on improving both the texts and the processes. Tres Columnae, of course, is a workshop model, and as you know we believe our model is the “Third Alternative” or, in the immortal (?) words of a current teen-pop sensation, “the best of both worlds.”

So then, what makes a text high-quality?  Or, in other words, what makes you want to own a text? Of course, there are many possible answers. For our purposes, at a minimum,

  • it’s well-constructed
  • it’s accurate in its use of language
  • it’s interesting
  • if it’s fictional, you care about the characters and situations
  • if it’s non-fiction, you care about the information
  • it makes you want to keep reading
  • you’re sad when it’s over
  • you might even want to read it again – or to share it with a friend.

As we build the Tres Columnae stories together, we’ll aim to make every story a high-quality text in these terms. That means we’ll have to be open to criticism and suggestions from our readers all the time. If you hate a particular story, or if you find it boring, just let us know; we’ll take your suggestions seriously! If several people hate a story, we’ll revise or even replace it – or at least make it “optional” with a warning about why some people don’t like it. Just try that with a conventional textbook!

We’ll also make sure that our participants own the reading process. I think you’ve got to own at least six things, maybe more, to read a text in another language:

  1. First-language reading strategies and skills – after all, if you can’t read your own language, it’s pretty hard to read another one! We’ll talk more about this in today’s second post.
  2. Vocabulary – which we’ve discussed extensively last week. No need to repeat that discussion!
  3. Morphology – but maybe not the way that it’s typically taught. Latin teachers tend to stress morphology for active formation, in writing or speech. But we may also need to pay attention to recognition and comprehension of morphology in context.
  4. Syntax and clause structure – again, as a profession, we either stress active rather than receptive use of these elements, or else we ignore them completely. In the end, morphology and syntax should be so transparent to the learner that you use them without conscious effort, like an expert driving a car or riding a bike. But these unconscious processes have to be “fronted,” brought to conscious attention, when you’re learning them, and they may also need conscious attention if you’re struggling with a passage. More about that in the next post.
  5. Pragmatics – how words are used, and how they’re combined into phrases and sentences. Again, this critical element tends to receive very little attention in conventional Latin textbooks.
  6. Discourse features – particles, connections, etc. These tend to get very little attention in conventional Latin instruction, but they’re a huge part of the puzzle when it comes to reading. We’ll pay a lot of attention to them, from early on, in Tres Columnae.

When you’re learning another language, it’s like returning to childhood in some ways. So we’re strongly committed to oral reading, and to hearing what you read, as a part of owning the process. We believe you need to hear the text, if possible several times, as part of the reading process – especially if it’s a Latin text – for several reasons:

  • When you learn any language, aural comprehension is usually better than reading comprehension anyway – you get cues from intonation and gestures, and you can ask questions or “negotiate meaning” with the speaker if you don’t understand.
  • Obviously you can’t ask those questions of a pre-recorded text, but you still have cues from intonation. Plus, if you read and hear the text together, you’re processing it in different parts of the brain.  First-language reading research has shown that such guided repeated oral reading works really well for struggling first-language readers.
  • Since writing is recorded speech for Romans, “authentic” Latin texts are meant to be heard.
  • Since the Romans didn’t teach or routinely practice silent reading, it’s culturally inappropriate to read a Latin text without hearing it. (Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it! You can eat Chinese food with a fork if you want, or if you don’t know how to use chopsticks! But you’re not exactly getting the full experience!)

quid putātis, lectōrēs fidēlissimī et recentiōrēs? What have I left out of the reading puzzle, and what have I over-emphasized?

In our next post, we’ll look at the connections between first- and second-language reading skills.  Tune in shortly for more.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ll put in a plea for the retail model here, too – one thing I’ve learned from the classes I teach is that the variety of preferences people have for different kinds of stories is just mind-boggling. De gustibus non disputandum! So, as I mentioned in another comment, I’ve really benefited from pulling back and not imposing, even by accident, my own preferences and tastes on my students’ reading choices. When they do their Storybooks for the semester, they choose the topics themselves, and they vote on the “best” Storybooks at the end of the semester – sometimes the most popular Storybooks are ones that were my own favorites, but sometimes they are ones that clearly strike a chord with the students in class, even though they are not my favorite reading. I’ve also been surprised and delighted by the reading that the students have turned me on to through their own choices – for example, before teaching these classes, I knew almost nothing about Japanese folklore and legends, but the Japanese projects students have done for the class over the years have turned out to be some of my favorites. So too with pirate stories: I never knew any pirate stories really before I started teaching these classes, but now I can claim a kind of expertise about pirates – including female pirates! So while I do like the idea that there could be a common store of stories that a community enjoys together, I also believe we can all benefit from having people promote the stories they like, even if – especially at first – they are the lone proponents for their preferred story types.

    About ownership and reading, the way I’ve tried to get my students to “own” the readings is by retelling the stories in their own words: that’s what my courses are all about… but my university adamantly refuses to let me teach any kind of Latin course. So, I am really looking forward to seeing if some of those same principles of ownership can apply to the world of Latin, too. I really think they will. So, when students read a story out loud, that is THEIR reading of it (their pauses, their intonation): by reading out loud, that is already ownership. I am so glad you are promoting the idea of reading out loud here – it’s not just good for comprehension, but it is also a creative act. I love reading out loud… I just wish I had the dramatic powers that Evan Millner does. The way he reads the Aesop’s fables out loud, with different voices for animals, is so marvelous. But even in my own simple way, I like reading out loud, too – when you understand a story, and read it with the meaning you see in mind as you speak, it comes to life. MAGIC.

    • Laura,

      I see where you’re coming from — and I’d hasten to add that craftsmen, by the nature of what they do, have to sell their creations to retail buyers! 🙂 I think of the shoe-repair shop I described in one recent post; they would repair anything you brought them, whether they had made it themselves or not, and they also sold shoes (new and used), belts, purses, and other hand-crafted leather items. A craftsman who fails to consider the needs and desires of the buyers, workers, and suppliers is a craftsman who will quickly lose his/her shop to bankruptcy! 🙂 So again, I think the workshop model, properly understood, is an outgrowth of the retail model, and is closer to it in many ways than to the factory model. Lots of factory-intensive businesses go on for years building products that no one wants, but a workshop or retail business that tries that will be closed in a hurry!

      Re: ownership and reading, I love the idea of retelling stories, and that will be a big part of the “post-reading,” Skill- and Understanding-level side of Tres Columnae. More about that in a post later this week. And you’re absolutely right about oral reading, especially for us auditory learners! 🙂

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