Sunday, October 13, 2013

Grammar in a Comprehensible Input Classroom

Grammar.  Grammar is what I loved about Latin when I learned it in college.  I still love grammar.  I love it when I teach it to my Language Arts classes (I get excited about participles--I mean, verbs can be so versatile) and I love it when I teach it to my Latin classes.  I honestly love the little nitpicky bits that can be pulled apart and analyzed, then put back together, sometimes with greater and deeper meanings explored.  My heart skips a beat just writing about it here.

But I have wrestled with the concept of teaching grammar for a decade now.

By my second year, I was dabbling in a comprehensible format for my classes.  I wanted all students to learn, not just the kids who have a natural knack for analyzing bits and putting them back together.  Those kids--kids like me--tend to have an easy time in school already, and the fact they could succeed in my class was really no great accomplishment on my part.  I wanted the regular kids to be able to learn and love Latin; more so I wanted the kids who struggle, whose talents tended to lie outside of sitting in rows quietly jotting down notes, to wear Latin like a badge of achievement.  Wow, you know Latin?  Isn't it hard?

However, Latin can be difficult in a comprehensible class.  Not impossible, and most definitely better comprehensibly than not, but the Latin language has a grammar that is distinctly foreign to a native English speaker.  It's inflected--the endings change based on what a word is doing in a sentence, and word order borders on a creative free-for-all.  While I can help my students learn vocabulary with ease, helping them to hear some of the more subtle grammar shifts sometimes can be difficult without moving into direct grammar instruction, which really only helps my logic-minded students who are already scholastically successful.

I have found a compromise for myself over the last couple of years: I have slowly been making and compiling grammar powerpoints that offer the concept completely in context and leave me to decide how much explicit instruction to include (depending on the program I'm part of at the time).  My drawings are goofy and my stories are generally macabre (so is my sense of humor), but the repetition of form is serious, and I usually pair them with circling (described in this blog post) and focusing on the new grammatical structure, all in Latin, with some English translation so they can see the connection.

Recently, I wanted to work on genitives.  I always offer the name of the grammatical structure on the ppt for those kids who just really want to know grammar.  I don't require my students to know the name, though, just to be able to function within the structure, and that's loosely defined by what I see them as capable of at the time.

Here's the ppt I put up:

I then initiated a series of circling for each slide that went as follows:

classis!  erat canis pueri! (aaaaah!)
erat canis pueri quod puer canem habebat! (aaaah!)
canis puerum habebat an puer canem habebat? (puer canem habebat)
puer canem habebat? (ita/certe)
canis puerum habebat? (minime)
ita, puer canem habebat!  itaque, erat canis pueri! (aaaaah!)
erat canis pueri an matris? (pueri)
erat canis draconis? (minime)

And I would circle each slide in this manner.  The big goal was to create the connection between "puer canem habebat" and "erat canis pueri" because both have the same basic meaning and can form that connection for the kids.  The ppt offered me a visual to point to with each step, and the idea of a girl being the daughter of a dragon was absurd enough to bring them back when they began to lose focus (after all, repetition is repetitive).  The next day, when they came into class, they found this worksheet on their desks.  Since it was all about re-establishing the connection that I was building the previous day, most of my students found it very easy.  To double-check their understanding of the genitive phrases (and to reinforce it for students who perhaps didn't quite get it the day before) I had the classes translate the genitive phrases together.  They actually asked that there be questions like this on the test--some asked that this be the entire test.  The questions aren't overly hard, but the important thing is that they require a student to understand the fundamental relationship between a word and any genitive connected to it.

And I think (I am always learning and experimenting, so I won't pretend to know) this is what I want out of grammar instruction in Latin.  Contextualized relationship-building.  Understanding how words and forms connect to each other.

After years of teaching using comprehensible input, I am slowly working my way toward grammar instruction that I like and that makes grammar comprehensible to all students.

(Oh, and in case you want to use them, I have all of my grammar powerpoints available here.  At least, the ones I have completed.  Some of them need work, or I had to make them quickly, so they are short or have mistakes.  I know that, and appreciate it if you send me a mistake so I can correct it!  After I've finished making all of them, I'll go back through and start making them nicer.)


  1. THANK YOU!!! I recently started teaching mostly with CI and TPRS and I struggle with grammar. I find it interesting but know that most kids don't learn best in a grammar-only oriented class. I've been introducing dative singular and genitive in context as well. Students have been introduced to certain phrases such as "to Brutus", "to the woman", "the girl's", "the boy's" etc in stories. As they continue to come up in the same context, some are very slowly able to transfer "Bruto" to a word like "serves" if I help them make that connection. For the grammar-lovers, we complied a chart of endings, called simply, "Endings 1, Endings 2, Endings 3" and how we've used words, such as "to/for", direct object, subject. Like you say, if they can function within the structure, I'm happy for now in level I. So THANK YOU AGAIN!!!

    1. Thank you for that idea! If you ever want to share details on some of those types of things you've done, I'd love to learn about it!

  2. oops, I meant "servus" above, not "serves"

  3. I know this is an older post, but I just wanted to say Multas gratias tibi ago! This really saved me. I was feeling lost on how to approach the genitive in a comprehensible way.