Sunday, March 20, 2016

Teaching declensions contextually... and maybe comprehensibly? using pattern sentences

This year as you know I have been trying to do CI. However, like all Latin teachers using CI, I'm still struggling with the whole no-explicit-grammar-teaching-really-are-you-sure thing. There are a variety of ways to deal with this. I'm going to tell you today about one thing I did this year that seems to have helped to make the concepts of case endings and declensions semi-comprehensible. Just the concepts. It is still not real CI, but it helps bridge the gap.

It's also definitely not proper grammar instruction, and even though I'm explaining the entire first declension, you're not going to see any words ending in -tive for the rest of this post, so maybe take a deep breath if that's going to bother you. I'll do a proper post sometime on why I'm committing such heresy, I promise. The short version is as follows: most of my kids aren't going to a four year college, if they go to college at all. Most of them aren't going to a college that offers Latin, if they go to college at all. I love grammar, but they don't. What they need is time in school where they are doing something that they don't hate and that stimulates their brains. I tend to lay off the grammar heavy stuff because it scares them away. If that doesn't work for you, don't do it. My students may not be your students. Feel free to take some or all or NONE of my ideas here. I'm not trying to start a revolution against grammar- just trying to get through to my own kids and share what works.

Teach them Latin using CI for a couple of months. Get them used to hearing you use nouns in different cases without making a big deal out of it. Mix in those first and second declension nouns with third declension nouns, those neuters, maybe some i-stems if you're feeling spicy. Be a big kid and even use a fifth declension dies! If you don't tell them it's hard Latin II stuff, they won't think it's hard. Really!

When enough of them have asked about "why you keep saying canis instead of canem" or whatever, it is time for the first declension unit. One day, write the following on the board. Include the English! I call this a "pattern sentence," btw.
simia piratae astronautae ariēnam in lunā dat.
The monkey of the pirate gives the astronaut a banana on the moon.
Ask them to imagine the scene. Do it as dramatically as you can pull off. Circle it: Quis dat astronautae arienam in luna? Cuius simia astronautae arienam in luna dat? cui dat simia piratae arienam in luna? Datne simia piratae astronautae arienam in VILLA? non. etc. As they get bored of it, break it up by adding details like so:
Ask them what color the monkey is. What color the moon is. Maybe draw it on the board, but encourage them to build their own mind picture with their eyes closed too. Why does that monkey give the astronaut a banana? What's the pirate's name? Get this image into their brains. Ask them to draw it themselves, if you like (they would like to). Display their drawings. They may be 17, but they still love it when mom/teacher puts their drawings on the fridge/bulletin board.

When they've had enough of that on the first day, it's time for some explicit grammar (nefas!). "Hey guys, want to know how I know it's the pirate's monkey giving the banana, and not the monkey's pirate? You don't? Tough, gonna tell you anyway. Humor me." Underline the ending on each word. I suggest choosing a different color for each one. Mine were red / purple / green / orange / blue.
simia piratae astronautae ariēnam in lunā dat.
The monkey of the pirate gives the astronaut a banana on the moon.
 "Each of those underlined letters or letter pairs MEANS something. It tells you who's doing what to what for whom and where or whatever."

Write out the chart separately, like so:

Getting done
Place to where*
Place Where
Place from where*
Being used*
* = you don't really have to include this at this point

Again, I would suggest color coding. I did it by underlining each ending in the appropriate color because it is faster than re-writing all of the endings in different markers every day.

Explain how the "a" on simia tells you it's the one who's DOING the giving. Explain how the "ae" on piratae and the fact that it's cuddled up right after simia shows that the pirata is OWNING the simia.
Write out simia piratae and pirata simiae. Explain the difference. Use A-termination names from your class (Angela, Jessica, Joshua...) to give some of your students monkeys. simia Iosuae, etc. Why can't you say "The pirate's monkey"? You can, but since in Latin it goes in this order, just humor me and stick with "of" for now. It'll be easier to keep the order in mind.

Continue with the others using the same techniques. Who's RECEIVING? The astronauta, and you know because he's got an ae on the end. How do you tell he's not owning the pirate? Well, you can't know just from the ending, but it'd be weird if the sentence meant "The pirate of the monkey of the astronaut gives the banana on the moon." Aren't you left aching for someone to receive that banana? You are. So dat gives you a clue.

Etc. You're all teachers. You know how to drill an idea home. 

Great, now they all know theoretically what those endings are for. Next step is gluing the endings themselves into their heads in an easily accessible way. You can do this by just circling the heck out of the sentence, but it is also fun to just sing the endings. I used Twinkle Twinkle for the first declension, but there are many options. My students did best with songs that spelled out the letters rather than pronouncing them.
Me singing the Twinkle Twinkle one
A youtube playlist of declension songs I've found

Repeat. Keep singing the endings every day for a week. Even if kids are too shy to sing, ask them to move their lips. If they won't move their lips, ask them to at least watch and listen. Most kids will be able to memorize these endings in this way. Some won't. For those that can't, have them write the endings out a lot of times in order or use manipulables. There are a million million ways to memorize declensions- any of those is fine. 

At the end of the week or the following week, whenever you feel they're ready, have them write out the endings as a quiz. Nothing about the uses yet or plugging endings onto things or recognizing them. This is just about having them mentally accessible for reference.

At the same time, keep circling that sentence every day for a week. Mix it up- ask them how it'd change if the pirate were giving the astronaut the banana instead, or if there were two astronauts, or 12 pirates, or whatever. Manipulate the endings as much as possible without changing the sentence structure. Introduce older vocab they know that belongs to the first declension. Do activities like these ones.
and at the end of the week, pattern sentence scramble card game (I'm going to do a separate post on that)

At the same time, your story & readings for the week should focus on first declension nouns as much as possible. This is a story I wrote and used during this week.

Keep working with your sentence. When you're working on a text together and they can't figure out who's dying in femina puellam necat, repeat your sentence together and use it as reference. Just as we learned to refer back to our charts, so your kids can refer back to the pattern sentence. The difference is that there aren't so many grammatical jargony things in between them and the actual function of the ending. They don't have to remember and identify a bunch of words that mean nothing to them, like "direct object" or "reference." They just remember the picture in their head of a pirate's monkey giving an astronaut a banana on the moon, and they can plug the puellam and the femina into that and see who's doing what. This won't take them all the way to Vergil, by any means, but it's a quicker and easier way to get through the majority of case usage without frightening anyone off. Most importantly, they learn that the endings MEAN something. They're not just decorations Romans put there to be jerks, and it's not just that their teacher likes to confuse them by adding random noises to the ends of words. This  is what I mean when I say this teaches the concept of endings somewhat contextually, if not fully comprehensibly.

Other bonuses:
1) Kids get used to typical Latin word order
2) They become aware that lots of different syntactical relationships are present in sentences, even if they don't know the word "syntax."
3) They learn the vocab you pick for the sentence really well, actually, so consider using higher frequency nouns if you want. I chose ones that I thought would be good mental images and fun to draw.
4) They learn that simia and simiam and simiae and simiis are the same word, even if they're not the same word.

Do it again for the rest of the declensions. These are the sentences I used for second and third declensions.
equus puerī virō stercum in agrō facit.
The horse of the boy makes the man a poo in the field.

rex maris leonī gladiatōrem in urbe dat.
The king of the sea gives the gladiator to the lion in the city. <- This one is rubbish and I need a better one.

You might also consider making plural sentences. I didn't because I couldn't be bothered and it's working okay since they know how to plug in the plural endings to the singular sentence. 

Okay so I'll post again about the card activity and my rationale for doing this.


  1. Ellie,

    Great post. I've been working on a similar idea, but my students are having trouble applying the endings. Probably because I haven't circled it enough.

    Here's my 3rd declension "pattern sentence," if it helps:

    Rex Paris Bambi gem ab Enrique dedit.

  2. I like this idea. I keep wanting there to be a hybrid way of teaching Latin - using CI to establish a mental representation, and then using something like what you've got to provide an explanation of what's going on. All evidence points to "grammar doesn't help at all to learn a language" - but I've got the problem of what happens when they leave my class to go to a 100% grammar course. (Plus the fact that we don't see them nearly enough to provide enough input.) Your activity sort of bridges that gap. (For me the most successful explanation for accusative is to relate it to pronouns in English..."You wouldn't say 'I love he,' right?")

    1. I hear you. All of us doing CI Latin are dealing with the same problem. I think you can definitely still use the pattern sentence idea AND keep traditional 'tive case names and uses. I don't because I don't need to, and because they proved to be barriers for my kids, but there's no reason that you HAVE to throw them out.