Group Work in a Latin Language Class

One of my first posts was about group work in a literature in translation class, and I always wanted to follow it up with a related post on group work in an introductory Latin class. Some of the same ideas are applicable to language classes, but language classes present their own challenges because you are primarily focused on teaching a skill–reading Latin–rather than content and interpretive skills.

How I do it

  • I give my students a variety of tasks to work on in groups, and I circulate about the room to provide help. Sometimes, I have the students work alone on the task and then check their work in a group. Sometimes, after group work, I have a larger class discussion based on the material reviewed in the groups.
  • Sometimes I let students choose groups (usually based on who sits next to them), but more often I choose the groups (based on skill levels, friendships, and personalities). Sometimes it is random (adjective-noun dating game).  Regardless of how they are chosen, groups are always 2-4 students.
  • Tasks that I give them in groups: checking homework, translating a passage of Latin, practicing new concepts by translating in a group, parsing everything in a passage before translating it, and anything else that seems useful.

Benefits

  • All students are engaged and working with Latin. Occasionally, a group’s conversation drifts away from the Latin but I can usually steer it back to Latin.  Most of the time, they are working on the task.
  • Students get more practice with Latin than if everything was done as a class.  They are engaged with translating all of the sentences–not just one sentence while attempting to follow other students’ thought processes about all of the other sentences. Interestingly, I think they also work through more examples in groups than if we did them all as a class.
  • Students can go at their own pace. Some groups are faster than others, so you can give them many more sentences than you expect them to complete in a given amount of time.  That way they will all have something to do. While circulating you can determine a reasonable time to end the activity based on student progress.
  • Students receive more individual help. They receive help from each other.  Some are better teachers than others, they can exchange ideas and strategies about how to translate, and one member of the group night remember a word the other is forgetting. They are also more willing to ask me for help if everyone in the group is stuck.  As I circulate around the room, I provide help when it is clear there is confusion, but I like to let them have the chance to discover the solution on their own–discovery is a powerful learning tool.  I have noticed that I can address individual problems better when they are in groups than when I am talking about one person’s mistake in a translation that he/she just read to the whole class.
  • Students are more willing to ask me for help, inside and outside of class.
  • Students develop a community. This ultimately encourages study groups outside of class, and I have noticed my students acting friendly towards each other outside of class too.
  • Students can see others are struggling too which may alleviate some discouragement with a complicated language. Of course, this struggling then needs to be addressed by the instructor’s help or the group working together to sort out the confusion.

Drawbacks

  • Some groups are faster than others, so you need to have enough work prepared for everyone.
  • Some students are less inclined towards group work–either as the quiet follower who does not contribute much or as a more domineering student who wants to share all the answers.  You need to choose activities and group work opportunities suitable for your class.
  • Some students understand Latin better than others and this may present interesting issues for the group dynamic. I try to spread these students around so that the best students are not all in the same group.
  • Potential chaos. If your students are not motivated or interested, they might ignore the task. You can try to prevent this by having students turn in the group work for a grade.

Further resources

  • Kathryn Argetsinger 2006, “Peer Teaching and Cooperative Learning in the First Year of Latin,” When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin, John Gruber-Miller, ed., Oxford University Press.
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