Reading in context

About a month ago, after having read a piece by Frank Smith on the mechanics of reading, I wrote a blog post sharing some initial ideas about how these relate to reading Hebrew and Greek.  My conclusion was that the Grammar-Translation approach so typical of most biblical language courses appears to be counter-productive to learning how to read the Bible fluently.

Though I was not aware of it at the time, Daniel Streett had also just written his own blog entry comparing how one reads in one’s mother tongue (or in another language in which one is fluent) with how many students, and most of their instructors as well, read Koine Greek.  Daniel’s observations are worth reading, because if indicative of the situation ‘on the ground,’ they illustrate how current biblical language pedagogy is falling short of its intended purpose: to impart the ability to read the Bible fluently.

Frank Smith is one of the foremost psycholingists of our day.  Much of his work has focused on ‘reading instruction,’ looking at the seemingly simple question of “how does one read” and its implications for teaching people how to read.  This topic is particularly relevant for us teaching biblical languages, since our stated goal is that our our students may learn to read the Bible.  Just this last week I finished reading a collection of his essays entitled “Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices.”  One of the book’s purposes is to expose flaws in the “system” (government, schools, etc.) that hinder or even work against the application of sound principles for reading instruction, and is in many ways irrelevant to my pedagogical concerns about how to teach biblical languages.  But a significant portion relates to the psychology of reading which is applicable to any age and any language, and therefore highly relevant to my interests.

One of the key statements I underlined is the following:

Words in meaningful sequences are the most important elements in reading, not letters or sounds.  Words are the smallest independent meaningful units of written language—and even they gain most of their meaning from larger units they are embedded in, such as phrases and sentences (pp. 32–3).

Stated differently, words have meaning in context, as part of a larger whole.  It is almost as if independent words are meaningless.  All the more reason then, Smith states, that phonetics, the breaking down of the words into syllables, does not work.  “Reading by sounding out is impossible.  Sounding out is the ultimate unspeakable act” (p. 42).  Why?  Because “the purpose of reading is not to produce sounds of words, but to understand their meaning” (p. 42)  Teaching reading (ie the process of getting meaning from written texts) through phonetics is flawed at its core: “false, logically and linguistically” (p. 40), and thus a “handicap, not a help, to reading” (p. 41).  Smith is not against all phonetics or claiming that phonetics have no value: it is a tool to assist a different skill called reading, not the vehicle that enables or leads to reading.  As with syllables, even “

[w]ords are not learned by rote, one at a time, when they are as meaningless as [individual] letters.  They are learned when they make sense” (p. 43).  Much in the same way that individual syllables are meaningless on their own, so are words without their context.

A common objection to Smith’s view (and others doing similar research) is that phonetics are indispensable for learning new words one encounters when reading.  Not so, he explains:

How do we get meaning of an unfamiliar word before we even try to say it?  The answer is that meaning comes from the context in which the word occurs.  Words we do know indicate the meaning of the word we don’t know…  There is substantial evidence that readers quickly become extremely proficient at attributing the correct meaning to unfamiliar words in the normal course of reading…  Children from the second year of their lives accurately infer the meaning of new spoken words about twenty times a day, with no forgetting—both from the language itself and the situation in which it occurs…  Researchers have found that ‘fast mapping’ of a tentative meaning takes place on the first encounter with a new word, and half a dozen more encounters suffice to round out the conventional meaning—with no ‘feedback’ beyond the context in which the word occurs  (pp. 55–8).

It seems to me that there are several conclusions we need to draw from this research for our teaching of biblical languages, and I will mention four that come immediately to mind.

I.  The importance of teaching the language in context.  The “vocab lists” students are often required to memorize is probably the worst offender of this principle.   There are two problems I see with vocab lists that provide a translated gloss that students are expected to memorize.

  1. The first is that this is not the way we as humans retain language.  The reason kids can remember (without memorization) up to twenty new words a day is because they perceived the meaning of those words in a comprehensible context.  Contrast to the typical biblical language class: students memorize hundreds of vocabulary words, only to have them vanish from memory faster than it took them to “learn” them.  So when one compares kids learning a language to such students, it is no wonder we think kids have a natural advantage in language learning.  In fact, I have read that adults learn languages faster, so long as the learning takes place in a comprehensible context.  The issue is not kids vs adults, but one of context vs absence of context.
  2. Second, the words are de facto being attributed a range of meaning (also called a semantic range) that is determined by the learner’s first language, rather than allowing the target language itself to demonstrate what that particular word’s range of meaning is.  Worse, it robs the student an opportunity to practice that innate ability to figure out—Smith’s “fast mapping”— what the semantic range of a particular word is, if not suppressing it altogether.  In such a case, the student ceases to interact with meaning communicated in the target language, but is only dealing with a kind of transference of meaning onto the target language from their primary language.

II.  Meaning does not come from parsing.  In the same way that reading is not breaking down a sentence into words and syllables,  so meaning is not found the breaking down of words into their roots and declensions.   To be sure, parsing is an important aspect of being able to analyze a language, but it is not a precursor to accessing meaning, nor even a way to ward off incorrect meaning.  One can get to meaning without any parsing whatsoever, because meaning comes from context.  The French todler who hears the phrase “Donne-moi la balle” for the first time certainly does not have to determine that the verb is from the first group of -er ending verbs, that it is in the imperative, and that it is in the second person singular form, before figuring out that he should throw the ball.  All that terminology is key for talking about the language, but not for accessing meaning.  If our goal is getting meaning from what we read, what does it matter if one is able to recognize that a verb follows the “third declension” or is called a polel?  This contributes precious little to understanding what is being communicated by the text.  I suggest therefore that parsing should be ‘back-ended’ in our instruction, explained only after the concept has been internalized through practice.

III.  In order to teach the language effectively, we need a multiplicity of resources  that can provide students with comprehensible contexts at their level.  In the same way that a toddler does not learn to read by jumping directly into a Mark Twain novel, it is just as unreasonable that we consider the Bible as our student’s first reader.  We need a multiplicity of readers for our students that follow their natural progression as they internalize the language.

IV.  Finally, and this is the most contradictory to current practice of the Grammar-Translation method, our students should learn to read on material they have already internalized, readings in which all the words are already familiar to them.  My suggestion is to use materials like BLC’s volume 1 of  “Living Biblical Hebrew” and “Living Koine Greek” where students internalize the language aurally only (not by reading or translation), and that once they have internalized it, they then learn to read using texts that contain only what they have already internalized.  In the case of volume 1 of the Living Biblical Languages, it means that once they are at the stage of internalizing the later, more advanced lessons, they can begin learning to read by going over the printed text of the audio they heard when internalizing the earlier lessons.   (These texts can be found at the end of the book.)  There is an added benefit to doing it this way.  Not only have they internalized all the words that they will be learning to read, they also have the benefit of a recording that can correct their pronunciation.  It is not as good as a parent or personal tutor that can listen to the student and correct their reading when needed, but it is certainly a huge improvement over not providing any way for students to check if their reading is correct or not.  Smith would approve!  “How do we get the correct pronunciation?  Either someone tells us how the word is pronounced at a helpful time, or we subsequently hear the word spoken and make the connection to the word we have encountered in our reading” (p. 58).

These are my thoughts.  Do any of you have any other advice, either from reading theory or from your own experience?

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5 Comments

  1. Jose Diaz October 10, 2011 at 5:05 am

    I am currently working on “Living Koine Greek 1” and I love it. I hope I can increase my fluency in this language. Thank you Dr. Buth and the team at BLC for these great materials. I hope I can attend one of your fine workshops, hopefully next Summer.

  2. Cameron Hamm October 10, 2011 at 8:14 am

    Brian, the subject of comprehensible input combined with keeping the rate of new words at an acceptable level is the most difficult to control in my experience with learning languages. The subject of learning (whether reading or hearing) must be comprehensible (which is a major key to your classes success! – I was a student in Israel in 2011), but it must also be judged to be at a level which is slightly higher than what you are already familiar with. Any less, and you will become bored, any more and your brain’s processor will become bogged down and cease to function adequately. I’m taking these ideas from Greg Thomson’s “Language Learning Handbook: for training in the Growing Participator Approach”. So, to me the biggest concern is having something like a graded reader in BH or Koine that helps the beginning student manage the successive steps from beginning fluency to the level needed to adequately comprehend biblical texts.

    Blessings as you continue your fine work!

    A huge fan,

    Cam Hamm

  3. Jill Firth October 10, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I am planning to try teaching Hebrew this way next year – introduce vocab, concepts and structures through TPI and storytelling, as we do in the LBH courses with Dr Buth, then come to the text already equipped to make sense of it. Afterwards, we can review spelling rules or parsing as needed.

  4. Brian Schultz October 10, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Cameron;

    Thank you for your input and for mentioning the resource you are using. You are right, achieving Comprehensible Input for one’s students is one of the hardest things to do as an instructor, and yes, it needs to be slightly higher than where the students are at. I do want to make one clarification in case you or others missed a distinction: I talked about “learning to read,” not just about “reading.” In such a case, the material being read should be entirely familiar and not slightly higher than where the students are at.

  5. Brian Schultz October 10, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    Sounds good Jill. Keep us posted on how it goes.

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