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As a teaching technique, I first came across this on the receiving end of leaving cert Latin in an Irish secondary school in the late 1990s. I’m not sure whether I fully grasped what our teacher was getting at then, but something must have stuck because I’ve returned to this approach several times over the years when teaching others or myself. Most recently Old Norse. This blog post is going to record some reflections that came out of that – captured on the spur of the moment, as they materialized.

1. The principle is very simple. It means reading out, in the original language, the text that one is trying to translate, or to understand, or both. Instead of doing it just by looking. The sentence is usually a good place to start – so, in the Old Norse extract on which I am working at the moment, I’m reading out each sentence before writing down my English version.

2. It is important to be clear that the approach is not – at least in this context – a way of practising using a language productively. It’s a red herring to dismiss it with silly ideas about ‘dead’ or ‘old’ languages not needing to be spoken (which they were anyway, in their own time). Instead, it is primarily about developing the ability to understand them.

3. It is also important to realize that it’s about thinking. Mechanically reading out the words one by one is exactly what not to do. Instead, try actively to register structure and meaning. Two examples:

• Pause at natural syntactic breaks. Punctuation in a critical edition will often be a first point of guidance (in which case ask yourself what kind of unit is being marked off by that particular comma, for instance), but go further: use the rhythm of reading out to keep words together that belong together (e.g. combinations of adjective and noun, subject and verb).

• Process the meaning of words and endings organically. As you move through a word, notice where the stem ends (what does it mean?) and gives way to the ending (what does it mark?).

4. But isn’t that exactly what one does anyway when reading? Well, yes – but vocalizing makes the learning experience different and more intense. If you try it, the first thing you notice is that it is harder. Taking in a sentence as a whole and dividing it up into clauses and phrases is one thing – recognizing and articulating the boundaries as they appear while moving through it is quite another. The same goes for meanings and inflectional endings. Recalling the meaning of a word you thought you had memorized not so long ago, is relatively straightforward. So is going through a series of decoding steps (hm, the word is in an oblique case after that verb so the -a probably marks a weak masculine so its dictionary form must end in -i). But it’s a different matter to grasp the meaning, to understand the ending, in real time as you encounter them.

5. That is what I mean when I said it’s not primarily about pronunciation – it’s more that having to keep going forward in time makes the brain work harder. It becomes adept at recognizing patterns more quickly. It makes the leap from abstractly knowing tables of inflectional endings to perceiving and understanding them in context. It cements the understanding of vocabulary by training the ability to link word and meaning on the spot before the next one comes along. It means, ultimately, actively understanding what one is reading as one reads it, rather than reading and then translating. It may not be easy, but the kind of understanding that results feels different; it is firmer, more secure, more immediate.

6. That said, the same can also be applied to the sound of the language. If one is following the path of reading Old Norse according to modern Icelandic pronunciation, for instance, there is a lot to be said for internalizing the links between letters and sound. The same goes, for different reasons, for the philologically inclined who prefer a more historical reconstructed pronunciation. I’ve just not stressed this aspect here because I have been concentrating on how the approach fosters the ability to understand what the texts mean.

7. What about translating all of this into classroom practice?  The post is long enough now, so just some headings to think about: Address the fact that not everyone likes reading aloud, especially when it’s a new language where the perceived potential for mistakes is greater. — Communicate what it’s about, and try to work out whether it’s happening (how do I know what’s happening in the student’s head as they read? Are they understanding, or just mechanically reading?) — Take it slowly and be aware it’s not easy: don’t dive in at the deep end from scratch, but give the skill time and practice and help to develop.