‘Shelter vocabulary, not grammar’

If we promote CI teaching on the grounds that we are using a more rigorous, research-backed methodology, we need to base our pedagogical advice on what actual research is saying, or at least make it clear when we are speaking from carefully tested science and when we are speaking from messy, subjective experience. 

‘Shelter vocabulary, not grammar’

This saying is often mentioned in CI language teaching blogs discussing SLA-informed language pedagogy. It means ‘you should carefully restrict the number of new vocabulary items so that students are not overwhelmed, but freely use whatever grammar is needed to communicate, so that students will be able to comprehend more meaningful texts easily in context.’

Here are some of the ways this concept has been cited as an ideal way to construct curriculum in CI Latin teacher articles. Rachel Ash in ‘Untextbooking for the CI Latin class: why and how to begin’ (Journal of Classics Teaching, 2019) describes her requirements for CI-based classes as needing 1) limited but frequently repeating vocabulary and 2) a curriculum which does not shelter grammar, but uses whatever grammar is needed to communicate the intended meaning. It can be seen that this concept forms the core of the un-textbooked approach to Latin teaching.

Another article from the Journal of Classics Teaching demonstrates the authority of the quote, and points to its source. Michelle Ramahlo in ‘On starting to teach using CI’ (2019) reports the saying as coming from a ‘guru’: ‘One of the gurus in the CI world, Susan Gross, has said “Shelter vocabulary, not grammar”.’ Quoting someone as a ‘guru’ raises immediate alarm bells that this quote, while well-respected, did not come from a research article published in a peer-reviewed journal, otherwise we would be citing an author, date, and publication.

So I followed the trail to its source and found a website by Susan Gross, educational consultant and workshop presenter. On her website, in an article titled ‘The Importance of Using Natural Language in Level-One Classes’ (no date, no journal), the author explains the origin of her saying (emphasis added):

I made up a saying (I get a little glow of pride when other people quote it):

“Shelter vocabulary; do not shelter grammar.”

Susan Gross uses the words ‘I made up a saying’ to describe the process by which she arrived at the wording of this statement.

Now I want to make it clear that a saying can be based on ideas that came from research without directly citing the research. Something can be true without a citation. Also there is nothing wrong at all about sharing opinions, experiences, and telling a narrative to help instruct teachers. This is good communication, and it is very likely that it contains a lot of practical wisdom. We need good communicators to train teachers in practical applications or we’re all going to get lost in the weeds of journal articles while never figuring out how to apply anything on the ground. Educational consultancy is an honest job that needs doing, and I’m glad Susan Gross is doing it.

But ‘shelter vocabulary not grammar’ is an interpetation and application of CI principles, not a tested hypothesis that went through a peer review process by which we can contest it and see what parts of it stood up over time and what parts fell down.

This is one person’s way of applying principles of CI in language teaching, and it is valuable insight, but it is not SLA research itself and not an authoritative statement. If we secondarily recycle this quote as an authority, we get further and further away from basing our practices on real peer-reviewed SLA and fall into the problem of passing along practices without critically examining them.

There are many ways in which Input-based approaches can be implemented. There is no single definitive ‘method’ for CI, because CI is not a method, it is an approach to language learning based on research about language acquisition.

Has anything bad happened because we take ‘shelter vocabulary, not grammar’ as an authoritative statement? We might not even know because we’ve already adopted it so widely as an accepted, by-the-book standard of CI Latin teaching. When something is so basic that it doesn’t get questioned, we don’t see its effects because it is the lens we see through. But here are some of my thoughts.

Firstly, could we be excessively fixating on unique vocabulary count as the one metric for comprehensibility? This could cause us to be less aware of other factors affecting the difficulty of comprehensibility, such as student familiarity with the topic, clarity of writing style, forward momentum of the plot, and helpfulness of visual aids. ‘Vocabulary’ is fairly easy to boil down to a number, a single number that doesn’t change, that can be printed proudly on the front of a book as a statistic of its comprehensibility, but all these other contextual factors are not so easily quantifiable. But being more difficult to quantify does not mean something matters less.

Secondly, the quote treats ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’ as easily compartmentalized things, but is the distinction as clear-cut as we are treating it? What about words which straddle the gap between being a vocabulary and a grammar item?

What about compound words built upon the same root word – do reusable compounding elements like ad-, ab-, con-, per-, re- count as increasing the unique word count or are they little bits of attachable grammar (at least in the circumstances when they don’t form a totally unexpected meaning)? In our quest to reduce word count, is it natural to only be using the bare forms of īre for every kind of movement, or is it better to mix in compounded forms like adīre, abīre, redīre, circumīre along with other compounding verbs reusing the same elements?

What about discourse particles such as nam, enim, vero, autem, tamen, quidem, … are these really ‘vocabulary’ or ‘grammar’? They don’t add any content to what is being said, but they help manage the logical flow of connected thought. Should we shelter or unshelter them?

Thirdly, by taking the saying as a truism, could we be limiting our vision of what possible forms CI teaching could take? Does a teaching method always become ‘less CI’ if it doesn’t conform to ‘shelter the vocabulary, not the grammar’? Do we rush to judge other teaching methods based on their unique vocabulary count as a way to say we know better?

I pose these questions because I think there is a problem in blogging about teaching in general, which is that you can share your experiences and your informed opinions, but at the end of the day they are opinions, and should not be followed as the gospel on the ‘best’ way to teach. Even if we cite journal articles, report case studies, or collect and analyse our own fresh new data, the interpretation of the results is somewhat subjective and we can debate the applicability of these results to other contexts. Our ideas should always be contestable. And to help that, we should be clear about where we got our ideas from.


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