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Reiff’ 99 details new way to teach Latin to high school students

Barry McNamara
03/21/2017
Anna Dybis Reiff ’99 discusses her experience using the comprehensible input (CI) method for language acquisition.
Monmouth College’s strong Latin program produces more than its expected share of Latin teachers.

On Monday, those teachers-in-training learned a new method for teaching the “old” language from one of the students who came before them – Anna Dybis Reiff ’99.

Reiff teaches Latin and biology at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Heights, Ill., where she’s in her 18th year, having gotten a job in that district right after she graduated from Monmouth. And as she demonstrated Monday to current Monmouth students, “a good teacher is always learning.”

Entering this academic year, Reiff decided to make a change to her teaching methods, instructing her first-year Latin teachers using the comprehensible input (CI) method for language acquisition.

“As Latin teachers, we have perceived ourselves as different from those who teach modern foreign languages,” she told students and Monmouth faculty members during an information session in Wallace Hall. “It’s been ‘We are us and they are them.’ No, it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by listeners despite them not understanding all the words and structures in it. It is described as one level above that of the learners.

“This methodology is becoming quite widespread throughout the nation across languages, but it is a particularly significant departure from approaches that many Latin teachers have long used,” said Monmouth Assistant Professor of Classics Bob Holschuh Simmons, who chairs the department.

Now that Reiff is using it, she is finding it easier to relate to her peers.

“I can talk now more with my modern foreign language counterparts,” she said. “There’s commonality again.”

Of course, the real test is what her students think of the method and if it is proving to be a successful teaching tool. The answer, Reiff says, is an emphatic “Yes!”

“I’ve seen my students producing for me and writing for me like I’ve never seen,” she said. “My retention rate from Level I to Level II is 100 percent, and that’s never happened before. So something was right, at least for this year. It’s reinvigorated my love for teaching the lower levels.”

Rather than being assigned disconnected readings, Reiff’s students are following the same Roman family in a series of stories, and their interest has been piqued.
“The students are vested in these characters,” she said. “All of a sudden, there’s an interest that wasn’t there before.”

Next year could be even better, as Reiff makes tweaks to her lessons, adopting even more new strategies and drawing on the increasing amount of CI materials available online, including Keith Toda’s “Todally Comprehensible Latin” blog.

“This will be a five-year journey, if not more,” said Reiff. “I’ve never been so uncomfortable teaching Latin I.”

But her students are getting more and more comfortable with the language every day. With that comfort has come uncommon levels of production and confidence, as a “dead” language is coming alive for them.