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Learning Languages with the Computer: Design Principles behind Scriba

In designing Scriba to accompany the Oxford Latin Course, the aims of the OLC and the needs of both students and teachers alike have been kept in mind. Four principles govern the development of exercises, feedback, and tutorial windows: that language learning is a step-by-step process, that exercises need to be contextual, that students need to be motivated, and that the program should be flexible for teachers.

The first principle is that language learning is an incremental process that builds from the known to the unknown. Learners need to go through a series of stages from recognition of a new piece of grammar to drills that develop fluency with the new structure to exercises that practice this new skill with other grammatical features. For example, in Chapter 7 the genitive case is introduced with an exercise asking students to recognize the possessive in English, a second exercise to recognize it in Latin, a third asking them to supply the genitive in each sentence, a fourth asking them to respond to simple questions with short, complete sentences, and a fifth asking them to read and understand a passage which includes the genitive with the other cases they already know. In short, students are able to understand new grammar and syntax through a gradual step-by- step process.

Second, language learning needs to be contextual. The courseware asks students to practice the grammar and vocabulary they have learned within the context of complete sentences and paragraphs. Grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, furthermore, are placed within the cultural context of Roman culture, society, and history. For example, the culminating exercise in Chapter 12 is based on Exercise 12.5, the story of two young boys seeing the Roman army enter town. The task in the courseware, however, goes beyond reading comprehension and translation. Students must actively use their knowledge of Latin grammar and Roman culture and maintain the cohesion of the passage by substituting pronouns in the correct case and type for certain nouns. As a result, students learn not just about pronouns, but also about reading, cohesion, and Roman culture.

Third, students need to be motivated. At the most basic level, the courseware accepts a wide variety of possible correct answers. Helpful hints and positive feedback direct students to discover the right answer for themselves. Tutorial screens offer students on-line grammar explanations and paradigms. Another feature is a 'spell-check' that compares student answers with the correct answer and identifies any incorrect spellings. This feature helps reduce student frustration and lets students focus on using the language. Finally, some exercises are games or humorous situations. For example, Scriba included exercises based on Quintus' dull-witted schoolmate, Decimus. In Chapter 8, students are asked to unscramble his sentences and put them into typical Latin word order, and in Chapter 9 to correct his Latin case endings.

Fourth, the program is an important resource for teachers of the Oxford Latin Course. Teachers can use specific exercises in class to introduce new material, or they may give further exercises for students to work either individually or in pairs. Exercises can also be assigned to provide review. Finally, if drills are assigned as homework, the teacher can spend less time in class reviewing student homework and more time getting the students to produce and use the language.

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