King Alfred: Web-Based Customized Tutoring for an Ancient Language

Michael D.C. Drout
with David Dudek and Rachel Kapelle
Wheaton College, Norton MA

Those of us who teach ancient languages and cultures must constantly confront our students' lack of background in formal grammar. Changes in high school education over many years have resulted in students having very little formal training in the grammar of Modern English or any other language, and so we must spend valuable classroom time teaching the basics: parts of speech, sentence structure, parsing, inflections and so on. Furthermore it is likely that the skill-level of our entering students will continue to decrease in these areas, since formal grammar and Latin are not likely to re-appear in the public schools - at least in the near term. Thus the demands upon us as teachers and as advocates for our subjects increase, while the time we can spend in the classroom decreases or stays the same.

King Alfred, a computer program that we have developed to help teach Old English translation, grammar and the almost-lost skill of parsing, doesn't solve any of the very large problems listed above. Named after the West Saxon king who began the first programme of translation into the vernacular in medieval Europe, King Alfred works to make grammatical lessons take hold a bit more firmly than they otherwise might, to improve translation skills, and to give motivated students a way of testing and improving their Old English, thus freeing up class time for higher-level analysis and discussion. As an added benefit, students are able to use King Alfred on their own schedules. While nothing can replace the one-on-one tutorial work that is the best of what we do, not many of us are ready to give tutorials at 2:15 a.m. - one of the most popular times, I learned last year, for students to practice their Old English with King Alfred. Thus the program provides a useful supplement to other methods of instruction in an ancient language.

Using King Alfred: Student's Point of View

King Alfred provides a student with a sentence in Old English and a "scratch pad" line where he or she can type a working translation. After making an attempt to translate the sentence without help, the student requests assistance from the program. King Alfred then provides a hyperlinked set of words in the sentence, and the student can click on any word he or she does not understand. The program then presents a list of the word's potential linguistic characteristics (part of speech, number, gender, case, tense, mood, definition, etc.) that the student can work through.

For example, a student given the word "wundorlicne" might click first on "part of speech," then on "case," and then, perhaps on "definition" or "translation." The program keeps track of each help request and stores the results in a "history" window that can be accessed by the student at any time.

When the student has determined, with King Alfred's help, exactly what each element in each sentence is doing syntactically and semantically, he or she can finalize the translation in the "scratch pad" line. King Alfred then provides a translation of the Old English that the student can use to compare to his or her translation and so determine its quality. This self-evaluation is one way in which King Alfred differs from other electronic language teaching tools, particularly those used for modern languages. By thus eliminating the problem of writing a complex program to compare the student's attempt to the correct translation, and instead relying upon the comparative abilities of the human brain, the program avoids telling the student that a translation is wrong due to one typographical error or the use of one unanticipated synonym.

When the student has finished a given session (we recommend that he or she translate at least five sentences at a time), King Alfred, using a sorting algorithm, prioritizes three grammatical areas for the student to review. For example, a student, requesting an evaluation after five sentences of practice might receive the message: "King Alfred suggests you review the Verb, particularly Preterite-Present Verbs; The Noun, particularly the Accusative Case, and the Adverb." Each underlined word or phrase is a hyperlink through which the student can immediately access King Alfred's on-line grammar, which includes not only grammatical explanations but complete Old English paradigms. King Alfred also provides students with a list of vocabulary words for which they have requested definitions or translations. These words, with their accompanying definitions, can be printed out and the list used for memorization.

King Alfred thus provides individually customized feedback to students at any time of the day or night. The program is more effective than flash cards or even the practice of translating a passage and then comparing the results to a published translation because it provides individualized advice and study suggestions: where students might not realize they need help with the accusative case, King Alfred recognizes a pattern.

Using King Alfred: Teacher's Point of View

King Alfred helps students to focus their energies on the most important aspects of Old English grammar. While the program cannot eliminate the need for students to memorize paradigms and vocabulary lists, it has served to make students' labors more efficient and productive. By providing an array of practice sentences, tracking students' progress through them, and providing completely customized feedback, King Alfred guides students so that they spend less time going over things they already know and more time on the aspects of Old English that they need to address.

King Alfred is designed to be under the control of the teacher using the program. Sentences can be entered into King Alfred by individuals with no expertise at all in computer programming or web design. A series of easy to use pop-up menus in a database allows a teacher to input the sentences that he or she will use in the program. The teacher can tailor King Alfred to their particular, individual classroom approaches and is not required to accept the teaching approach or materials of the designer.

In the spring of 1999 and the fall of 2000 I used the prototype of King Alfred so successfully to speed the teaching and learning of Old English grammar and vocabulary that the eighteen students in my Anglo-Saxon Literature class were translating complex Old English (from Bede's Ecclesiastical History) by the sixth week of a fourteen-week semester, and translating and understanding Old English poetry (The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Dream of the Rood) by week nine.

The On-Line Grammar Book

Students' response to King Alfred's on-line grammar was so positive in the spring of 1999, that for fall 2000 we reconfigured and re-wrote the grammar as an on-line workbook, entitled King Alfred's Grammar ( The grammar makes use of color and sound to walk students through the fundamentals of Old English. It is the first Old English grammar, to my knowledge, to provide a review of Modern English grammar as a starting point. Various exercises in the grammar use the sound and animation capabilities of the web to make students' labors more efficient, and individuals words and phrases are linked to digitized sound files so that students can practice their pronunciation of Old English, thus reinforcing their learning of the language.

The practice sentences in King Alfred's Grammar are linked to those in the King Alfred program. Thus students have incentive to use the program to do their homework, receiving the electronic feedback that the program provides. At the same time they can do paper translations of the key sentences so as to be able to go over the work in class. The end result is that the students translate each sentence twice, thus reinforcing their understanding of Old English grammar.

To Use King Alfred at Your Institution

King Alfred is available on the web at or Simply click on the King Alfred icon and, when prompted, enter the password and user id demo. It is our hope that other institutions will want to host versions of King Alfred themselves, and we are preparing a stand-alone CD for that purpose. Teachers of Old English should contact me at to arrange details. We are also very interested in re-writing or modifying King Alfred for use with other ancient languages. Inflected languages without rigid word-order rules are most amenable to the current underlying design, but we are certainly willing to work with anyone who wishes to adapt the code to produce a similar program for any ancient or modern language.

This file was posted on 17 May 2001.
Please send your comments to Michael DiMaio, jr.

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