Owning Vocabulary, Part III

salvēte, amīcī, et grātiās maximās omnibus! I really do appreciate all the comments, both here and by email; they’re a big help to me as I’m refining exactly what Tres Columnae needs to be for you, the potential participants and community members.  Please welcome our newest subscriber, Shelly T, who is neither a Latin teacher nor a Latin learner, but is still interested in our project.  And please check out her very thoughtful, insightful blog!

Picking up on a recent comment from our alert reader Euthyphro, I’d like to talk about specific strategies for owning vocabulary. According to his comment, he’s self-taught in Latin, so he hasn’t experienced the “traditional” Latin classrooms in any way. He says:

I have followed Laura G’s blogs for a little over a year now, and I find that when the vocabulary is familiar, that is I OWN the words in the proverbs, sayings, and fables, that I have no problem reading them start to finish without the need to parse the sentence to understand it. On the other hand when there is more than one unfamiliar word I have found that I lose track of the nuance of those words that I do understand and I find that I have to go back and inspect each word to be sure of the entirety of the thought. It takes too much energy to be enjoyable. When I know on sight, without consciously interpreting, the case, number etc of a word, or word grouping, the reading is natural but a single misstep from an unfamiliar word and the entire sentence is lost.

I like the idea of recognition of words in all of their forms, in and out of context, and also of associations with opposites and synonyms….. As for ownership one thing that I think might be missing would be the ability to distinguish similar words, or homophones, in context. Like sus and suus, and similar pairs…. I think when you own a word that it is read naturally without effort or without conscious effort.

In my comment-response, which you may not have seen, I mentioned what first-language vocabulary research has shown about vocabulary and reading comprehension:

First-language reading teachers are familiar with the idea of independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels; if you’re not, they’re summarized pretty well at this link. In first-language reading, the idea is that for independent reading (which feels easy and effortless to you, the reader), you need to know at least 99% of the words in the passage. Yes, 99%! And you can answer comprehension questions about the passage with 100% accuracy.

At the instructional level, which the author of this link decribes as “the best for learning new vocabulary,” a first-language reader knows at least 95% of the words in the passage and comprehends it with at least 80% accuracy. If you know fewer than 95% of the words in that first-language passage, it’s too hard for you and is at the frustration level.

I haven’t found any research on the equivalent levels for second-language reading, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. Informally, I’ve noticed (both with myself and with my students) what you have found: If the piece of text (whether that piece is a sentence, a paragraph, or a connected piece of verse) contains more than one or two unfamiliar words, it takes a lot of energy and requires “consciously interpreting” the grammatical elements, as you said.

Of course, philologists love to do that sort of conscious analysis, and at times I share that joy! But ideally, sententiā quidem meā, deliberate analysis should happen after you’ve read, comprehended, and enjoyed the text. In Bloom’s taxonomy, comprehension is lower, more foundational, on the pyramid than analysis or evaluation, and there’s a good reason for that!

I think you’re absolutely right about the need to distinguish similar words as part of true ownership, as well. Returning for a moment to the car metaphor I used in this post, I don’t have any trouble finding my own car in the parking lot – but I sometimes do have trouble if I’m looking for a rental car or for someone else’s car….

As I wrote that comment-response, I thought of students, every year, who tell me that their prior teachers de-emphasized vocabulary because “you can always look the words up if you need to.”  That may be true … but what if you don’t know any of the words in a sentence?  What if you can’t even tell whether the word is a noun or a verb … so you don’t even know what you should look up?   What if you do look the word up in a typical Latin dictionary and find 8 or 10 possible definitions?  Which one do you pick?  It’s a recipe for frustration … and not just in the technical reading-level sense.  If you don’t own any vocabulary, every attempt to read Latin is an exercise in frustration … and then we wonder why enrollments often decline in reading-intensive, intermediate and advanced level courses!

On the other hand, it’s possible to put too much emphasis on a low-level form of vocabulary ownership called “memorize the definitions of everything and reproduce them exactly!”   I think of a Latin-teacher friend who refused to accept /leader/ as a meaning for the word dux because “the back of the book says /general/, not /leader/!”  From her perspective, she was insisting on real ownership of that word; from my perspective, since dux is an agent-type noun formed from dūcere, which means /to lead/ …

As Laura G noted in a previous comment, one key to success may be to learn/memorize a small number of “equivalent pairs” and a lot of word-formation patterns.

  • If you know that ante– means /before/ and cēdere means /to walk or go/, do you really have to “memorize” the meaning of antecēdere?
  • If you know that Latin makes frequentative verbs in a predictable way (from the perfect participial stem of a verb), and you know that cess– is the participial stem of cēdere, do you really have to “memorize” the meaning of antecessāre?
  • On the other hand, if you don’t know what ante– or cēdere means, all the word-formation tricks in the world won’t help you figure out what’s happening in this sentence: “antecessat Lūcius vehementer exclāmāns.”  Of course, from the -t ending you can tell that antecessat is a verb, and from context you can tell that Lucius is antecessat-ing while he shouts, but you can’t tell what he’s doing, can you?  And by the time you’ve put down the book, picked up the dictionary, found the word, and discovered the meaning, you may not care any longer! 🙂

One big task before us in the Tres Columnae project, then, is to figure out which words are “core” and need to be “memorized,” which words are “secondary” and just need to be “recognized,” and which words can be figured out from patterns (and, in consequence, which patterns need to be taught, how they need to be taught, and when).  What do you think, lēctōrēs cārissimī?

In any case, it’s clear that Tres Columnae participants will need a very high rate of vocabulary ownership (at least 19 words out of 20, if possible, in any given sentence or story) to avoid frustration! But how do we get our students – or, for that matter, ourselves – to that level, especially if we come from a teaching tradition that has emphasized “looking it up”?

More on that in today’s second post!  Then, starting Monday, we’ll look at owning the reading process … and we’ll have another sample of a Tres Columnae story shortly after that.

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Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 6:41 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for welcoming me! I am enjoying this series and find it useful for all areas of teaching. You have mentioned some valuable resources and have a nice discussion continuing with great ideas.

    • Thanks you, Shelly, for joining in the conversation! I’m glad you’re finding this useful and helpful. It’s great for me to have some non-Latinist readers; it helps me remember to avoid (or at least explain) “insider” language, and it really helps me remember to be clear about any implicit assumptions.

  2. […] this post, we applied the first-language reading concepts of independent, instructional, and frustration […]

  3. […] post, we started a five-part series about Ownership and Vocabulary, which continued with this post, this post, this post, and this […]


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