Examining the Story: Grammar and Vocabulary, II

salvēte iterum, sodālēs, et grātiās maximās omnibus! In the next two posts, as promised, we’ll look at the ways our most recent Tres Columnae story handles old, recent, and new vocabulary, (this post) and old, recent, and new grammar (the next one).

The old / recent / new distinction is one that language teachers, in general, probably make unconsciously, but we Classicists often don’t.  I think of a recent comment from our faithful reader Dax regarding this very issue:

How hard or familiar should the words on a quiz be? If we use a 100 point scale and set up a fair quiz, even the lowest student in the class ought to be able to get 50% right.

If teacher A uses 10 recent, difficult words (maybe even some they will never see again) and gives a quiz the day after assigning them, and teacher B incorporates lots of older words they need to master, it shouldn’t be any surprise that teacher A’s students all fail vocabulary quizzes – and yet teacher A is continually amazed by this! She blames her students – they are lazy, stupid, listen to too much rap, etc. She tells herself that she’s a tough teacher, that her standards are high.

But the brain doesn’t work this way.

Teacher B will get a truer idea of how his students are mastering basic vocabulary.

If they want a good grade, Teacher A’s students will learn to cram (and forget the words by the following day). But most will just give up.

Wow!  Am I Teacher A or Teacher B here?  I also think of Laura G’s recent comment:

Speaking for myself, I never would have achieved any fluency in Latin without having studied modern languages that really helped me “let go” of English. Once I learned to let go of English in speaking Russian, I could let go of English in reading Latin… otherwise, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten rid of those English training wheels on my Latin bicycle!

The problem for a lot of Classicists, and therefore for our students, I think, is that we don’t “let go” of English. And one major cause for our not letting go is that we don’t have enough practice with old and recentstuff” – whether that “stuff” is vocabulary, grammatical forms, sentence patterns, you name it! For 120 years, the “typical” grammar-translation textbook has presented “new stuff” in each chapter!  And then we wonder why we – and our students – sometimes struggle!

In natural forms of learning, it’s mostlyold stuff”:

  • When you learn to walk, you’ve usually been crawling for quite a while.
  • When you learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve been walking for a while – and you’ve often ridden a tricycle or something else where some of the motions can transfer.
  • When you learn to read, you’ve been hearing stories – and probably seeing books – for quite a while.
  • Even when you learn to drive a car, you’ve been riding in them for years.

The goal, for any teacher,  is to establish the right mix of new, recent, and oldstuff” – and of course, there’s more than oneright mix” possible. But if you want a large number of learners to be successful, I think

  • the bulk of the “stuff” needs to be old. As long ago as 1941, George Spache was advocating more repetition of vocabulary in primary-grade, English-language readers in this article (http://www.jstor.org/pss/997100). The TPRS approach to foreign-language education is all about repetition (many, many repetitions!) of core vocabulary (http://www.tprstories.com/). Yet in general, most American educational models – not just for languages, but for all subject areas – come nowhere near the 80(!) repetitions that some TPRS teachers say is essential for mastery. No wonder our Latin students struggle! They may see a word 2-3 times, or only once in a list, and be asked to “memorize” it and “remember it forever.”
  • Repetition is also the way that “stuffmoves from “recent” to “old.” So “recent stuff” merits significant repetition. This is an area where many Latin textbooks have broken down over the years. “New stuff,” whether grammar or vocabulary, is repeated several times in the lesson or chapter.  And there may be some “old stuff” as filler, or to provide context in a reading passage.  But the “recent” stuff tends to be dropped; after all, “we just learned it” (or in other, truer, words, “it was just taught.”) Learning and teaching are very, very different things!
  • New stuff” will also become “recent” and eventually “old” with repetition and time. We know this, or at least we give the concept lip service. But we don’t necessarily act on our “knowledge.”

And I think that’s one reason why so many learners struggle in factory-model schools. The system is built on the idea of limited time and standardized learning, both of which are fundamentally alien to the way that life works outside the factory. In a store, a workshop, or a farm, you generally get the time you need.

  • In a well-run store, “the customer is always right” – actually, as Ken Blanchard points out in Raving Fans, the customer isn’t always right, but the business helps the customer feel right by having a consistent vision, learning the customer’s vision, integrating the two visions, and “delivering the vision plus one percent.” In any case, the customer decides how long he or she is going to spend in the shop. If you rush them, they’ll probably leave – and not come back.
  • In a well-run workshop, the master craftsman is helping the apprentices perfect their craft. They obviously take more time to do it than the master would, but they’ll get better (and faster) with practice. The master will tell you, the customer, how long the job will take – and if you really need it “faster,” you can go somewhere else. But you won’t get the same quality product. Keith Ferrazzi, in Who’s Got Your Back, has a memorable story of a custom-tailored suit that illustrates this principle nicely.
  • On any farm, the crops grow at their own rate. You just can’t make them grow any faster! Of course, you can make them grow slower if you forget to water, weed, or fertilize, and you can make them not grow at all if you really neglect them. But you can’t speed the process up.  Of course, Stephen Covey talks a lot about “the law of the farm.”
  • Even in a well-run factory, the speed of the production line isn’t the only factor. After all, if you run the line too fast, you’ll have expensive errors, reworks, and rejects. Better to slow down a bit and do some in-production quality control. And every manufacturer knows that the hourly production rate is different for different products! So why do schools act like all their “products” can be “stamped out” at the same rate?

Anyway, to return to our topic for today, here’s my sense of how we did with old, recent, and new vocabulary.

Most of the vocabulary is old vocabulary. The only new words or phrases are

  1. ossa
  2. exspuere
  3. gustātiō
  4. olīvae (but, really, how hard is that?)
  5. lentēs
  6. catīnus
  7. cocleae
  8. carōtae (and again, how hard is that?)
  9. bulbī condītī (2 words, which are making me really hungry as I write this!)
  10. supplantat (but, as our faithful reader Patricius pointed out, that’s really not the best word for what happened to poor Milphio!)
  11. cochlear (we’ll learn the other spoon word, ligula, when everyone is eating breakfast, lunch, and unauthorized snacks back in Lectiōnēs VI-VII)
  12. per āera volat (we already know per)
  13. capessat and captat (but we already know capere, and they’re obviously related to it); and possibly
  14. cadit (though I think some things are going to fall in Lectiōnēs VI-VII; after all, the boys will be going to school, through city streets, in the morning, passing some rather tall īnsulae. It might be poetic justice if … something … fell on Cnaeus’ head after the way he behaved towards his parents and his nūrus!)

That makes 16 or 17 new words (depending on whether or not you count cadit) out of 751, or about 2% of the total. So, for most Tres Columnae participants, this story should be at an independent reading level; even if they don’t remember nōs, vōs, and the new verb forms, that’s still less than 20 unfamiliar words, or 2.

Most of the new words are situational, or “recognition vocabulary” words; of these, carōtae and olīvae probably will be obvious in meaning to most participants, as will lentēs if they’re familiar with lentils. If you know how onions grow, bulbī makes sense, and the meanings of gustātiō and catīnus are pretty obvious from context, as is supplantat from the sentence right before it. exspuere obviously means “to X something out” (we’ll start working with prefixes before Lectiō XI), and when you hear it, you can pretty much guess what it means from the sound of it.

There will be an illustration of the gustātiō, in any case, with labels on the different foods and on the cochleāria. So “introducing new vocabulary,” a big problem with a traditional textbook where time is limited and the reading level is often well into the frustration zone, simply shouldn’t be an issue here!

Anyway, os, āēr, and volāre are the only “new” words that will show up repeatedly, and they make up just under 0.5% of the words in the passage. āēr and volāre show up repeatedly, so the learner will probably know them pretty well by the end of the story. If we expect them to remember os, thought, they’ll probably need some additional work with it.  And they’ll need to practice distinguishing os from ōs!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • How do you like the idea of a story where almost all the words are familiar to learners?
  • Does it seem intuitively right, or is it another example of “lowering standards” and “expecting too little”?

I’d really like to know what you think!

Tune in shortly, when we’ll look at old, recent, and new grammar in this story.

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 7:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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