What about Vocabulary? I

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs!  I had intended to write a longer post this evening, but ran into a former student while I was doing some errands and ended up having a very long, productive conversation.  She was very excited to hear about the Tres Columnae project and had some great suggestions … and since she’s a former student of mine who has become a teacher herself, I was especially glad I ran into her.  More about that conversation another day!

I did promise you all the start of a series of posts about vocabulary development in the Tres Columnae system, and I wanted to make sure to keep that promise.  If you’re a longtime reader of the blog, you may remember this post and this one from January, the beginning of our previous series about vocabulary.

  • In this post from the last series, we dealt with the effects of Latin on English vocabulary.
  • In this post, we looked at some specific strategies for building ownership of vocabulary – most of which I’ve used in a face-to-face teaching situation, but some of which could be adapted, fairly easily, for Tres Columnae participants.
  • In this post, we started a five-part series about Ownership and Vocabulary, which continued with this post, this post, this post, and this post.

So you might think we had thoroughly addressed all issues relevant to vocabulary … and in some ways, we did.  But as the Tres Columnae system  has developed over the past few months, you may have noticed that we still don’t have a formal or “official” list of vocabulary for each Lectiō or for the program as a whole.  You’ve probably also noticed that there aren’t any vocabulary-specific exercises available yet.  And you may be wondering if this is a deliberate decision on our part, or if it’s just that we haven’t put everything online yet.

Yes, there will be a list, and sooner rather than later … in fact, there will be a master list, and in each Lectiō we’ll distinguish words that you, the learner, should know well by the end of the Lectiō from those that are less important.

In the posts in our previous series about vocabulary – the ones linked above – I addressed some of the issues about vocabulary, especially for Latin learners in the United States, that made such a list harder to develop than you might expect.  But when you collate the available lists and look at the “standard” authors that Tres Columnae participants might read after they finished our materials, the “core” vocabulary is relatively easy to develop.  The problem is deciding which words to introduce when!

As for exercises, yes, we’ll have those too!  I actually would prefer for participants to create most of them, since they’re likely to have really interesting ideas (like Laura G’s amazing slide shows, which you can learn more about on her blog here, here, and here).  But we’ll certainly have a few available to get people started.

I actually have more questions than answers in today’s post … I’ll have some possible answers tomorrow, but there are several big questions where I really need input from you.  Here we go:

  1. When language teachers discuss vocabulary, we tend to assume vocabulary lists … lists of L2 words with “their meaning” in L1.  But we know, or at least I think we know, that the relationship between any two languages is a lot more complex than “servus means slave or servant and ille means that.”  (Learners quickly discover that ille and that have some partial overlap in meanings, but so do ut and that, and ōrātiō oblīqua and that, and … you get the idea!)  Do you think, on balance, that vocabulary lists (the kind that imply a one-to-one equivalent between L1 and L2 words) are helpful or hurtful for students?  And how might we improve them to make them more helpful … and/or less hurtful?
  2. If not lists, what?  Obviously some words can be introduced with pictures; some are clear from context or English derivatives; and some can be defined through paraphrase.  But what do we do with a word that can’t easily be introduced in one of these ways?
  3. How should we decide which words are core, critical vocabulary and which words are nice to know?  Or should we even make such a distinction?
  4. How can we tell – or help our learners discover for themselves – that they have mastered a particular word, or set of words?
  5. How do we build – or help our learners build – a desire to master or own words in general, or a particular word we’ve decided we want them to master or own?
  6. And what about flashcards … physical ones or virtual ones?  Do they help or hinder authentic ownership or mastery of words?  And should they be a part of the Tres Columnae system … or should we just encourage participants to make them if they, personally, find them helpful?

Tune in next time for some partial answers, including the ones you suggest.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus!

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Warning: strong opinions follow. You can preface each of these comments with an “Meā quidem sententiā”… 🙂

    1. L1-L2 lists. I think such lists are appropriate and necessary at the beginning, but then gradually you can replace them with lists ONLY in the target language. This cannot happen right away, but it is reasonable to expect that more and more and more vocabulary can be defined in the target language as students progress.

    2. Pictures: I think these are overblown as a vocabulary tool, especially with beginners. What happens it seems to me is that someone looks at a picture, labels it in their mind with an English word (perhaps even the incorrect English word), and then builds an L1-L2 list in their mind – having pictures does not really obviate the L1-L2 word list for beginners; it just masks it. I really don’t think people learn words by associations with pictures; is there any evidence to show that they do? I’d be much more likely to believe that they learn words from reading in context rather than from looking at disconnected pictures.

    3. What is core, critical vocabulary varies from person to person? I don’t think it can really be defined objectively. At the same time, if there is going to be grading done that is based to some extent on vocabulary acquisition, students needs to be given very clear expectations about that, in order to alleviate their grading anxiety.

    4. Mastery is indeed a personal thing. I really think having students engage with vocabulary in many different ways is the best way to work towards mastery: they should be reading the word in context, using it in their own writing, writing about the word (including in English – writing a good solid paragraph about a meaningful Latin word, exploring its many possible English translations, is not a bad thing at all in my experience), doing investigation work where they build up their own groups of related Latin words (based on word formation, semantics, prosody, etc. etc.) – the more “work” they do with the word, any kind of work, the farther along the road they will be to full acquisition of that word.

    5. Offering lots and lots and lots of project-oriented ideas seems to me a good thing. Having students build “word galleries” online, contribute to Tres Columnae collective word galleries, etc., having them teach each other about words, could all be a lot more stimulating than the rote memorization of words with flash cards.

    6. For some people flash cards are a tremendous tool, for others they are simply too decontextualized to accomplish very much. It really depends. Students should be encouraged to self-reflect on how effective the flashcards are for them, and we could help them explore the many different flash cards options (physical cards of different sizes, color coding, different kinds of content to put on the cards, virtual cards, “smart” virtual systems that remember your progress, etc. etc.) – it could be that there is some kind of flashcard system out there that will work for a given student, and only the student will know what works for her, but it seems to me also very possible that for some students, who really rely on contextual clues, the flashcard system will not work very well in any guise.

    7. You haven’t said anything about dictionaries here, but I would be glad to help build some kind of learning module about the different dictionaries available online, and how to make the best use of them depending on what your specific purpose is (morphological analysis, English definition, smart Latin lemma searching, the quest for macrons, etc.). Choosing the right dictionary and learning how to use it effectively is not self-obvious and is something that can be taught right from the start.

    Are you going to recommend a paperback dictionary? I am a fan of Traupman and would lobby for that one, although even better is just to get students used to using the amazing online dictionaries, too, I think.

    • Laura,
      As always, grātiās tibi maximās! Just a few quick thoughts for now, with more to come in tomorrow’s post:
      1. L1-L2 lists: meā quidem sententiā, they’re useful at the beginning but can quickly become a crutch. In so far as we use them, I’d want each simple list to be clickable, leading to a more detailed explanation (or tiered set of explanations) of connotative differences between the L1 and L2 words. In a good world :-), a lot of these explanations would be student-created, as you noted in your #5 above.

      2. I’m also skeptical of pictures, but I am not a visual learner at all. If you are very visual, and if the meaning is clear to you from the picture, I’m all for it. Again, I think I’d want the learners to collect pictures that are meaningful to them, perhaps creating a slide show and including their own explanations for why they chose particular pictures.

      3. ita vērō! In so far as we coordinate with national exams’ stated vocabulary (which I think is a reasonable goal), we can either link to those documents, if they exist online, or just distinguish Verba Maximī Mōmentī from Verba Ūtilia and Verba … not sure what I want to call the “fun, but not necessary to remember” ones. Verba Lepida et Iocōsa? 🙂

      4. Yes, the more options there are for you, the learner, to work with the word, the better! I love the idea of L1 reflections about L2 words … we’ll have to try that in a face-to-face class before the end of the year.

      5. Yes, the more options … and the more ownership … the better!

      6. I am strongly committed to having learners assess their learning and thinking styles before they really get going with TC. There are lots of great, free learning style inventories and multiple-intelligence assessments available online, so why not use them? Then, based on the results, we can propose ITINERA (or have participants create ITINERA that match various profiles over time) and create a real win-win situation for our learners. That should solve the flashcard issue and any other “should we?” type questions that arise.

      7. When it comes to dictionaries, I’m so impressed with the ones available online that I hesitate to make any recommendations about physical, printed ones! But I agree with you that Traupman’s dictionary is great. In my face-to-face classroom, we have all sorts of Latin dictionaries, but that’s the one that tends to “disappear” from its stated place on the bookshelf….

      Thanks again. I’ll really look forward to your comments on the next few posts! 🙂

  2. […] here are some quick thoughts about vocabulary, partly in answer to the questions I asked yesterday, and partly in answer to a great question from our faithful reader Laura G. You can read her […]


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