Building Understanding, IV: Derivatives

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue our series about building Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill from the very beginning of the Tres Columnae project. (Again, if that distinction is new to you, please check out this link to the National Paideia Center, a huge influence on my thinking and on the Tres Columnae project.) We’ll be looking at the third goal of Lectiō Prīma today, which is that learners will

recognize and explore English derivatives of Latin words

Depending on your experiences with Latin teachers – and Latin textbooks – you may have very different reactions to this goal.

Sadly, for some teachers, “Latin” has come to mean “English Vocabulary Development,” with instruction in the language and culture taking a distant second place to “roots and prefixes” or “making derivative trees.”

For others, English derivatives are “something you memorize with the vocabulary” – there’s a list of them, and you, the learner, are to reproduce that list on the vocabulary quiz. If you know the words, that’s fine; if not, there’s clearly something wrong with you (or with your previous English teachers) :-); but in any case, you are to memorize those words and list them along with those principal parts, genders, and other things in the dictionary listing. And heaven help you if you say dux means “leader” when the book clearly lists “general” as its meaning … or if you list duke as a derivative and forget about ducal! 😦

For still others, English derivatives are so much less important than language or culture that they (I should probably say “we”) de-emphasize them, forgetting about two huge benefits of derivative study for different groups of learners:

  • For those with a strong English vocabulary, it’s exciting to make the connections between Latin words one is learning and English words one already knows well. (Our faithful reader Laura G, for example, mentions in this blog post that she had never known that isolate derives from īnsula.)
  • For those who don’t have a strong English vocabulary, Latin words that one knows well can suddenly become a key to unlock long, mysterious English words whose meaning used to be opaque and mysterious. For example, once you know pater, suddenly paternity, patron, patronize, and patriotism begin to make sense.

Unfortunately, when we focus only on the Knowledge level of derivative work, we short-change both groups of learners:

  • The students with strong English vocabularies are bored because they already know the English words, and they don’t see the point of associating them with their roots.
  • The students with weaker English vocabularies are lost – they don’t know the Latin words that well, and they’re suddenly being asked to learn a bunch of other information (English words they don’t know) as well as a bunch of new information (several forms of a Latin word and a list of meanings).

The same problem happens when we focus exclusively or primarily on Skill without Understanding:

  • Again, the students with strong English vocabularies are bored: they already know how to separate a word into root, prefix, and suffix, so why practice what you’ve already mastered?
  • And again, the students with weaker vocabularies are probably lost: they don’t know how to separate a word into its elements, but the teacher is too busy yelling at them 😦 to notice. Besides, the teacher probably doesn’t know how to teach this word-attack skill … especially if the students are in high school or college at the time! Word attack skills, after all, are supposed to be the province of elementary teachers and reading specialists, aren’t they? “I don’t have time,” moans the teacher, “to teach these kids” – or worse yet, “those kids” – “things they should already be able to do. What’s wrong with those elementary teachers?” Or “those kids” or “those parents” or “society” or … the blame game goes on and on, but the poor child still can’t see that impetuous consists of a prefix, a Latin root, and a suffix, and Ms. X has just spent her whole planning period complaining rather than developing a solution!

If there is a solution, I think it has two elements. First, we Latin teachers need to acknowledge that our students do come to us with different levels of Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding of things we’d consider to be prerequisites for success. They’re not interchangeable parts, and rather than complaining about this, we need to (1) accept it and (2) find out what our learners do know. Once we know that, we can be more effective – rather than boring or frustrating a child with work that’s too easy or too difficult, we can match the task to the learner. And that’s a lot easier to do with a learning system like the Tres Columnae project – unlike a textbook, which is, by nature, linear and standardized, we can offer multiple pathways, exercises that are actually responsive to students’ patterns of errors, and immediate feedback. We can also help our learners build Understanding along with their Knowledge and Skill, whether they’re working on derivatives or on any other linguistic or cultural element.

How exactly will we do that? I’ll show you tomorrow, when we’ll actually look at some derivative and vocabulary exercises. intereā, quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Please let me know if you feel I was too harsh! I actually have a lot of sympathy for the “English Vocabulary Development” folks; I just would like to widen their perspective a bit and show them that really, deeply learning Latin will be better for their learners in the long run – and that their learners can, in fact, achieve real, deep Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding of Latin along with a growth in their English vocabularies.
  • What about my claims regarding students with strong or weaker English vocabularies? Have I diagnosed their difficulties accurately? And if I have, do you agree with my potential remedy?
  • Do you think it’s possible – or desirable – to match the task to the learner, or do you think everyone should be doing exactly the same thing at the same time? In either case, why do you think so, and what arguments would you use to persuade “those poor misguided fools” on the other side?

Tune in next time, when we’ll look at some of your responses and also take a closer look at some specific quid novī explanations and exercises for derivation from Lectiōnēs Prīma et Secunda. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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