Building Understanding, V: More about Derivatives

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue with our series about Building Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill in the Tres Columnae system. This is Day 5 of the overall series, and Day 2 of our focus on English derivatives. We’ll be looking at specific exercises and other tasks today, and I hope you’ll agree that the tasks we focus on are at least as much about Understanding, in the end, as they are about Knowledge and Skill. We addressed some of the problems that arise when Knowledge and Skill are taught without a focus on Understanding in yesterday’s post, and on Sunday I left you with this related thought:

Sadly, many American learners come to the study of Latin after a unit (or several) about “Greek and Latin roots and prefixes” in their English classes … but they’ve never developed the Understanding that languages borrow words from each other, or even the Understanding that languages change over time, or that you can often predict the meaning of a word if you know the meanings of its various components. So, while we’ll also develop some Knowledge of English derivatives and some Skills at working with them along the way, our primary goal is this Understanding

How can it be, we’ve probably all wondered, that students come to our Latin classes after “learning about” Latin and Greek word parts in English class, but yet they still “can’t” (or, at least, don’t) look at an English word like matronly and see any connection with māter or matrōna? How can it be that they “learned about” the chemical symbols of elements like gold and silver in several science classes, yet are surprised (pleasantly surprised, yes, but still surprised) by the connection of Au with aurum or Ag with argentum? And how can it be that they “learned about the Roman Empire” in World History class, but “know nothing” about Roman history?

Part of the problem may be that students come to us with an expectation that different school subjects are inherently disconnected from each other. I can’t be the only one who’s had to counsel – or console – students deeply upset because of “all the math in Chemistry,” can I? (You’d think it would be obvious … but then two of my college roommates were Chemistry majors.) Sadly, for many students, Subject A and Subject B (fill in any subject you’d like as either A or B) couldn’t possibly have anything to do with each other. After all, they’re taught in different class periods, by different teachers! They even have different textbooks, and the state (or national, depending on where you are) exams are different. Factory-model schools, by their very nature, promote this sort of disconnected view of their curricula; but even in such schools, many Latin teachers aim to help our learners synthesize knowledge from different areas. I don’t know that we can have a direct effect on curricular fragmentation, but we can probably have an indirect effect as we encourage our students to make their own connections to areas that are personally meaningful and interesting to them.

But how can we build these types of Understanding with real derivative exercises based on real stories? Let’s take a look at Prima Fabula Longa, the first “long” story in Lectiō Prīma of the project. After our learners have read it, we’ll ask them to work through a sequence of tasks like this:

quid novī?

As you read and heard the story, you probably noticed that a lot of the words were familiar to you while others were unfamiliar or even brand new. Most readers would probably say that these words were familiar:

in, tablīnō, sedet, labōrat, est, Rōmānus, māter, fīlius, fīlia, puella, puer, peristyliō, canis, frāter, et, soror

They’d probably say these words were somewhat familiar:

cīvis, lānam facit, fēmina, quoque, lūdit

And they’d probably say these words were unfamiliar:

summae, doctrīnae, magnae, prūdentiae, bona, benigna, paene, formōsa, lūdus (in lūdō), geminī

Choose two or more words that seemed familiar, one or two that seemed somewhat familiar, and one or two that seemed unfamiliar to you (it’s OK if your categories are different from ours), and click on them. (Obviously the links aren’t clickable yet, but they will be in the exercise!) These links will take you to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a wonderful resource that will show you many, many English words that developed over time from each of these Latin words. When you’ve explored the words you chose, please record some of your observations in your Tres Columnae learning blog. (In an amazing example of serendipity, as our faithful reader Laura G was developing her Vocabulary Blog idea in this totally free online Latin composition course, I was thinking about derivative blogs … and we both had the idea at the same time, I think!)

So far we’ve primarily looked at Knowledge and Skill-building work. Here comes the Understanding piece:

On a scale from 1-5, how much do you think you know about how words from one language turn into words in another language?

If you chose 4 or 5, you’ll continue to another quid novī? (see below). If you chose 1, 2, or 3, we’ll encourage you to look at this sequence:

  1. We’ll show you a paragraph full of English derivatives from the familiar words in our previous list.
  2. When you advance to the next screen, the paragraph will be color-coded, showing the language of origin for each word.
  3. Then we’ll ask, Did you know that a large number of English words – and an even larger number of words in French, Spanish, Italian, and the other “Romance” languages, developed from Latin words over time?

If you choose Yes, we’ll ask, Do you know how this happened?

If you choose No – or if you want our brief history-of-English lecture anyway 🙂 – we’ll then take you on a short summary – focusing on English, since that’s the first language of many of our current subscribers – of

  1. the Roman conquest of Britain
  2. the spread of Christianity, with Latin as the language of education, international communication, and the Church
  3. the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the “fall” of the western Empire
  4. the development of vernacular languages in Europe after the “fall”
  5. the Norman Conquest of England and its huge, but secondary, Latinate effect on English
  6. the “Renaissance” and its “rediscovery” of classical learning
  7. scholarly borrowings of Latin and Greek roots from then through the present day.

Then, in that other quid novī? screen, we’ll ask you to revisit at least one of the Online Etymology Dictionary entries you looked at earlier, and at least one new one. This time, we’ll have you take a closer look at how the words changed and developed over time, and how their meanings are both related to and different from the meanings of the root words. (It’s a big move, for example, from paene to penitent if the folks at the Online Etymology Dictionary are right about that connection!) We’ll invite you to add to your blog post and to participate, if you’d like, in the Continuing Virtual Seminar about word origins and language change.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think about the element of choice in derivative work? It’s very different from what most Latin teachers do, but does it make sense to you?
  • Can you see how our core values of Joy, Learning, Community, and Ownership would impel us to give our learners some choices about vocabulary and derivatives?
  • Do you think we have, in fact, helped our learners build some Understanding as well as Knowledge and Skill? Or have we just confused them with Too Much Information?

Tune in next time, when we’ll begin to examine how we can build Understanding of cultural elements, from products (like houses) and practices (like family structures) to perspectives (like the untranslatable concept of pietās). intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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.

Inter-Language Connections

salvēte, amīcī et collēgae. This is a day of great meaning for me, and it’s also the first day of Spring Break in my face-to-face teaching world. So I apologize in advance if this is a bit disjointed or unfocused. Also, there won’t be a post tomorrow or on Easter Sunday; we’ll pick up on Monday with a series of posts about exercises and quizzes in the Tres Columnae system, including links to some live, interactive examples. Today, though, we’ll finish our exploration of vocabulary-related issues raised by this story from the Tres Columnae project, in which young Cnaeus and his sisters engage in an all-too-familiar sibling conflict.

In a “typical” Latin textbook, whether it follows the reading method or the grammar-translation approach, this story would occur as part of a “chapter” or “lesson” or “stage,” and at the end of this subdivision, there would be some type of “vocabulary list.” Depending on the book, the words might be listed with their complete lexical information, or in a different way that the authors found more suitable, and each word would have one or more English equivalent. Teachers would expect their students to “learn the words and their meanings” and would probably give some type of “vocabulary quiz” or “vocabulary test” to determine if the words and meanings had, in fact, been “learned.” Along the way, there would be some “exercises about derivatives” – perhaps provided in the textbook, or perhaps prepared by the teacher – and the English (or other language) derivatives would then be “included on the quiz” (or on the test) in some way to make sure that they, also, had been “learned.” If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I do this myself, to some degree, with my face-to-face Latin students … but you also know that I’m profoundly suspicious of anything that “everybody” does, especially when there’s no discussion of the purpose or goal of the activity.

So, before we look at inter-language vocabulary connections, I want to raise, once again, a couple of disturbing questions that I can’t exactly answer:

  • What’s the purpose of “learning vocabulary” by lists in this manner?
  • If students “learn the vocabulary” by memorizing lists, will they naturally apply their learning when they see the word in context … especially if it’s in a different form from the list?
  • Suppose the word appears in a list with “two meanings” – or more than two. How will the learner know which one is “right” in a particular context?
  • Does an emphasis on lists actually harm students by confirming their unstated assumption that Latin and English (or any other pair of languages) are “exactly alike” – that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between words in the two languages?
  • If so, how can we possibly help students past this misconception?
  • And, more specifically related to our immediate concern, what’s the purpose of “learning derivatives” anyway?
  • Does it help or hurt students’ learning of Latin … and does it help or hurt their English vocabulary?

Actually, I do have an answer to the very last question: it’s intuitively obvious that learning English derivatives must help students’ English vocabularies … at least if they have a chance to take Ownership of the words and actually use them in a meaningful way. To that end, I think it’s probably better if the learners have as much control as possible over the English derivatives they study: for example, they might be asked to find derivatives for a particular root word, or to determine the root word of a particular derivative, or to analyze a given English word to determine its prefix, root, and suffix. I also think that English (and other language) derivatives work best for students – or, at least, for the ones I know best in my face-to-face teaching world – when they’re an exciting, surprising treat (a lagniappe) rather than a drudgery-filled requirement. And if one goal of learning Latin is to use one’s Latin vocabulary to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar English (or other language) words, I think it’s important to test that skill by providing unfamiliar words for the student to work with.

In other words, I’m very suspicious of those pre-generated lists of derivatives to be “learned” and “included on the quiz.” Depending on the age and sophistication of the learner, it can be perfectly appropriate and reasonable to provide some English (or other language) derivatives as examples, and it certainly makes sense to explain how words in one language morph into words in another. But, as much as possible, learners need Ownership of these connections for themselves.

In that context, I had an interesting conversation yesterday with one of my brightest Latin II students, who wondered if there are any “rules” about derivation … for example, if a Latin noun could only create English nouns. In talking with her (she really does ask excellent, deep questions like this every day!), I realized that she has a very inflexible, rule-governed view of language development; the idea that someone could simply decide that a word needed to exist, make it up, and start using it was a big surprise to her. But then I thought about what I know of her education from kindergarten through tenth grade (and from what I understand, it has been a good one, for a factory-model education): when, if ever, did she see any examples of invention or creativity applied to language – or other things – in school? I’m not sure she ever did! And I’m not sure my own children ever did, either … although, in all these cases, the learners in question have had plenty of opportunities to be creative outside of school.

So, if you were looking for pre-set “derivative exercises” to go with the story of Cnaeus, Prima, Secunda, and the Terrible Insult, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. These types of exercises tend to operate at the Knowledge level on the Paideia framework, but that’s not where derivatives are … they’re about Connections and Comparisons in the National Standards model, or Skill and Understanding in the Paideia framework. Instead of closed-ended derivative exercises, we’ll feature open-ended ones like these:

  1. Now that you’ve read the story, think of three or four words that are problematic for you – for example, words that you have to look up repeatedly, or words that look and sound similar to each other (like sūs and suus). Do a search at or or and see how many interesting English (or other language) derivatives you can find for your “problem” words. If you’re a Basic, Standard, or Premium subscriber, you might want to add them to the relevant Adopt-A-Word page.
  2. If you have been struggling with a particular word, see how many English (or other language) derivatives you can find – or make up – for the word by adding the prefixes and suffixes we’ve used so far. Check them out at or and see how many of them are “real” English words. If you have invented a wonderful word, and if you’re a Basic, Standard, or Premium subscriber, you might want to add your new word to the Adopt-A-Word page and see if anyone else starts using it!
  3. If you’re a Standard or Premium subscriber, you might also want to create an exercise or quiz that uses the words you found. Remember to make it wonderful so that others can really benefit from it, and please review the Rubric for Exercises and Quizzes before you upload it.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • This is obviously a long way from the “typical” approach of “learning the word” and “learning the derivative!” But does it make sense to you?
  • Even if you disagree with it for your own face-to-face teaching situation, can you see why it would be appropriate as an option for the Tres Columnae system?
  • Would you, personally, enjoy derivative assignments like these? Do you think your students would enjoy them, either as a supplement or as a replacement to the work you’re doing with derivatives now?
  • And, for you English speakers, what about derivatives in languages other than English? Are they a distraction from your primary goal, or are they a helpful supplement that shows the continuing influence of Latin on all kinds of world languages?
  • How much attention to derivatives seems “right” to you – and is there such a thing as too much attention to them? At what point does a Latin class “about” derivatives cease to be a Latin class and become an English vocabulary development class? And is there anything wrong with that?

I wish you a wonderful and peaceful weekend … and I hope that readers for whom this weekend has profound meaning, as it does for me, will experience both the depths and the heights of the Triduum. grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus. Please keep those comments and emails coming, and don’t forget that there’s still time (and a bit of space) if you’d like to sign up for a Trial Subscription.