High-Frequency Verbs

Someone asked the “Teaching Latin for Acquisition” Facebook group for a list of the top 10 verbs in each of our classes—if we had to make such a list. There were only about 10 11 comments, but many teachers probably use similar verbs and just didn’t have anything to add. What I find interesting, though, is that across the lists from only 10 11 comments, there were still 38 44 different verbs in total!

The verbs that were most common  between everyone who chimed in were:
be (6 7)
want (5 6)
see (4 5)
be able (4)
be quiet (4 )

The next 16 words were shared by only two or three teachers, and the remaining 23 words were mentioned once. So, my first observation is that at least 5 teachers wouldn’t consider “want” to appear as often as others in their classes. This is surprising to me. If there’s anything I’ve learned about public K-12 students, it’s that they want things (even if just to go home!), and will tell you if it means something to them. Aside from the startling frequency of “be quite,” I’m also surprised that “have” wasn’t in there. This, especially coming from NTPRS in San Antonio after hearing Laurie Clarcq and Mira Canion basically talk about being CI ninjas and noticing what our students have with them during class. Then, I started looking at how specific some of those verbs were, thinking that more general verbs or combinations via circumlocution could be used in far more contexts without adding to cognitive demand (e.g. touch vs. put X on Y, carry vs. have, walk/run away vs. go, send vs. give, speak vs. say to, etc.).

Much has been discussed over the years about using few particular verbs that get the most mileage out of stories and personalizing (re: Terry Waltz’ Super Seven). In a list with so many specific verbs, I can’t help but think that some Latin teachers are either using a lot of words in their classes (too much?), or their classes aren’t story-based or focused on students, personalizing content and connecting with them as people via the Latin language. For the record, it’s not clear to me what non-story classes are really based on besides grammar, which, sadly, comes at the expense of most students in most contexts, excluding them from meaning making in the name of knowledge about Latin. I’m not making this stuff up, rather, reporting what has been observed. I’m not obstinate either…all these teachers have to do is show me that their way of teaching reaches more students, and I will switch back instantly. Until then, my experience with both grammar-translation and CI-advocating methods—and more importantly learning languages as an adolescent and now as an adult, because teachers forget—paints a very grim picture for the future of grammar-translation. Just sayin’.

What is clear from the vocabulary list of those 38 44 verbs, even from such a small sample, is that some teachers often give instructions in Latin (e.g. listen, read, write, be quiet, repeat, it’s allowed), use Total Physical Response (TPR) (e.g. do/make, touch, throw, catch, send, pick up, put down, show, sit, bring, give), and greet each other (e.g. hello, goodbye). Some teachers use verbs that are most likely story-based—either co-created, told, or found in textbooks (e.g. walk, kill, eat, run away, try, yell, say, do, go)—and some use verbs likely used for personalization, but appear in stories as well (e.g. think, eat, speak, love, sleep, like, go, have, see, want, be, be able).

You might think it a problem that so much variation exists among just 10 11 teachers, but then again, it’s not surprising. We have Bill VanPatten to thank for some insight on high-frequency vocab as a concept given the context. Each of our contexts are different, so the variation makes sense as long as we are communicating with a purpose in the target language. For example, I will be using “house” far less in a big city than I will “apartment” while connecting with kids. High-frequency, then, cannot be reduced to a pre-determined set of verbs. Over time, however, everything comes out in the wash, and the most frequent verbs emerge naturally. On purpose, I’ve found that entertainment is #1, with learning about each other as #2.

Of course, teachers could be more deliberate with vocabulary if they wanted to, focusing on a smaller number of words used globally in many contexts, and then expanding from there—or—not at all. Whatever is done, my recommendation would be to shelter (i.e. limit) vocabulary, either by targeting beforehand, or focusing on words that emerge within a given class so as to not overload the students (re: reverse planning, or emergent curriculum). There are some who would recommend the opposite. Also, people with these beliefs still exist.

I have observed that while some students can handle a lot of words at once, most can’t. In fact, I can share that I’ve acquired (i.e. in the process of, not “completed” or achieved some kind of “mastery” at a high level) some French, and a lot of Spanish almost entirely from reading books with sheltered vocabulary. I have also certainly not acquired Latin from texts that don’t shelter vocabulary. I have a lot of experience with that.

If my experience isn’t worth much, though, a look through recent history confirms that few people have acquired Latin via unadapted texts and resources with massive amounts of vocabulary. Very few people. My anecdotes hold up because I have experience as both a student and teacher of both grammar-translation and CI-advocating methods. I noticed problems and sought answers. Those who haven’t noticed problems, or place the onus on students, won’t look for answers. Those who haven’t felt what most students feel in a language class have no reason to limit vocabulary. When those teachers use the phrase “it works for me and my students,” they only have half the data. To my knowledge, no one has ever said “I made the switch from communicative language teaching to grammar-translation because I noticed too many students being unsuccessful.” Also, those who gave CI-advocating methods a try, but fell back on grammar-translation, weren’t really ready to let go, probably because they never noticed problems in the first place. We are all free to teach how we want, but we should be responsible and acknowledge what we’re doing.

Back to the original topic that got me thinking…

…in addition to the frequency lists curated by institutions reflecting the corpus of Latin, a massive crowd-sourced effort some years ago on the old Yahoo Group “Latin Best Practices” (now migrated to Facebook) produced the 50 Most Important Verbs. It’s important to note that this collaborative effort had students in mind, not just reporting what Cicero et al. used. There are many ways to use that list of verbs. In recent years, I organized those verbs into categories based on function in the classroom, and later used them to build a new kind of curriculum map.

I’m still fascinated by how pedagogy affects the vocabulary teachers use with their students, regardless of sheltering or unsheltering vocabulary.

5 thoughts on “High-Frequency Verbs

  1. I have been following the conversation, too. My own take, which you suggest in this post, is that what may be driving the answers are textbooks. Latin teachers, in general, come to the profession of teaching unable to really talk or write about anything, so thinking about which verbs are most important or highest in frequency becomes a default to “what do the first chapters of XYZ textbook use.” I didn’t respond to the request being more interested in watching the replies. My go to first verbs include: want, have, and like (mihi placet), is, and then moving and action verbs for classroom management and activities: stand, sit, walk, go, return, open, close, look, look at, see, find, pick up, put down, write, draw, respond.

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