Vocab Lists: Sheltering, Grammar Audit, and Creativity

**Updated 8.19.20 – The DCC core list of top 1000 Latin words has just 100 cognates.**

sīgna zōdiaca Vol. 1 was published at the end of July, bringing the total vocabulary found throughout the entire Pisoverse novellas to 737 unique words, of which 316 are found on the DCC core list, and of which 319 cognates (see my last post on cognates), including 52 found on the DCC core list (i.e. Pisoverse cognates account for over 50% of the total DCC cognates). That vocabulary size is quite low for what is now almost 50,000 total words of Latin for the beginner found in 19 books. This is what is meant by sheltering (i.e. limiting) vocabulary. Of course, that sheltering didn’t just happen by chance. There have been many decisions of what to keep and what to let go, the process deliberate, and at times methodical. In this post, I share ways to shelter vocab in novellas, and how those same practical steps apply to more informal writing done in the classroom with students…

Master List
Keep a master list of words in all your texts, and refer to it when writing new Latin:

  • If you have a topic in mind, check the list to see which words might fit, drawing from vocabulary students have already been exposed to. No need to add vocab if something similar is already there.
  • If you already have some text written, check the list to see if there are any synonyms you can swap out, keeping vocab lower than it has to be.
  • Use this list early on to avoid extra work later, such as replacing synonyms (and getting confused) once a text is completely finished.

Of course, if a new word is needed, certainly use it and add it to the master list. However, you’ll likely find that there are quite a bit of stories on a range of topics that could be written using what you have after a very short time, especially without getting too specialized.

Organizing The List
I used to keep physical lists of words on a wall, adding new ones as we went along. They really helped me in the beginning, but once I spoke and wrote Latin more comfortably I realized I wasn’t actually using them!

A word wall from 2017; I no longer use them.

The past few years, I’ve also been keeping track of total words students have read, creating quarterly lists of those words to analyze. I also didn’t really analyze much on that list, but last year I did find them extremely helpful tools for sheltering early in the year.

When looking at a running list early on, it becomes painfully obvious how many new words students are exposed to within the first week alone. If not much effort is put into recycling those words in other readings, students probably won’t acquire them, and it might even result in some kind of early vocab overload. So, use word lists to help you shelter by keeping an eye on how out of control vocab can quickly get.


I prefer to work with Google Docs for clarity and simplicity. I also use Voyant Tools for checking typos and making glossaries. I’ve written about how to generate a glossary for a single text. Once you have that glossary, just add new words to your master word list manually. If you don’t make glossaries for individual texts for some reason, you can still alphabetize the Voyant Tools results, then add the new vocab to your master word list. N.B. I use a split screen view, adding words from the Voyant Tools window on the left to my master word list window on the right.

Grammar Audit
If you don’t want to teach grammar, make sure you’re unsheltering it! Otherwise, if students never see a passive verb form, you’re gonna have to explain those forms at some point. Unsheltering grammar avoids the need to do any of that, at least for comprehending. A master list also gives us insight into how well—or not—we’ve been unsheltering grammar. The most useful lists include all inflected forms of a word. I like to indent them a couple spaces. A quick glance at the list can expose any limited grammar, such as only using certain persons, tenses, etc.,

This also helps with recycling words in a text, such as adding different functions of the same words. For example, an adjective that doesn’t appear much, or only in one case can be added elsewhere in its adverb form. Not only does this help provide more exposure, but it also addresses grammar.

Creative Process
From published novellas to short texts written about class goings-in, writing personalized Latin for students is a thing. I can’t say that it’s a new thing, but it’s certainly being given a lot more attention these days.

  • When looking at the master list, then, do any stories come to mind as you go through?
  • With a sample of just 20 words, does a plot emerge?
  • If so, how many additional words would you need?
  • Do you have a list of 100 words? How many different topics could you write about from that?
  • Are you typing up class events? What words on your list could describe what took place?

Two forthcoming novellas (coming this fall and spring) each began with a single word from my master list, believe it or not. One of them might be the most comprehensible novella I’ve written yet, or definitely in the top three. I attribute this to keeping vocab real tight, drawing from my master vocab list. In fact, that novella was written entirely AFTER all the words were chosen, with only a handful of revisions and substitutions along the way!

To do this, I began with one Latin word I heard in Mary Beard’s Meet The Romans, and thought about what kind of story could be told. I set a target word count (which I ended up exceeding by just 5 words), and kept adding words from my master list that *could* be used to tell the tale I had in mind. As I was inspired by the words on my master list, new details emerged. The words actually created this narrative, not the other way around! After I ended up with a collection of words related to the topic and key to the story, I ditched ones that I only could see being used a few times in a few expressions, leaving behind the most usable. Then, I began writing like I typically would, telling the complete story, adding words to a separate document as I went, checking for words I already used, and recycling vocab along the way. The result is a forthcoming novella with 35 words (16 cognates and 19 other). The high cognate count of a book with so few words makes this readable with the first months of first year Latin, easily following Rūfus lulutentus or Quīntus et nox horrifica, and before Syra sōla.

2 thoughts on “Vocab Lists: Sheltering, Grammar Audit, and Creativity

  1. Hi there!! Thanks so much for this post. I have been thinking of starting something like this for a few things I’m hoping to write, but this cleared up the process for me! Do you have shareable google docs/sheets for the vocabulary in the Pisoverse (specifically lutulentus and arma atra, which my students read last year)? I can use the index, but thought I could save myself a step if you were willing to share! And I apologize if you have them up and I just missed them. ~Mary

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