We Still Need More Books

I recently spoke to the M.A.T. students at UMass Amherst about writing novellas. My thanks goes out to Professor Closs for the invite. As we discussed my writing process and teachers and professors have been using novellas, I was reminded of a simple truth…

We need more.

I wrote about this three months ago. Since then, there have been four new novellas published, which is pretty good, but we still need more. Specifically, we need more books at lower levels. Why lower levels? The latest novellas range from 158 unique words to 750! That lower number represents a reasonable estimate of how many words a student acquires by the end of their first year, and the higher number how many words a student acquires by the end of their fourth year. What about during the first and second years when most students study Latin? Besides, students at a higher reading level benefit from reading below-level texts, even teachers!

In the Latin Best Practices Facebook group, I shared how I read Emma Vanderpool’s new novella of 158 unique words in about 40 minutes. The total amount of input I was exposed to was about 3,000 words. Compare that to the 2300 words of Fabulae Syrae (1000+ unique words?) that took me about 7 hours to read, and you see how much more input is possible with below-level texts. Remember that “books are easy” is one of five principles Jeon & Day (2016) identified for extensive reading! If students are reading independently, and extensively, that means books of not many words at all. Of course, when a teacher guides students through a text, that text can be at a higher level. Granted, that kind of close reading has been the status quo for Latin programs. The practice has been used to justify texts of ridiculously unrealistic expectations, and is just one source of Latin’s exclusivity. Disrupting that status requires changes to practices and expectations. Extensive reading is one of them, and only recently have there been Latin texts that lend themselves to independent reading. Nonetheless, when a learner is reading on their own and can control the pace of input, the text level must be much, much, much lower.

As a Latin teacher of first year language students, I’ve observed how more books written with fewer than 100 unique words would better serve everyone. Some learners really enjoy reading, yet their proficiency hasn’t increased to a vocabulary doubling in number—which is needed to reach 98% vocabulary coverage for the next books beyond the lowest—and this makes sense. Acquisition isn’t linear, nor should we expect it to be. Some learners are still at a 30-40 word reading level, which means they have like 5 books to choose from. This is also the third year I’ve had students new to the city appear mid-way through the year! Those learners don’t have much of a selection now that we’re reading at least 20 minutes on our own each week. We need more books.

Bottom line, though, we need books that all learners can read, whether it’s a first year student spending several classes doing so, or a third year student reading a whole story within 10 minutes! There really is no limit to how many of these we need, from a variety of voices, on a variety of topics, using a variety of writing styles.

AP Latin: There’s Bad News…And…Worse News

I ran texts from the AP Latin syllabus through Voyant Tools:

  • 6,300 total words in length
  • 2,800 forms (i.e. aberant + abest = 2)
  • 1,100 meanings/lemmas (i.e. aberant + abest = 1 meaning of “awayness”)*

Based on the research of Paul Nation (2000), 98% of vocabulary must be understood in order to just…read…a text. According to Nation’s research, then, Latin students must understand about 1,080 words in order to read the AP syllabus texts.

There’s a catch. That 1,080 figure represents the exact words from the AP texts that students must understand, which is a lot. To put that into perspective, it’s been reported that students reasonably acquire ~175 Latin words per year, for a total of something more like 750 by the end of four high school years. Needless to say, there’s a low chance that all 750 would be included in the specific 1,080 needed to read Latin on the AP, and that varies from learner to learner. Even if they were the exact words, though, 750 is still only a text coverage of 68% understandable at best. This is far below Nation’s research. We know that reading starts to get very cumbersome below 80%. This is just one reason why no student can actually read AP Latin. Oh wait

****Those figures are just for Caesar****

Continue reading