Cognate Over Classical & Translation Shaming

High frequency vocab? Yes, of course, although one’s context and goals are important considerations. This posts looks at why we might choose cognates over the kind of vocab more frequently found in unadapted ancient Latin (i.e. Classical Latin), and how that decision can be inhibited by a bit of elitist baggage.

What’s the best reason to use cognates? So the learner who doesn’t read outside of the classroom can understand Latin—in class—more easily. Cognates increase the likelihood of comprehensibility. Even given the range of learner vocabularies in English, the likelihood still increases. That is, there’s more of a chance that a Latin to English cognate will be understood than the chance that a completely unrecognizable Latin word will be understood. Of course, students still misunderstand cognates all the time (re: Mike Peto’s “béisbol” routine), but that’s not the point. The point is to make Latin more comprehensible, and cognates help. N.B. the only cognate-use claim here is a greater likelihood of comprehension. This has a pedagogical impact, to be sure. Choosing cognates over Classical Latin can create a learning environment more like what English-speaking students in Spanish classes experience. Why does this matter? There’s no enrollment problem with Spanish classes—something we cannot say about Latin programs.

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Specialized Vocab vs. High Frequency: “If You Need To Look Up A Word…”

Jim Wooldridge, aka Senor Wooly, once lamented over having to teach a unit on different kinds of fabric. That was his all time low in terms of thematic vocab textbook teaching. Thematic vocab teaching is basically mini units of specialized vocabulary. However, our reality—in a genuine communicative sense—is that people start getting into specialized vocab when they choose to do something…special…beyond common daily needs and experience.

Since archery is my latest thing, let’s use that as an example. There are a lot of specific terms in archery. Of course, if the purpose is to learn about archery in the target language, I’d probably be using that specialized vocabulary. But do I need them all? In a first year class, maybe I wouldn’t have to go quite as deep into the topic, therefore less-specialized vocab could suffice (e.g. “can you teach me how to hold X?” will be more useful to a student than “can you teach me how to string walk after nocking with a finger sling?”). So, not all of that vocab is necessary when exploring a specific topic to learn about the topic. That is, a particular topic explored lightly doesn’t require the use of highly-specialized vocab otherwise needed when exploring it deeply. Think of the kind of learning that goes on in a survey-level undergrad course vs. a very focused grad course. And in terms of vocab, our students are more like kindergartners!

In this post, I’m asking you to consider something, but only consider it…

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Vocab Overload

This is the time of year when it becomes obvious how much students have not acquired. That is, words not even remotely close to the most frequent of the most frequent are almost completely incomprehensible when they appear in a new text.

That’s OK.

Perhaps you’ve already experienced this earlier in the year. Perhaps it’s coming. Either way, it’s important to recognize that falling back to the old mindset of “but we covered this?!” is *not* going to fly in a comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) approach. To clarify: understanding in the moment is CI, and exposure to CI over time results in acquisition. For example, a text so comprehensible that all students can chorally translate it with ease one class might have a handful of topic-specific vocab. Even though there could be an entire class, maybe even an entire week of exposure, topic-specific vocab that isn’t recycled throughout the year has a very low chance of being acquired and comprehended in new texts. **Therefore, students can experience vocab overload even in classes with high levels of CI.** That applies to “big content words,” like all the vocab needed to talk about Roman kings. Now consider function words, like adverbs, conjunctions, particles, etc. that hold very little meaning on their own. Those have almost no chance of being understood unless they keep appearing in texts.

Of course, we cannot recycle all previous words in every new text, which is why acquisition takes so long. Naturally, the least frequent words fall off and out of bounds, and only the most spongiest of memory students have a shot at acquiring those. However, we cannot expect from most students what only few can do. Instead, we must expect will happen when vocab spirals out beyond the possibility of being recycled, and address that before it happens. Here are ways to address vocab overload when providing texts:

  • Dial things back as much as you can, focusing on the top most frequent & useful words.
  • Write a tiered version, or embedded reading for every new text, even if that new text is very short.
  • When possible, use a word more than once, and in different forms. Fewer meanings (e.g. ran, runs, will run, running) have a greater chance of being understood than many meanings focused on a grammar feature (e.g. ran, ate, laughed, said, carried, was able, were).
  • If a function word is important, use it a lot (e.g. the more recent “autem” has no chance of being understood if you keep using “sed”).
  • If a message can be expressed in one very long sentence, break it into two or more shorter ones, restating subjects, etc. for clarity. Then, repeat the full message with a function word (e.g. “therefore,…so…”).
  • When expanding vocabulary with synonyms, especially when beginning with cognates, consider glossing with the previous (e.g. if you began the year with “studēns,” each text that now has “discipula” could have ( = studēns) after the first instance in that text. Continue using “discipula,” but use “studēns” to clarify meaning when needed).

Card Talk 2 for 1: Double The Input

This year, I’m very on top of providing learners with texts. Each class section has been reading at least a half page of Latin every class, which I’ve also been able to print (all during my planning periods!), and give to learners as reading options at home. These texts also double as what some schools call “Do Now” or “Activators” as the first thing we read in class.



The texts include somewhere between 50-70 total words every day. Since I always print extra copies, I’ve shown learners where to go to get new texts if they’ve already read the ones from their own class. Why would they? Well, the texts from each section has different content written with frequent vocabulary that all learners understand. For those who have read all the texts available from other classes, that’s about 1300 total words after just one week! It’s worth noting that almost all of the content is the product of Card Talk, and a single Picture Talk. These are extremely low prep; the work is just typing up what happened in class, made even easier when doing a Write & Discuss at the end of class. Also, in typing up today’s events, I just stumbled upon a way to double the input from any X Talk (e.g. Card, Picture, Calendar, Item, etc.)…

Extending the concept of parallel texts to Card Talk is an easy way to double the input. Say the day’s prompt is “draw up to 4 things you don’t like, and circle them.” In class, 5-10min could easily be spent comparing two learners, their drawings, and the thoughts of others.

Now, instead of typing up what everyone heard and learned in class, review other drawings and type THOSE up. Project, and/or read using your favorite input-based strategy and activity, and you will have doubled the input in a more communicative and compelling way (vs. reading content that learners already know).

Lindsay Sears on Tiers!

At CANE’s 2018 Annual Meeting this past weekend, Lindsay Sears gave the rundown on bottom-up and top-down approaches to creating tiered versions of texts. What caught my attention was seeing how just a few messages of unadapted Latin became paragraphs of comprehensible text for the novice. That is, the original 8 lines of poetry (of 46 words; 45 of them occurring 1x) nearly doubled in length with each tiered version. The result is students reading MORE Latin that they understand, especially if they read all tiered versions. Lindsay knows how to tier texts, and she does it well.

Beginning with 8 lines of Ovid that few students could understand without pages of notes and a dictionary, we were shown how to get subsequent versions down to one that ANY novice could read. Her steps were clear and concise; moreso than “make each version simpler.” Here they are as distilled as possible. For bottom-up stories (e.g. text to accompany MovieTalk), reverse the order: 

1st Tier down from original
– begin with a compelling text (already with high frequency words, if possible)
– rearrange order to be clearer & shorten sentences
– break into paragraphs to create white space & supply verbs/subjects

Next Tier
– replace vocab/obscure names with synonyms
– simplify complex constructions (i.e. make meaning clearer, which might mean using the subjunctive!)
– add anything missing

Next Tier
– break up all compound sentences, removing conjunctions
– keep simplifying & remove “flavor text” (i.e. unnecessary) modifiers/adverbs
– replace vocab with high frequency & entire explanatory phrases/sentences!

Next Tier!
– short sentences & basic idea

Mid-Year Check-In: Brain Breaks & Brain Bursts

Teachers fall into a routine, often focusing on a particular strategy for a while because a) they want to hone their skill,  b) it’s magically engaging for students, or c) both. During that period of focus, however, other teaching practices tend to get left behind. The holiday break is good time to take a look at what has NOT been going on in the classroom. For me, it’s been Brain Breaks. Annabelle Allen would be ashamed of me!

It’s true, though. Looking back to just before the holiday break, I’ve been doing just one Brain Break, and there were even days when I did zero due to an activity involving somemovement. There’s no excuse for neglecting Brain Breaks, though, and there’s no rationale behind substituting them with other activities. I need to get back on this horse…

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12 Days of CI & Wall Talk

We’re 1/3 of the way through the school year. Doesn’t that make you tingle? And why shouldn’t it? In my experience, no matter how much anyone enjoys what they do, everyone just wants to go home at the end of the day, and especially at the end of the school year! 

Here is what my Word Walls look like after 12 classes (Latin 1x/wk):

Notice the variation amongst all three, despite a core set of words used throughout. These Word Walls represent “high frequency” as a concept. Even after watching and discussing the same MovieTalk, each class has its own identity…

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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 )

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What CI Isn’t

CI is not optional.

For language acquisition, CI is necessary, and no one disputes it. For full inclusion of all students, no one can deny that tapping into what every human is hard-wired for (i.e. language acquisition) is the more universal practice and responsible choice as educators.

CI is not a method or strategy.

The messages students listen to or read are received as Input. When students understand those messages, they receive Comprehensible Input. Continue reading