Reading Latin: What Does That Mean?

Next winter at SCS (Society for Classical Studies) 2023, there will be a panel on what it means to teach students to read Latin. Reading Latin. It seems so obvious what it means, right? But no. What does it mean to read Latin? Of all the approaches to take, looking at data is a good starting point. Let’s start with what reading Latin has meant in the first year Latin classroom for decades…

What better place than the self-described “reading method” of textbooks such as Cambridge and Ecce, Romani? The latter’s first chapter begins with a cold-open paragraph of Latin. Here are the details:

  • 70 total words in length (i.e., tokens, see below)
  • 29 unique words

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens, or total words. There are five tokens in the sentence “the bird sees the cat.” Two of the tokens in that sentence happen to be the same word. Therefore, “the” represents 40% text coverage. If the reader doesn’t know “the,” they have a text coverage of 60%. The reader who knows everything except “cat” would have a text coverage of 80%. It’s a simple example, but not hard to see what can happen at that 80% level comprehension-wise. The reader understands “the cat sees the ____,” so the unknown word is a big piece of missing information. Imagine reading a whole paragraph about the cat and ____ without knowing what ____ is and then being asked about ____. That’s not a very fun experience. And now imagine grading some kind of assessment on that experience! Don’t do it!

In that Ecce textbook example above, est appears 7 times and isn’t glossed. You gotta guess what it means from context. Luckily, most kids do. Those who don’t, though, miss out on 10% of the text coverage. A text coverage of 90% isn’t good enough for comprehension to have a solid chance, either (Laufer 1989, Laufer 1992, Hu & Nation 2000, Laufer 2010, Schitt, Jiang & Grabe 2011, Herman & Leeser 2022), but est isn’t the best example. Let’s look a little more into what “reading” means in this first textbook paragraph…

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2021-22 Vocab Stats

I wanted to write a short text using the most frequent words students have read so far this whole year. Although I might have been able to predict what most of those words were, the data was insightful. To be clear, this is a *minimum* amount students have read. I copied text from seven novellas we read as a whole class, as well as any class texts in the digital library, then ran it through Voyant Tools. What does NOT appear in the data is the day’s opening greeting I have on a Google Doc that has the date and some statements, as well as any short Type & Talk that didn’t make its way into an edited text for the digital library. The data also does NOT account for what’s heard in class, which is a considerable amount of the input students have received, especially at the beginning of the year. I can’t say including all that would double the stats for every word you see, but it might for some, and certainly would for the ones at the top of this list. Let’s start with the top words appearing at least 100 times:

  • 1225 = esse
  • 508 = in
  • 439 = nōn
  • 373 = et
  • 300 = velle
  • 265 = sed
  • 186 = habēre
  • 181 = placēre
  • 144 = iam
  • 129 = lutulārī
  • 105 = quoque
  • 100 = gladiātōrēs
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Latin Criticism: Two Broad Categories

Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about Latin shaming in what’s turning out to be a quasi-annual public discussion on Latinity (i.e., quality of Latin). In 2020, the discussions concerned Latin spoken in the classroom as well as published works. This year, I’m told the focus is on novellas, which might have something to do with their proliferation. After all, in February of 2020 there were 52 books. Having doubled that number to 113 as of last week, and going from 18 author voices to 26, there’s a lot more different Latin being written now. Different Latin must lead to more opinions about that Latin. Granted, I haven’t been a part of these public discussions myself, but word gets around. Perhaps the 2023 panel on what it means to teach students to actually read Latin has spurred the latest round of things-Latīnitās. I have no idea for sure. Suffice to say that Latin shaming still plagues the profession. Instead of full-out shaming, though, this post sticks to general criticism. In my experience, there are two broad categories of criticism: that which matters, and that which doesn’t…

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Pisoverse Novellas: Author’s Top Picks

Not every book is a home run, and that’s fine. As educators, we can’t please everyone, nor should we aim to. Those who do tend to spend very little time in education, anyway. They burn out, and so do students. This concept applies to novellas for sure, and how I’ve come to let go of trying to write (and find) the most-compelling texts in existence. Instead, and more importantly, most novellas available provide lots of reading options for the beginning Latin student, below- or at their reading level, on a range of topics. This is the point, and this is sustainable. Of the 113 novellas on my list, probably half realistically can be read by most students in years 1 & 2, half of the rest in year 3, and the remaining ones in year 4+. They’re not all home runs, and that’s fine. With a strong independent reading program in my school for the past years, I’ve observed that there will be at least one book that each student really gets into, and the rest is input they have mild to strong opinions about. That’s a victory.

But what books tend to appeal to all?

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Survey Says…Kids Like Self-Assessment! (et cētera)

Considering how impersonal the year felt, the responses from this end-of-year survey support an early prediction many of us had that learning and growth/development would take place this year after all, though certainly different from what we’ve expected in the past. To be clear, “learning loss” is a myth, and you should stop anyone trying to talk about that dead in their tracks. You simply cannot lose what you never had in the first place. It was a talking point used to get kids into schools ASAP, and nothing more. If students, or even just their learning were truly the priority, the conversation would be about improving living conditions for families at the societal level, as well as fully-funding our public schools.

Anyway, let’s start with the first question on my mind: grading. I’ve settled on the system after experience with a LOT of different ones, but what about students? The open-ended responses explaining what kind of grading students preferred are quite genuine. Scroll through the slideshow to see:

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Core Practices

I got thinking about what I’d say my core practices were if anyone wanted to learn more about CI and get an overview of what comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) looks like. Would it be a list of 10? Could I get that down to five? Might it be better to prioritize some practices like the top 5, 8, and 16 verbs (i.e. quaint quīnque, awesome octō, and sweet sēdecim)? Would I go specific, with concrete activities? Or, would I go broad and global, starting with principles and ideas?

I highly recommend that you do this just as an exercise during a planning period this week, making a quick list of your core practices. Doing so required me to sort out a few things in the process, and helped organize and align my practices to certain principles. Of course, terms and definitions can get tricky, here. I just saw that Reed Riggs and Diane Neubauer refer to “instructional activities (IA),” which covers a lot of what goes on in the classroom. It’s a good term. I’m using “practices” in a similar way to refer to many different methods, strategies, techniques, and activities that all fall under a CCLT approach, as well as general “teacher stuff” I find to be core as well.

Another reason for this post is that I’ve seen the “CI umbrella” graphic shared before, but that doesn’t quite fit with my understanding of things. Rather than practices falling under a CI umbrella, I envision CI instead as the result of practices under the umbrella of CCLT. I also consider such an approach a defense against incomprehensibility—the first obstacle that needs to be removed—and I thought a more aggressive graphic of a “CI shield” might best represent that.

Here’s the first line of core practice defense:

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100% Coverage ≠ 100% Comprehension

A question by a member of the Latin Best Practices FB group prompted me to look into text coverage, which ultimately led me to comprehension. These are two ideas that a lot of people have misinterpreted, much like the “4%er” figure, and even “90% target language use.” I’m thinking people have a hard time with mathematical concepts, and maybe we should avoid percentages moving forward. But first, we should take care of what damage has already been done by looking at simple examples right away:

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens. There are five tokens in the sentence “the bird sees the cat.” Two of the tokens in that sentence happen to be the same word. Therefore, “the” represents 40% text coverage. If the reader doesn’t know “the,” they have a text coverage of 60%. The reader who knows everything except “cat” would have a text coverage of 80%.

Comprehension
Comprehension is a different idea entirely. If the reader who doesn’t know “cat” were asked “what does the bird see?” and it were scored, they’d have a comprehension score of zero. If they were asked two questions about the bird, and two questions about the cat, their score would be 50% comprehension with their 80% coverage of the text. Not the same thing.

Reading
Laufer et al.’s research shows that learners need a text coverage—not comprehension—of 98% ideally to read with ease (and 99-100% whenever possible), but that’s just getting through the reading. That 98% figure is just the start of comprehension.

Hold up.

Yeah, that’s right. Knowing 98% of a text—STOP!!—Remember the first section on tokens. It’s not 98 out of 100 different words, but 98 of 100 tokens (i.e. some words probably repeat). So, knowing 98% of a text doesn’t even guarantee comprehension of what is read. That’s quite the trip, isn’t it? It gets worse when we look at some findings from one of Eric Herman’s Acquisition Classroom Memos on exactly how [in]comprehensible reading can get with what seems like decent text coverage.

There’s a lot in that chart, but compare the text coverage to comprehension scores. Even 95% text coverage can get woefully low comprehension (55%). Keep in mind that the higher scores are still in the “most” range, as in learners are understanding most of what they read when they know 95%+ of a text. Also, those vocabulary sizes are incredibly high for what the majority of K-12 teachers should expect from their students. Eric also adds some context to the research:

“For the most part, the above reading studies were done with high proficiency students, ungraded and academic texts, and count word families. A reasonable prediction is that even higher text coverage and vocabulary size numbers are required to enable adequate comprehension of graded texts by lower level proficiency students. And this is not considering levels necessary for a confident and pleasurable reading experience, which would undoubtedly be even higher!

Higher would be 100%. Let’s make sure we set the record straight:

  • Students need to know 98% of a text to read it with ease.
  • Reading with ease from knowing 98% of a text can still result in much lower comprehension scores, like 70%.
  • Coverage ≠ comprehension

Providing students with texts of 98%…even 100% coverage of known words is step zero. It’s actually the minimum hope we could have for students reading with ease with high levels of comprehension. It turns out that text coverage isn’t very important to look at, because even knowing 100% of the words doesn’t guarantee 100% comprehension. It all goes back to vocab as top priority, sheltering whenever possible so gradual exposure to new words increases vocabulary without the burden of incomprehension. What does this mean for class? Probably using even fewer words than you think! Students can’t magically learn thousands of words, so if we expect them to comprehend high levels of what they read—especially during any kind of independent reading—we must use and create texts with a very limited number of words.

The Problem Is Vocab, Not Grammar

This post is not about teaching grammar. This post is about its role in comprehension. Grammar can tell you a word’s function, but what impact does that have if you’re struggling to understand what words mean?! It’s still all about words. In fact, all words contain grammar. If you know what a word means, you’re a little bit closer to acquiring its grammar each time you encounter it. In this post, I use a language I’ve made up for other demonstrations, aptly dubbed Piantagginish, to show how vocab—not grammar—is the real problem regarding comprehension. The pedagogical takeaway is to avoid vocab overload, and shelter vocab whenever possible…

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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…

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