Thoughts on Vocabulary Building

It’s the beginning of August and, if you’re like me, you’re starting (however reluctantly) to play with lesson ideas and new techniques for your toolbox. One of the things that has been on my mind lately is vocabulary and how to help my students increase it. It is, after all, likely the single biggest impediment to read any text you’d want to teach.
High frequency lists should be high priority items for students to learn, and I think it’s a great idea to compare your textbook’s lists to one of these. The Dickinson College Commentaries list, for example, has about 1,000 words and represents about 65% of typical vocabulary in most texts (to get to 80% you’d need to add another 500 words). You can sort the list by frequency, part of speech, or thematic topic. Check to see if a particular chapter’s vocabulary has about 75% core vocabulary words; if it doesn’t, add something from the frequency list that isn’t prominent in your textbook and then make sure you start adding it in assignments and classroom discussions.
Many second-language acquistion theorists believe that a word or structure must be repeated many, many times (60+) in order for them to become internalized, so make sure you’re doing that in class. Few things are more frustrating for a teacher or a student when vocabulary is learned long enough for an assessment and then forgotten, and this is a solid way of reducing that problem. One technique I learned in one of Ben Slavic’s TPRS workshops is to have a list of vocabulary and structures you’re working on, and then have a student responsible for making tick marks next to them everytime they’re used to make sure the class is getting the repetition it needs. Context is super relevant toward the creation of meaning and more effective than randomized, out of context lists.
Last year during CANE Anne Mahoney shared a great technique used by Erasmus to increase the variety and facility of related words. Imagine a model sentence and then play with making substitutions using contextually related input/output. For a very simple example suitable for Latin 1 – canis in cubiculo dormit. You can play with who might be sleeping in the bedroom, or where else the dog could be sleeping, or what the dog might be doing in the bedroom. The TPRS idea of Circling is related to this technique.
I’ve been rolling around in my head an idea called Word Stars, in which you write a word in the center of a star and then surround it by 5 words that are synoyms (e.g. scilicet, surrounded by plane, sane, clare, sine dubio, and nempe) or are otherwise related (e.g. hiems; nix, frigora, glacies, grandes, congelare). If 5 words are too many or too difficult, try Word Triangles instead. All-Latin dictionaries and thesauri are super useful in this regard.
It can be useful for students to spend time writing dialogues or paragraph-length stories using vocabulary they’ve just learned. This kind of output allows them to play with the words and you can see whether or not they’ve really understood them by how they’re using them. Writing definitions for words in Latin can sometimes be helpful to solidify words in a student’s memory, too.
In general, grouping vocabulary into themes is a great idea, because it’s easy to design a situation in which you could use most of those words in variations and build repetitions. Take a look at Erasmus’ Colloquia, or Jacobus Pontanus’ Progymnasmata, for instance, which are cornucopia of thematic conversations and conciously employ variatio. Comenius’ Orbis Pictus is also great, and includes pictures! Using themed vocabulary can make reading certain works much easier; imagine spending some time talking about words you’d use during the winter and then reading Hor. Odes 1.9.
What do you do with your students to help them learn vocabulary, particularly beyond the basics? Feel free to reply in the comments section below, and enjoy the rest of your summer!

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