Saturday, November 1, 2014

Untextbooking: Creating a Vocabulary List without a Textbook

Vocabulary is one of the main reasons I left the textbook behind. I have been frustrated both by the size of vocabulary lists in textbooks and by the choices of words for these lists.

I wanted control. I wanted to choose the best vocabulary for my classes.

As I know very well, however, control is a burden. Now it's my own task to choose what vocabulary I should teach my students, what words are the most important, most useful words for my students to know. How many I need to teach and at what rate. What words I want my students to have at their disposal by the end of the school year.

I'm not completely at leisure in terms of vocabulary. We have a county-wide pre- and post-test that is universal, based off of the adopted textbook, and contains a lot of vocabulary that I find extraneous. I think it is important to recognize that many of us are facing a culture of testing that may require compromise in order for our students to succeed in the testing as well as according to our own means of checking comprehension and knowledge. So I am making sure my students learn vocabulary that will help them with this test, but all vocabulary outside of that is based on frequency and necessity.

I have the good fortune to know several really talented and intelligent Latin teachers, both in person and online, and to have access to their ideas and input really allows me to experiment in my classes and become a better teacher. One such group has joined together to create Latin Best Practices, and in particular, a list of the fifty most important verbs in Latin.

Why the 50 most important verbs? Because verbs run a language, to a great extent. Because often there are certain words that are simply repeated in almost all writing. They aren't the first to do this. You can find Spanish and French verb lists based on word frequency with a simple Google search.

So how did I make a vocabulary list? I started with the 50 most important verbs. If my students learn all of those verbs in their first year of Latin, they will have a great foundation for any readings I decide to bring into class. I added in the sometimes arbitrary vocabulary I know my students will face on the post test and that created my preliminary vocabulary list. Now as I continue through the school year I choose words based on frequency and usefulness to my class.

When my students learned the word "vir," meaning "man," a high-frequency word for the very patriarchal Romans, I knew my students would want a word for "woman" to be paired with it. There are several words for "woman" in Latin, with various connotations, but the most frequent is "mulier" (with "femina" coming in about half as frequently).

This really sounds unexciting, and I know that. However, somehow, having the power to teach students only the most useful words, words that will be used repeatedly and I can make sure are recycled into our review stories and the new Latin that I bring to my students, is really awesome. I never have to ask myself "Why am I teaching this?"--something I had done repeatedly when teaching from a textbook.

I am hoping to finish teaching my list as new vocabulary at around a month before school is out for the year. At that point, I plan to spend the last month choosing readings and activities that are focused on reinforcing the 200-250 words we've visited over the year. If my students can start next year with only a little vocabulary loss, then they will be significantly better off than any Latin II students I have previously taught.

I have the power to do that, I think. It's exciting. Of course, it's also a burden--if I'm not satisfied with their learning and instruction in any way, I'll only have myself to blame.


  1. I am sure you are familiar with Dickinson's frequency list, but I wanted to mention it because I find it so useful when generating my own vocab lists! You can sort it by part of speech and semantic groups, and it then lists the words by frequency (everything on the list is among the top 1000 most commonly seen Latin words).

  2. I decided to make my own lists when, for some reason, my Latin I students had an easier time remembering "piscina" than "vocat."

    1. That's exactly my issue. "villa" instead of "domus"? That doesn't make sense for long-term Latin usage. I am familiar with a few frequency lists, but always appreciate it when one is recommended. Thank you for sharing!