If you’ve bought into the idea that knowledge matters — that people can't really think critically or read well or even learn things without knowing stuff — then you’re where I am. The whole skills vs. knowledge debate is a distraction built on a false premise.
So now what?
I’ve been wrestling with the Now what? for a lot of the summer. Knowledge-building has a chapter in the book I’m writing, it’s got a segment in my all-day literacy workshop, and it’s an important part of my teaching strategy moving forward. The trouble is I’ve yet to find a universal answer to how we can do this better, and that might be because there isn’t one. What's helped me the most is looking to teachers who do knowledge-building really, really well, searching for principles I can draw from their work to apply to my own practice. In today’s post, I want to highlight Erica Beaton’s systematic, straightforward methods for teaching Latin word chunks in her English language arts courses.
Below, I’ve posted an article Erica wrote recently called “A Beginner’s Guide to Vocabulary Instruction: Using Latin Word Chunks.” If you’re an English teacher who wants a better, saner approach to vocabulary instruction, then you’ll be interested in the details of what Erica’s talking about, and you may want to check out her resources for this: student study packs, flashcards, quizzes, and answer keys. But if you’re not an English teacher, then you’re with me (I’m scheduled for all World History courses again), and you can glimpse into exactly how one teacher builds lasting, kis-actually-use-this-stuff-after-they’ve-had-Erica’s-class content knowledge with her students.
Specifically, watch how Erica does the following:
- She targets a specific, manageable list of things she wants her students to know (in this case, 55 word chunks and their meanings). Importantly, these things are high-leverage — students can use these 55 pieces of knowledge to unpack a large amount of words in the English language.
- She gradually introduces the list to students through direct and guided instruction, introducing no more than five words at a time.
- She uses a series of low-stakes quizzes for students that steadily increases in difficulty as students learn more
- She teaches students to use flashcards and makes time for brief knowledge maintenance games.
The results? Upper-level teachers can identify her students because they are the kids who independently break down complex words using their Latin word chunks knowledge.
So whether you want your students to memorize a set of key dates or the questions to the US Naturalized Citizenship Test or multiplication facts, I hope Erica’s approach serves as an illustrative case study of how this kind of knowledge-building can be done. Without further ado, I give you Erica Beaton.
A Beginner’s Guide to Vocabulary Instruction: Using Latin Word Chunks
When I first started teaching, we used ditto machines and overhead projectors.
Take these dinosaur “tech tools” and pair them with 1) a random list of high-frequency SAT words and 2) a cloudy understanding of the Frayer model and you get the haphazard vocabulary instruction I used for years. Show kids a complex word each day. Ask them to draw 100+ corresponding graphic organizers. Expect them to nail the SAT.
Just like all those dried up Vis–à–Vis markers, this method didn’t work.
What does research say?
Instead of teaching a random, “hard” word each day, shift your time to teaching students the most frequent Greek and Latin parts of words (i.e. prefixes, roots, and suffixes).
The experts have been talking about teaching word-level comprehension this way for years.
Kylene Beers notes in When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do that students don’t “know how to use the… word parts such as root words and affixes to discern meaning” (2003, p. 35).
In fact, most kids don’t even realize that words share similar parts let alone a common meaning.
Mike Schmoker, author of Focus, explains that the most effective classrooms “repeatedly practice and master…the 50 most common transferable word chunks…to build up students’ reading vocabulary” (2011, p. 104).
So we’re not talking about some massive endeavor like teaching our students to actually speak Greek or subscribing to some reading program software.
In Deeper Reading, Kelly Gallagher says that type of vocabulary instruction “takes away from reading time, which is where the most effective vocabulary acquisition occurs. But students can benefit from knowing—that is, memorizing—some of the ‘staples’” (2004, p. 72).
In other words, the highest performing teachers make time to introduce these word components to students and help them memorize these chunks so they stick.
What does it look like in practice?
To start, I highly recommend getting a copy of Gallagher’s Deeper Reading. He shares his “30-15-10 List” (i.e., the 55 most common chunks) and how he rolls them out with his students. The reading comprehension growth my students have had is thanks in large part to his work.
Here, I’ve taken his idea and given a possibly more detailed rundown of how it looks in my room, including the specific documents my students use.
At the start of the year
Students complete a Latin Word Chunks pre-test. This is very quick, informal, and low-stakes. They use the correct answers from this pre-test to create a personal set of Latin Word Chunk flashcards. If you’ve read about my passion for content retention, you know how my students and I nerd-out on flashcards. We use these nearly every week in class, and students are expected to practice self-quizzing with them at home during the week.
After that, my students work from a Latin Word Chunk Student Study Pack that I created, drawing on Robert Marzano’s research about best practice for acquiring vocabulary. In less than ten minutes, I can introduce five new terms. Together, we generate word examples that use the chunk and draw corresponding visual representations.
Students are expected to study their flashcards at home. However, we often use them in class to play a version of Memory to help reinforce strategies of self-quizzing. Otherwise, students use hand-held devices to play the various games on Quizlet. (Here’s a link to my Latin Word Chunks folder on Quizlet. It also includes flashcard sets for all of the English 10 Literary, Poetic, and Rhetorical Devices.)
As I mentioned, I introduce five terms at a time with a quiz at the end of each week. The timeline is always slightly different depending on the needs of my students, but it might look something like what I share below. But first, please note, in total we typically spend about 30 minutes each week on vocabulary instruction (including the quizzes). This process looks complex but is quite fast when you and your students get into a rhythm.
- Week 1: On Monday, introduce terms #1-5. On Wednesday, do a mini-review of #1-5. On Friday, take a #1-5 quiz.
- The first assessment exposure to terms #1-5 means they are set on “Level Easy.” Students know this means there will be a word bank and the terms are listed on the quiz in the same order as our Student Study Pack.
- Week 2: On Monday, introduce terms #6-10. On Wednesday, do a mini-review of #1-10. On Friday, take a #1-10 quiz.
- The second assessment exposure to terms #1-5 means they increase in difficulty to “Level Medium.” This means there isn’t a word bank for those terms, yet they stay in list order.
- Since this is the first assessment exposure for terms #6-10, those items are on “Level Easy.”
- Week 3: On Monday, introduce terms #11-15. On Wednesday, do a mini-review of #1-15. On Friday, take a #1-15 quiz.
- This is now the third exposure to terms #1-5, so they shift to “Level Hard” and are shuffled in order without a word bank.
- Terms #6-10 move to “Level Medium” with their second assessment exposure.
- And the new terms #11-15 start at “Level Easy.”
- Week 4: On Monday, no new terms are introduced, and we might do a mini-review of #1-15. On Wednesday, do another mini-review. On Friday, take a #1-15 quiz.
- Terms #1-10 are both on “Level Hard,” and #11-15 moves to “Level Medium.”
- Week 5: Same Monday and Wednesday with quick review. On Friday, take a #1-15 quiz.
- All terms move to “Level Hard” before introducing a new set of five terms the following week and folding those into our memorization mastery.
I describe this scaffolded process to my students as “snowballing” [see image above]. We begin with a tiny cluster of snowflakes (i.e., amount of terms) and gradually pack on more snow over time, adding more and more until we have a snow boulder. This process supports proper content retention rather than just crashing an avalanche of terms at them, like I did in the past.
Depending on the strength of the students’ memories, we’re often able to move more quickly through this process before adding another set of five terms. When we get to the first 30 prefixes, I do the same pause and increase the level of difficulty. I don’t always include every quiz in the grade book because the management of points can get ridiculous.
Every year, I am amazed at how much impact this has on student reading comprehension. Upper-level teachers come back to me year after year saying how they can always recognize the kids that come from my class because of their ability to independently implement this vocabulary skill later on. So whether students are breaking down vocabulary on the SAT or applying their knowledge of these chunks to more authentic learning, I see the results of this method, and because of that impact, I want to make my student resources available to you. At this link, you’ll find my total Latin word chunks package, and at this link you’ll find just the quizzes and answer keys.