Miss Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans

by Guest Blogger
December 28th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

When Robert Pondiscio wrote “How to Get a Big Vocabulary,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I my defenses would weaken, and I would have to start spouting off about the beauty of language, Latin, etymology, and classical roots. I can’t help it. I get excited about these things. I teach Latin, English, and writing, and my happy place lies at the nexus of these subjects.

Just when I thought it was safe to take a break from grading my students’ writing assessments and see what’s happening on the internet, Core Knowledge blog reader John Webster had the nerve to ask specifically for a Latin teacher’s opinion on the value of Latin, and Robert had the unmitigated gall to publicly provoke me into a response to John’s comment.

@Robert (comment 30). Here in Minnesota, I know of several public schools that offer – require – Latin. They’re called charter schools, and all of them are also Core Knowledge schools. Yet another reason why some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge who oppose all charter schools are in no practical sense real friends of Core Knowledge. My two kids, 9th and 7th grades, study Latin and do the obligatory grumbling about having to learn a “dead” language. I rely on the authority of teachers I respect that Latin helps in developing literacy and vocabulary skills, but I’ve never read anything addressed to laypeople why this is so. Anyone know of any articles/essays that explain the value of Latin, or can any Latin teachers in the CK blog audience explain this value in a practical, meat-and-potatoes way?  Comment by John Webster — December 27, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

Before I get all in a twist about the word “value” as it relates to anything I teach, (Latin valere, to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force) let me begin with the low-hanging statistical fruit, all thanks to Bolchazy-Carducci, the publishers of the textbook, Latin for the New Millennium:

1. Studies performed by the Educational Testing Services show that students of Latin outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.

2. In the District of Columbia, elementary school students who studied Latin developed reading skills that were five months ahead of those who studied no foreign language and four months ahead of those who studied French or Spanish. Two years earlier, the same students had been excluded from foreign language classes because of substandard reading performance.

3. In Philadelphia, students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades received 15 to 20 minutes of daily instruction in Latin for one year. The performance of the Latin students was one full year higher on the Vocabulary Subtest of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) than the performance of matched control students who had not studied Latin. 

4. Sixth-grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their math problem solving abilities. In addition, the students exhibited the following advances in other areas:

·      Eight months in world knowledge
·      One year in reading
·      Thirteen months in language
·      Four months in spelling
·      Five months in science
·      Seven months in social studies

But the fun part – the “value” – in learning Latin has nothing to do with these statistics or test scores. It lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.

As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

And as for the greatly exaggerated rumors of Latin’s death? Latin teachers squall and writhe in horror when confronted with this rumor as evidence of Latin’s obsolescence, but I couldn’t care less. In arguing for the relevance and necessity for the continued study of Latin, I call on Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian.

“The  most frequent charge laid against the door of Latin – aside from the absurd accusation of elitism – is that it is useless. Why not learn Mandarin, people ask, or Russian or French? For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because – aside from the points sketched above - it is “useless.” Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like and so very unlike our own.”

I couldn’t agree more. My students can “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” with the best of them, but they can do even better than that. They can tell their friends Amy and Amanda where their names come from. They understand how amare meandered north and became amour. They can become enamored, have inamorata, wax rhapsodic about their first paramour. They will know what Catullus meant when he lamented that odi et amo, and take solace in Virgil’s observation that omnia vincit amor.

Latin is alive and well in my classroom, thank goodness. My mother likes to remind me that she was the one who forced me to take Latin in seventh grade, and like John Webster’s kids, I moaned and groaned about having to study a dead and hopelessly irrelevant language. But thank goodness for my mother’s stubborn insistence. My students are  far more accomplished readers, writers and students of the world for their years spent among the Romans.


How to Get a Big Vocabulary

by Robert Pondiscio
December 20th, 2012

Many of us remember studying word lists to prepare for SAT tests.  But if you have a big vocabulary, it is highly unlikely you developed it through memorization.  Consider that a 12th-grade student who scored well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college has a vocabulary somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Do the math:  acquiring such a sizable vocabulary by rote would mean learning 10-20 new words every day until freshman orientation, assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.

Clearly that’s not what happens.  If you are verbally dexterous, the odds are good that you grew up in a language-rich home with parents who talked and read to you a lot. Over the years, you also probably learned and read a lot across a wide variety of subjects.

With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.  Words are the new black.  E.D. Hirsch entered the fray with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day noting that NAEP confirms that “students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.” He points out for the 24,587th time in a public forum (plus or minus 4) what should have years ago become a hardcore, non-negotiable, fundamental understanding among every person drawing breath and a paycheck in education:  the content kids learn in school matters.  A lot.  Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth. Says Hirsch:

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

The key word there is “intuit.”  Therein lies the secret to building verbal kids.  You hear an unfamiliar word, intuit what it means, and confirm and refine your understanding with each future encounter with the word until you eventually own it and it becomes part of your working vocabulary. That’s how it works.  Not by memorizing lots of words, but by being exposed to increasingly complex words in context, and coming to understand through repeated exposure what those words mean.  It’s not complicated, but it’s very, very time consuming.  It is the work of years and years of exposure to rich language and text.  But if you don’t know the context, you don’t learn the new words.  In Hirsch’s example, “annual” and “fertile” are just two more bits of stuff that go over your head if you know nothing of Egypt, the Nile, farming, etc.  Without the common knowledge, everything grinds to a screeching halt.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

The idea that verbal proficiency, reading comprehension, and a broad, content-rich curriculum are inextricably linked is at the very heart of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the stakes for vocabulary acquisition couldn’t be any higher.  There is “a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.”  The correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are “as firm as any correlations in educational research,” Hirsch writes.

Connect the dots:  Reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level.  Vocabulary level correlates with life outcomes.  Those old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch:

“The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.”

So how do we get kids where we need them to be?  There is no substitute for reading widely.  We are unlikely to build a strong vocabulary without regular exposure to the sophisticated language of print.  And not just any print, but print of increasing complexity and breadth across subject matter.  This is really no longer “nice to do” but essential.  Job One.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.




The PIRLS Reading Result–Better than You May Realize

by Dan Willingham
December 17th, 2012

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of  “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

The PIRLS results are better than you may realize.

Last week, the results of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published. This test compared reading ability in 4th grade children.

U.S. fourth-graders ranked 6th among 45 participating countries. Even better, US kids scored significantly better than the last time the test was administered in 2006.

There’s a small but decisive factor that is often forgotten in these discussions: differences in orthography across languages.

Lots of factors go into learning to read. The most obvious is learning to decode–learning the relationship between letters and (in most languages) sounds. Decode is an apt term. The correspondence of letters and sound is a code that must be cracked.

In some languages the correspondence is relatively straightforward, meaning that a given letter or combination of letters reliably corresponds to a given sound. Such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. Examples include Finnish, Italian, and Spanish.

In other languages, the correspondence is less consistent. English is one such language. Consider the letter sequence “ough.” How should that be pronounced? It depends on whether it’s part of the word “cough,” “through,” “although,” or “plough.” In these languages, there are more multi-letter sound units, more context-dependent rules and more out and out quirks.

Another factor is syllabic structure. Syllables in languages with simple structures typically (or exclusively) have the form CV (i.e., a consonant, then a vowel as in “ba”) or VC (as in “ab.”) Slightly more complex forms include CVC (“bat”) and CCV (“pla”). As the number of permissible combinations of vowels and consonants that may form a single syllable increases, so does the complexity. In English, it’s not uncommon to see forms like CCCVCC (.e.g., “splint.”)

Here’s a figure (Seymour et al., 2003) showing the relative orthographic depth of 13 languages, as well as the complexity of their syllabic structure.

From Seymour, et. al. (2003)

Orthographic depth correlates with incidence of dyslexia (e.g., Wolf et al, 1994) and with word and nonword reading in typically developing children (Seymour et al. 2003). Syllabic complexity correlates with word decoding (Seymour et al, 2003).

This highlights two points, in my mind.

First, when people trumpet the fact that Finland doesn’t begin reading instruction until age 7 we should bear in mind that the task confronting Finnish children is easier than that confronting English-speaking children. The late start might be just fine for Finnish children; it’s not obvious it would work well for English-speakers.

Of course, a shallow orthography doesn’t guarantee excellent reading performance, at least as measured by the PIRLS. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain had mediocre scores, on average. Good instruction is obviously still important.

But good instruction is more difficult in languages with deep orthography, and that’s the second point. The conclusion from the PIRLS should not just be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading.” It should be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn.”


Seymour, P. H. K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-174.

Wolf, M., Pfeil, C., Lotz, R., & Biddle, K. (1994). Towarsd a more universal understanding of the developmental dyslexias: The contribution of orthographic factors. In Berninger, V. W. (Ed), The varieties of orthographic knowledge, 1: Theoretical and developmental issues.Neuropsychology and cognition, Vol. 8., (pp. 137-171). New York, NY, US: Kluwer

Playing Catch-Up

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2012

An important new report from ACT’s National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) turns the lights up on a point that cannot be made often or strongly enough: when it comes to academic readiness, it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.  Over at Education Week, Sara Mead summarizes the findings, which she correctly describes as “sobering.”

“Among students who were ‘far off track’ in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards 4 years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT’s EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored ‘far off track’ in reading–as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can’t like those odds.”

Policymakers take note of this from the report itself:

“Efforts to improve students’ academic preparation have often been directed at the high-school level, although for many students, gaps in academic preparation begin much earlier. Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge. These gaps are likely to widen over time because of the ‘Matthew effects,’ whereby those who start out behind are at a relative disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge.”

Bingo.  Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is your go-to response, here’s some cold water for you: “’Far off track’ 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample,” Mead observes. ”But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of ‘far off track’ students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.”

Sobering, indeed.

The report’s takeaway emphasizes the need for “a realistic view of the difficulty of closing these gaps,” hence the need to start earlier.

“Underestimating the time and effort required could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late. Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores.”

In Mead’s view, this means “high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school.”  I agree.  But critically, it must also mean a clear and focused understanding of what we mean when we say “high quality pre-k.”  Gaps in language proficiency are fundamentally gaps in knowledge and vocabulary–and the deficits are readily apparent on Day One.  To my mind, “high quality preschool” means aggressive interventions aimed at building language skill and knowledge acquisition before the dreaded Matthew Effect becomes a runaway train.