Vocabulary Assessments

I continue to wrestle with a surprisingly complex question: how to assess my Latin students’ knowledge of vocabulary? Vocabulary is one of the building blocks of Latin that really helps students understand the language. If they do not know the vocabulary, they are not going to understand a sentence—no matter how good their morphology knowledge is.  So it makes sense to actually test the vocabulary to encourage students to learn it.

I have tried many methods of testing vocabulary. First, I tested students outside of class through an online quiz on the BlackBoard learning system. I used a multiple choice format so that a computer could grade it, and so that the students were given prompts (rather than choosing from the billions of words in the English language). However, students did not consistently do these quizzes and they were not effective tools to encourage students’ acquisition of vocabulary. The effectiveness of the quizzes was diminished because I had not yet learned the importance of fully integrating everything that I did online and in class into the students’ learning experience.

Next, I started quizzing the vocabulary as part of my morphology quizzes for each chapter. I figured the morphology quizzes were largely memorization so the additional memorization was not too much to ask. On the quizzes, the morphology was based entirely on the student’s memory and the vocabulary was matching. This worked for most students, but it did not help the students who were struggling with vocabulary. Since this method left that bottom group of students behind, I knew my assessment method had to change.

I also hesitated about what matching and multiple choice students taught the students. Even though I was attempting to be nice by giving them prompts, the assessment format encouraged students to believe that each Latin word had one or two English equivalents. As in, imperium equals “command,” but we know that imperium could also refer to the empire itself, the right of a commander to lead an army, and/or the commander’s right to decide about life and death for people in his province or army. All these meanings are lost on a matching or multiple choice vocabulary quiz, depending on how many definitions are given and how many definitions the student reads while matching terms.

Therefore, now, on the assessments, I give a Latin word’s dictionary entry and I ask students to provide all the translations provided by the textbook. This presents some difficulties for grading. For me: if everything from the textbook is present, the student earns full credit. If only part of the entry from the textbook is present or if some of the student’s answer is wrong, the student earns 1/2 credit. If the answer is all wrong or missing, the student earns zero points for that word. Even though this puts a lot of pressure on the students to memorize a lot for each word, I hope that it encourages students to understand that words have multiple shades of meaning.

Of course, there are other methods of testing or teaching vocabulary. In English classes in middle school, we had vocabulary quizzes that had multiple sections: spelling, multiple choice, synonyms, antonyms, and using it in a sentence. Some of these practices could be easily adopted. Spelling is useful so that students could learn the difference between the similar looking words habere, “to have,” and habitare, “to inhabit.” The synonyms and antonyms help people choose words that they are more familiar with, and help build vocabulary through association. Finally, fill in the blank questions can be difficult in Latin unless sufficient prompts are given to clarify in what case a word must be.

Derivatives also help students get the sense of the Latin word. This is a huge value to teaching Latin, as some students and teachers believe. Derivatives, though, dangerously encourage students to translate a Latin word with a derivative that they may not actually understand in English. Personally, if a student does not know a word in Latin, I like to suggest derivatives in order to guide them to the Latin word’s meaning.

Additionally, one of my colleagues assessed his students’ knowledge of verbs by giving them only one principal part or the verb’s meaning. The students then needed to supply the rest of the principal parts and the verbs’ meaning. Without proper warning, this method may result in very low grades, but it does encourage students to memorize all forms of the verb—a very useful practice to encourage.

What method have you all found particularly useful for assessing vocabulary?

Teaching Vocabulary

No matter how the vocabulary is assessed, it must also be taught well. Thankfully, textbooks are great at using new vocabulary for each chapter in the exercises associated with that chapter. This helps students practice new material, but it also forces students to remember a lot of new things (vocabulary in addition to grammar and/or morphology) at once instead of letting them gradually extend their comfort zones instead of leaping to extending their comfort zone. 

We also need to be aware of how students learn. They may not have experience memorizing and/or learning vocabulary, so we need to make sure that they are making and using flashcards to review vocabulary. When they use the flashcards, students should use them in a logical way. I encourage my students to go from the Latin side of the flashcard to the English side because that’s the most typical use of the Latin language: reading Latin to create an English equivalent.  The students should also be encouraged to practice the vocabulary in ways they are most comfortable with. Sometimes flashcards don’t work or everyone, so there are other online tools, such as those for Wheelock’s Latin on quia.com (here and here).

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