Monday, October 13, 2008

Krashen on Latin (1)

Submitted to Education Week, October 4, 2008
Latin study and English vocabulary: Only a temporary boost?
Baynard Woods maintains that Latin study can help students increase their vocabulary and improve standardized test performance. ("Give Latin (and Potential Dropouts) a Chance," Sept. 22). Studies done over the last century appear to support this suggestion, but there is reason to be cautious.
Latin provides readers with internal cues to word identification, cues within words, allowing those with some Latin to infer word meanings of many unfamiliar words of Latin origin. Knowledge of internal cues is particularly useful on tests that present words out of context, in isolation.
In contrast, in acquiring vocabulary by reading, readers use cues external to the word, from the text and their prior knowledge. Readers gradually build up word meanings as they read, acquiring a small part of the meaning of new words each time they are encountered in print.
It may be that Latin gives a temporary boost, allowing less advanced readers to look better on vocabulary tests. Reading, however, offers both a short and a long-term solution: Gains in vocabulary from reading are generally better than gains resulting from vocabulary study, and if students establish a reading habit, the gains continue life-long.
In 1923, Thorndike provided evidence that Latin has only a temporary impact: High school Latin students excelled in English vocabulary after one year, but the difference was smaller after two years of Latin. Also, Latin students did clearly better than comparisons on a test of English reading comprehension after one semester, but the difference was smaller after one year.
A better test of this hypothesis is to see whether there is a difference in vocabulary size and reading ability between widely read adults who have studied Latin and those who have not. If Latin only gives a temporary boost, there will be no difference between the groups.
Stephen Krashen


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