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ILLA Blogs

Commentary and reviews by classical Lutheran education commentators.

Big Words for Little Children

Sanctimonious. Eau de toilette. Commode. Frappe. Hideous. Banshee.

These are not the kind of words we would expect many children to know — or spell. These very words, however, were heard in the first fifteen minutes of The Spooktacular New Adventures of CasperCasper [the Friendly Ghost], a cartoon I sat down to watch with my sons one morning when they were young (late 1990's - a rather different version than what I grew up with in comic books and tv in the 1960's).

The network rated this cartoon with a “Y” which meant that it was suitable for children under 7.

I watched this cartoon from a rather different perspective than my sons. Not only did I wonder about the propriety of them watching ghosts being frappeed in a commode, but I also wondered what was going on in their minds since they hadn’t the slightest idea what such words meant. Did they come to associate these words with what they saw — or did they pass through one ear and out the other, making no concrete connection with the glassy-eyed, mezmerized gaze into a large-screen LCD?

Schools in general have been dumbing down the curriculum for the children. The latest thinking in the elementary education field is that children should be given only five vocabulary words since studies have shown that most children can’t remember more than that. And there are scores of Christian education pundits who would dumb down the liturgy and hymnody of our church, espousing children’s sermons and musical ditties with the belief that such childishness is appropriate for children. It is not. And while I could agree that the words in the aforementioned episode of Casper seem a bit much for small children, I doubt that the network got angry letters from parents complaining that the script writers needed to get realistic.

Our children may run into some big words in our hymns and liturgy which they don’t understand. We need not feel compelled to present an etymological lecture about every word encountered. A passing attempt will suffice while our children are growing into their vocabulary. In time, they will be taught what such “difficult” words mean instead of being programmed to avoid the big words, letting them fall into the oblivion of disuse.
Words can be received and stored up before the meaning of them becomes known.

The subsequent knowing, especially regarding the words of faith, will not be achieved solely by experience, intuition, or rationalization. If they were, there would be little left for the Holy Spirit to do. We might well prefer that our children not learn words by associating them with the antics of animated characters, but by having them associated with the living Word of God. Thus they will come to know and love “big” words — words judged to be big not because of the number of syllables, but because of the wealth of meaning and life conveyed therein. Justification. Expiation. Incarnate. Propitiation. Christocentric. Forensic. Sanctification.

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Teaching Vocabulary

I've used various resources to teach vocabulary over the years such as Vocabulary from Classical Roots (noting the Greek and Latin morphologies of the English language) and Wordly Wise 3000. I've made up my own weekly assignments, sometimes letting each student pick a word from the free 5000 word SAT vocabulary list.

Lately, I've been making use of Vocabulary.com which provides pre-made lists using words from current news articles in their "This Week In Vocabulary" collections (though they also have any number of other collections ranging from World Series baseball terms to helpful poetry terms.

The website offers (for a small fee) the ability to educators of providing practice, quizzes and spelling bees for the students. While the grade-recording is a bit cumbersome, it can still help free up some time for other things a teacher must prepare and supervise.

However, as I learn the website, I found an even more impressive tool within. I've often wanted to teach vocabulary based on the literature I am having the class to read.I believe that reading literature is one of the best ways to grow a vocabulary - if one bothers to keep a dictionary close at hand while reading.

I have, in the past, slogged through chapters, underlining every word which I thought might be unintelligible to students and typed my own vocabulary lists and exercises. Very time-consuming.

But then I find that one can cut-and-paste an entire chapter into the "Create a New List" Vocabulary.com feature . . . and the site automatically creates the list for me! Marvelous! This will be especially helpful as we take up the novel Frankenstein once more. Give it a try with anything from The Scarlet Letter to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

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Is Classical Literature "Readable"?

FahrenheitI once had a parent ask me why I had our 7th and 8th grade students reading literature which the local public high school students were reading in their sophomore year (with the implication that I was expecting too much from the students in my class). I responded by asking the parent why the high schools were using middle school texts to teach literature at the high school level.


I was not intending to be glib. The Huffington Post, for example, treated the same question in the article "American High School Students Are Reading Books at 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels."

Can parents and teachers rely on anything more than "trial-and-error" when selecting literature which matches the reading ability of their children and students?

Some may turn to the reading lists of various classical schools and recommended curricula, but they might also ask how such lists were compiled.

Those who follow such lists may find that the literature ranges from too simplistic to too challenging only after having attempted them. If a book doesn't work out, one has to deal with wasted money and effort pursuing literature which did not satisfy. It would be nice if one could determine the readability of an appropriate text for a particular age level prior to buying the text and embarking on preparations to digest it.

Enter the world of readability metrics. In a world which approaches reading from the perspective of science rather than art -- and which imagines that statistics and data can improve everything -- it is no surprise that the act of reading has come under the digital scrutiny of measurable quantification as can be evidenced in the results of standardized testing.

If you wish to dabble in this area, you might check out this presentation given at an American Library Association (ALA) conference which explains various "online calculators" and databases for finding books. Detailed explanations of readability formulas may also be found online such as this one which describes the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

You might even consider report of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governor's Association regarding Common Core's "New Research on Text Complexity."

Or if you would simply like to experiment with matching book levels to reading ability, you might try the Lexile Bookfinder or the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder. You can even find Lexile indicators on Amazon (see the left-hand column). See how Barnes and Noble has adopted and incorporated the Lexile framework.

If a child participates in such standardized tests as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) or the NWEA's Measure of Academic Progress (MAP), the teacher test coordinator can probably get the Lexile, AR, or Flesch-Kincaid reading level numbers for that child so that parents or teachers can use them.

In my own experience, the readability scales are not foolproof or entirely reliable. For example, my middle school students claim to have more difficulty reading Captains Courageous which has a Lexile score of 850L than The Trumpeter of Krakow which is rated at 1200L. (The reading levels in my current class range from 465L to 1355L which makes things interesting.)

I still make reference to such scales in an attempt to match books to readers, even though, after teaching literature over the past twenty years, I have a pretty good feel for the difficulty levels of various books for my students. The only problem is: I have not been able to quantify such feelings with statistical metrics.

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Class Management Templates

Classroom management and organization are vital so that classical content does not get lost in a tangle of day-to-day mismanaged disorganitzation.

Excel templates are readily available to teachers and headmasters, saving money on gradebooks, copier paper, toner, and the like. Such things as planbooks can also help a headmaster make certain that classrooms are staying on task efficiently.

Many free templates are available across the web, but as an example, check out Vertex42's Excel templates for gradebooks, planners and calendars.

For a small annual fee (less than the price of a wire-bound hardcopy gradebook), administrators, teachers, parents, and students can have access to weekly lesson plans and assignments through PlanBookEDU's full-featured online planning book.

Chromebook and G-Suite users should also be able to find numerous solutions in various apps.

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Virtual Dissections

Small classical Lutheran schools may not have the resources to purchase specimens and dissecting equipment, but there are free websites which can provide the next best thing: virtual dissections (although there are also those which require a fee for use). Check out the resources listed on the ScienceBank website.


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