Reading Ovid Aloud for Homework

O pandemic, mother of invention. I have started assigning my Ovid students homework of submitting a recording of 10-15 lines, which we read at sight in class, read aloud rather than translated. Moodle makes this easy to submit. It’s amazing how readily you can tell if they understand. I added a part that involves picking five key words and looking them up the dictionary and explaining why they think they are important, which gets in an interpretive element consistent with my learning goals. But that’s not essential, of course. The results of the first round are so good, the ability to hear if they get Ovid’s tone so cool, the interpretations they gave in the written part so perceptive, and the homework so damn easy to grade, I had to share. I emphasized that I was not judging their pronunciation, but rather their pausing and emphasis as it reflects comprehension. I may never go back to grading written translations.

Here is the prompt:

  • Read the passage out loud in Latin with emphasis and pausing that reflect comprehension. Submit a recording.
  • Find the five most important or emphatic words in the passage in your view;
    • write the location in Lewis & Short where the contextually appropriate meaning of each if these five words is listed
    • give the contextually appropriate translation of these five words
    • explain briefly why you believe each word is important in the context

And here is the example I provided:

Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.1–4.

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas          

corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)    

adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi          

ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!

nova: “new” (LS novus I.A), or “strange” (LS novus I.B): this is the first significant word, and separated a long way from the word it modifies, corpora, which gives it emphasis. What he has to say will be “new” and/or “strange.” Exciting!

mutatas: “changed” (LS muto II.A.1), going with formas. This whole poem is about change, so it makes sense to foreground this word in the first line. mutatas formas is pretty much Latin for the Greek title Metamorphoses (“Transformations”).

adspirate: “to be favorable to, to favor, assist (the figure taken from a fair breeze)” + dat. (LS aspiro I.A.2), governing coeptis meis (“the work I have begun”). Ovid is calling on the gods to favor his enterprise, so this is a key word, emphasized by being first in the line. It’s imperative, looking back to the vocative di in line 2. Tone is confident (?).

perpetuum: “continuous, unbroken, uninterrupted” (LS perpetuus I.A). Ovid’s song will be “continuous” and extend all the way from the origin of the world to his own time. Very ambitious! Also, if you’ve read the Metamorphoses you know it’s loosely organized, with one story after another in a continuous stream. So he may be giving us a heads up about that.

A few notes:

  • I grade these on a 1-10 scale, and they take under 5 minutes each to grade.
  • The due date is midnight on the day after we read the lines at sight in class. I don’t want it to get stale. Great way to review and reinforce, I think.
  • The students have as a textbook Peter Jones’ superb Reading Ovid. This helps the students by giving them context, interpretive summaries, vocabulary, macrons on the Latin, and excellent interpretive notes. I frigging love this book. This assignment asks them to go beyond it by investigating in the dictionary and saying what they think.

Greek Core Vocabulary: A Sight Reading Approach

Crytian Cruz, via Flickr (

(This is a slightly revised version of a talk given by Chris Francese on January 4, 2013 at the American Philological Association Meeting, at the panel “New Adventures in Greek Pedagogy,” organized by Willie Major.)

Not long ago, in the process of making some websites of reading texts with commentary on classical authors, I became interested in high-frequency vocabulary for ancient Greek. The idea was straightforward: define a core list of high frequency words that would not be glossed in running vocabulary lists to accompany texts designed for fluid reading. I was fortunate to be given a set of frequency data from the TLG by Maria Pantelia, with the sample restricted to authors up to AD 200, in order to avoid distortions introduced church fathers and Byzantine texts. So I thought I had it made. But I soon found myself in a quicksand, slowly drowning in a morass infested with hidden, nasty predators, until Willie Major threw me a rope, first via his published work on this subject, and then with his collaboration in creating what is now a finished core list of around 500 words, available free online. I want to thank Willie for his generosity, his collegiality, his dedication, and for including me on this panel. I also received very generous help, data infusions, and advice on our core list from Helma Dik at the University of Chicago, for which I am most grateful.

What our websites offer that is new, I believe, is the combination of a statistically-based yet lovingly hand-crafted core vocabulary, along with handmade glosses for non-core words. The idea is to facilitate smooth reading for non-specialist readers at any level, in the tradition of the Bryn Mawr Commentaries, but with media—sound recordings, images, etc. Bells and whistles aside, however, how do you get students to actually absorb and master the core list? Rachel Clark has published an interesting paper on this problem at the introductory level of ancient Greek that I commend to you. There is also of course a large literature on vocabulary acquisition in modern languages, which I am going to ignore completely. This paper is more in the way of an interim report from the field about what my colleague Meghan Reedy and I have been doing at Dickinson to integrate core vocabulary with a regime based on sight reading and comprehension, as opposed to the traditional prepared translation method. Consider this a provisional attempt to think through a pedagogy to go with the websites. I should also mention that we make no great claim to originality, and have taken inspiration from some late nineteenth century teachers who used sight reading, in particular Edwin Post.

In the course of some mandated assessment activities it became clear that the traditional prepared translation method was not yielding students who could pick their way through a new chunk of Greek with sufficient vocabulary help, which is our ultimate goal. With this learning goal in mind we tried to back-design a system that would yield the desired result, and have developed a new routine based around the twin ideas of core vocabulary and sight reading. Students are held responsible for the core list, and they read and are tested at sight, with the stipulation that non-core words will be glossed. I have no statistics to prove that our current regime is superior to the old way, but I do know it has changed substantially the dynamics of our intermediate classes, I believe for the better.
Students’ class preparation consists of a mix of vocabulary memorization for passages to be read at sight in class the next day, and comprehension/grammar worksheets on other passages (ones not normally dealt with in class). Class itself consists mainly of sight translation, and review and discussion of previously read passages, with grammar review as needed. Testing consists of sight passages with comprehension and grammar questions (like the worksheets), and vocabulary quizzes. Written assignments focus on textual analysis as well as literal and polished literary translation.

The concept (not always executed with 100% effectiveness, I hasten to add) is that for homework students focus on relatively straightforward tasks they can successfully complete (the vocabulary preparation and the worksheets). This preserves class time for the much more difficult and higher-order task of translation, where they need to be able to collaborate with each other, and where we’re there to help them—point out word groups and head off various types of frustration. It’s a version, in other words, of the flipped classroom approach, a model of instruction associated with math and science, where students watch recorded lectures for homework and complete their assignments, labs, and tests in class. More complex, higher-order tasks are completed in class, more routine, more passive ones, outside.

There are many possible variations of this idea, but the central selling point for me is that it changes the set of implicit bargains and imperatives that underlie ancient language instruction, at least as we were practicing it. Consider first vocabulary: in the old regime we said essentially: “know for the short-term every word in each text we read. I will ask you anything.” In the new regime we say, “know for the long-term the most important words. The rest will be glossed.” When it comes to reading, we used to say or imply, “understand for the test every nuance of the texts we covered in class. I will ask you any detail.” In the new system we say, “learn the skills to read any new text you come across. I will ask for the main points only, and give you clues.” What about morphology? The stated message was, “You should know all your declensions and conjugations.” The unspoken corollary was “But if you can translate the prepared passage without all that you will still pass.” With the new method, the daily lived reality is, “If you don’t know what endings mean you will be completely in the dark as to how these words are related.” When it comes to grammar and syntax, the old routine assumed they should know all the major constructions as abstract principles, but with the tacit understanding that this is not really likely to be possible at the intermediate level. The new method says, “practice recognizing and identifying the most common grammatical patterns that actually occur in the readings. Unusual things will be glossed.” More broadly, the underlying incentives of our usual testing routines was always, “Learn and English translation of assigned texts and you’ll be in pretty good shape.” This has now changed to: “know core vocabulary and common grammar cold and you’ll be in pretty good shape.”

Now, every system has its pros and cons. The cons here might be a) that students don’t spend quite as much time reading the dictionary as before, so their vocabulary knowledge is not as broad or deep as it should be; b) that the level of attention to specific texts is not as high as in the traditional method; and c) that not as much material can be covered when class work done at sight. The first of these (not enough dictionary time) is a real problem in my view that makes this method not really suitable at the upper levels. At the intermediate level the kind of close reading that we classicists value so much can be accomplished through repeated exposure in class to texts initially encountered at sight, and through written assignments and analytical papers. The problem of coverage is alleviated somewhat by the fact that students encounter as much or more in the original language than before, thanks to the comprehension worksheets, which cover a whole separate set of material.

On the pro side, the students seem to like it. Certainly their relationship to grammar is transformed. They suddenly become rather curious about grammatical structures that will help them figure out what the heck is going on. With the comprehension worksheets the assumption is that the text makes some kind of sense, rather than what used to be the default assumption, that it’s Greek, so it’s not really supposed to make that much sense anyway. While the students are still mastering the core vocabulary, one can divide the vocabulary of a passage into core and non-core items, holding the students responsible only for core items. Students obviously like this kind of triage, since it helps them focus their effort in a way they acknowledge and accept as rational. The key advantage to a statistically based core list in my view is really a rhetorical one. In helps generate buy-in. The problem is that we don’t read enough to really master the core contextually in the third semester. Coordinating the core with what happens to occur in the passages we happen to read is the chief difficulty of this method. I would argue, however, that even if you can’t teach them the whole core contextually, the effort to do so crucially changes the student’s attitude to vocabulary acquisition, from “how can I possibly ever learn this vast quantity of ridiculous words?” to “Ok, some of these are more important than others, and I have a realistic numerical goal to achieve.” The core is a possible dream, something that cannot always be said of the learning goals implicit in the traditional prepared translation method at the intermediate level.

The question of how technology can make all this work better is an interesting one. Prof. Major recently published an important article in CO that addresses this issue. In my view we need a vocabulary app that focuses on the DCC core, and I want to try to develop that. We need a video Greek grammar along the lines of Khan Academy that will allow students to absorb complex grammatical concepts by repeated viewings at home, with many, many examples, annotated with chalk and talk by a competent instructor. And we need more texts that are equipped with handmade vocabulary lists that exclude core items, both to facilitate reading and to preserve the incentive to master the core. And this is where our project hopes to make a contribution. Thank you very much, and I look forward to the discussion period.

–Chris Francese


Greek Core Vocabulary Acquisition: A Sight Reading Approach

American Philological Association, Seattle, WA

Friday January 4, 2013

Panel: New Adventures in Greek Pedagogy

Christopher Francese, Professor of Classical Studies, Dickinson College


Dickinson College Commentaries:

Latin and Greek texts for reading, with explanatory notes, vocabulary, and graphic, video, and audio elements. Greek texts forthcoming: Callimachus, Aetia (ed. Susan Stephens); Lucian, True History (ed. Stephen Nimis and Evan Hayes).

DCC Core Ancient Greek Vocabulary

About 500 of the most common words in ancient Greek, the lemmas that generate approximately 65% of the word forms in a typical Greek text. Created in the summer of 2012 by Christopher Francese and collaborators, using two sets of data:  1. A subset of the comprehensive Thesaurus Linguae Graecae database, including all texts in the database up to AD 200, a total of 20.003 million words (of which the period AD 100–200 accounts for 10.235 million). 2. The corpus of Greek authors at Perseus Chicago, which at the time our list was developed was approximately 5 million words.

Rachel Clark, “The 80% Rule: Greek Vocabulary in Popular Textbooks,” Teaching Classical Languages 1.1 (2009), 67–108.

Wilfred E. Major, “Teaching and Testing Classical Greek in a Digital World,” Classical Outlook 89.2 (2012), 36–39.

Wilfred E. Major, “It’s Not the Size, It’s the Frequency: The Value of Using a Core Vocabulary in Beginning and Intermediate Greek”  CPL Online 4.1 (2008), 1–24.



Read Iliad 1.266-291, then answer the following in English, giving the exact Greek that is the basis of your answer:


  1. (lines 266-273)  Who did Nestor fight against, and why did he go?





  1. (lines 274-279 ) Why should Achilles defer to Agamemnon, in Nestor’s view?




  1. (lines 280-284) What is the meaning and difference between κάρτερος and φέρτερος as Nestor explains it?




  1. (lines 285-291) What four things does Achilles want, according to Agamemnon?



Find five prepositional phrases, write them out and translate, noting the line number, and the case that each preposition takes.







Find five verbs in the imperative mood, write them out and translate, noting the line number and tense of each.






A Sight Reading Approach to Using the DCC

One of the key features of the DCC site is that each text comes equipped with hand-made running vocabulary lists, containing the main definitions for each word, but also the particular one relevant to the context. Very common words are excluded. These take a lot of effort to prepare, of course, so I thought it would be good to explain why we do this.

The point is not just to make it easier for readers to find the correct lemma behind a given form (something automated tools are still very bad at). It also allows for a way of teaching that focuses students’ out of class efforts on vocabulary acquisition and comprehension, rather than the (much harder task of) translation. A vocabulary-focused sight reading approach can help fight the bane of Latin and Greek pedagogy: students writing down the “correct” translation in class, and giving it back on tests, which improves their ability to memorize English, but doesn’t do much for their Latin or Greek.

In essence this is what is now fashionably called a flipped classroom approach, where easier rote tasks are put outside class time, and the hardest tasks are done inside class, collaboratively. In my view the positive psychological effect of this are well worth the effort. Many classical teachers have used this kind of approach over the years. My own particular inspiration is Edwin Post, a professor at De Pauw around the turn of the 20th c., and author of the wonderful Latin at Sight (1895). I know many teachers out there are doing similar things, and would love to hear suggestions and refinements, especially things that DCC could do to better enable this kind of pedagogy.

The routine as I have worked it out in my own classes (one which of course admits of many variations) is as follows:

Students’ class preparation consist of a mix of
• vocabulary memorization for passages to be read at sight in class, and
• comprehension/grammar worksheets on other passages (ones not dealt with normally in class).
Class itself consists mainly of
• sight translation, and
• review and discussion of previously sight-read passages
• grammar review as needed
Testing consists of
• sight passages with comprehension and grammar questions (like the worksheets), and
• vocabulary quizzes.

Textual analysis is done orally in class, through more interpretive worksheets on previously read passages, and in paper assignments.

The rationale behind doing things this way is that:
• students become good at reading Latin or Greek ex tempore. They lose their fear of it. They start to recognize word groupings and syntactical relationships, rather than isolated vocabulary items.
• students learn to guess at unknown words based on context rather than becoming stuck on the first unfamiliar word, or relying too much on the dictionary
• students have no incentive to memorize English translations; the incentive is to master high frequency vocabulary that is likely to be seen again in a new context. These items are learned contextually.
• students get used to identifying grammatical features that actually occur in the text, rather than isolated grammar lessons that don’t always have a clear relationship to reading. Grammar is less a burdensome extra, but as a tool that allows the extracting sense out of a text.
• total quantity of text covered may be somewhat less in class, but worksheets allow at least as much reading total as in the traditional method, probably more

To implement this it is important to
• Have vocabulary lists made up ahead of time. If working toward a high frequency master list, separate the lists into high and non-high frequency portions. Otherwise, just have reasonably comprehensive lists made up. Put it all on a web site for them to study before class. Quiz these occasionally first thing in class. No need to do this every day. They have an incentive to learn vocab. so as not to look too clueless in class. Midterm and final involve comprehensive vocabulary review of words already seen.
• Have worksheets made up ahead of time. Comprehension questions can be written in Latin or Greek, and call for responses in Latin or Greek. This is very difficult at first, but helpful in the long run. Comprehension questions in English are somewhat easier, but make it possible at times for students to merely skim the text looking for key words. But one needs to be resigned to the fact that they will not glean every single nuance of these passages. This is ok. More exposure is better. For the grammar questions, have them spot several instances of a particular construction; or manipulate things, e.g., find several verbs in the imperfect and put in all six tenses and translate (this is a mini synopsis). Focus on pronouns, relative pronouns, reflexives, participles, transitive vs. intransitive verbs, finding word groupings like transitive verbs and their direct object. This kind of grammatical analysis powerfully reinforces sight reading skill.
• When sight reading in class it is essential to do “pre-reading.” Give a little talk about what the passage is about, point out proper names, unusual vocabulary, tricky constructions ahead of time. That way they go in knowing what it is basically about, and will not be phased by knotty bits.
• Make a point of reviewing everything. This gives lots of confidence, reading fluency, vocabulary reinforcement.
• Progress to more sophisticated worksheets that include interpretive tasks, like picking out the most significant or emphatic words, judging the tone, finding literary and rhetorical techniques, inferring what the author wants you to think about what it being said.
• Throughout it is important to communicate with the students what you are doing and why. The notions of high frequency vocabulary, guessing, getting the gist and not worrying so much about the details, these are things the students can get behind. With this good will you can do a lot of more detailed grammatical discussion and textual analysis.
• Grading should be low stakes on the worksheets, at least initially

The feedback from my students on this has been good. Certainly the relationship to grammar is transformed. They suddenly become rather curious about grammatical structures that will help them figure out what is going on. With the worksheets the assumption is that the text makes some kind of sense, rather than what used to be the default assumption, that it’s Latin (or Greek), so it’s not really supposed to make that much sense anyway, right?

–Chris Francese