Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.10

Helena Dettmer, Marcia Lindgren, Workbook to Accompany the Second Edition of Donald M. Ayers's English Words from Latin and Greek Elements.   Tucson:  The University of Arizona Press, 2005.  Pp. 269.  ISBN 0-8165-2318-5.  $15.95.  

Reviewed by Teresa R. Ramsby, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (
Word count: 911 words

All high schools, and even some colleges, should consider teaching etymologies, especially those that do not have the resources to offer Latin and ancient Greek. I had the opportunity to offer the course to talented middle-school and high-school students at summer program called The Center for Talented Youth (CTY), a program of The Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth (IAAY) affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University. When I taught the course I used Ayers's textbook and the first edition of the workbook by Helena Dettmer and Marcia Lindgren. The course was demanding; in a mere three weeks (5 hours per day) the students were expected to memorize over 500 Greek and Latin roots, complete several projects, and do a mountain of homework, mostly from the accompanying workbook. But they did it, and I know they retained some of that knowledge, because I met one of the students from that course many years later. Then a Classics major at Smith College, she told me that she learned a lot from that course; more specifically, it helped her SAT score.

My point is that this course really does work, even with time-constraints, and the way that Dettmer and Lindgren (D & L) have structured the exercises that complement Ayers's textbook has much to do with that success. Now D & L have released a new edition of the workbook with a kinder and gentler font, Arial -- the older edition used a typewriter-like font and did not utilize italics -- better phrasing of concepts and questions, and the welcome inclusion of new exercises that encourage students to use their dictionaries as an analytical tool and not merely an answer key.

Each chapter, besides inundating the student with a list of Greek or Latin roots to be memorized (GRAV-, DUC-, DUCT-, PREC-, etc.), teaches an etymological or linguistic concept, such as the assimilation of Latin prepositions or adverbs into prefixes on English words (ad + GRAV + ate = aggravate). The book provides some exercises to give the student practice with the concept, but D & L provide many more types of activities in their workbook, and a greater number of problems for the student to solve. The types of exercises include word formations from parts, matching exercises, identifications of pairs of words as antonyms or synonyms, fill-in-the-blanks exercises, and true or false statements. In the previous workbook, these true or false statements were the least successful, and D & L must have realized this, for in the new workbook they have made some statements much easier to understand and thereby discern truth or falsehood. Here is an example by comparison:

Old Workbook: A somniloquist is unlikely to find success in a career as a double agent. T or F.

New Workbook: Somniloquists talk in their sleep. T or F.

In addition, D & L have added a new dictionary exercise which provides an excellent opportunity for students to become familiar with a dictionary entry. That is, they read all parts of it, and do not merely skip ahead to the definition. For example, looking up the word quaint, the student is asked to determine the earliest language from which it evolved, its part of speech, its archaic meaning, its obsolete meaning, and from what language the word passed into English. Although this exercise appears only once in the edition, it serves as a model that a teacher can use to make a worksheet of more such examples. Ayers's textbook also provides numerous opportunities for students to make use of their dictionaries to analyze the history of a word.

Another new inclusion in the updated workbook is a word analysis exercise in which students are asked to choose the correct literal meanings of a word's parts (example: prospective = B. forward, for / to look). This is useful since in Ayers's textbook students are consistently asked to determine the prefixes, bases, and suffixes of words and provide their definitions. This way, students get a little practice with this skill without having to do all the work themselves. Unfortunately the first appearance of this new workbook exercise comes in Lesson Nine, when students have been breaking down words in the textbook for several days or weeks. It might be more helpful to have this type of exercise appear much earlier in the workbook, even in Lesson One or Two.

As stated already, the new edition of the workbook is much easier to read, thanks to the new font choice and other spatial aspects. My only complaint about the format is that many of the word-matching exercises, where definitions are to be matched with words from a list, have the list on a separate page from the definitions, and so a page must be turned to see the list. In the old workbook, nearly every such exercise was entirely visible on a single page. This is a small thing, but I suspect it is annoying when twenty-five or more students consistently turn pages while working in an otherwise quiet study hall.

Overall, this new edition of the workbook is the product that all teachers who use Ayers's textbook should buy to supplement the book's material. Ayers's exercises are too repetitive, and it is my experience that students complain rather vocally when his exercises are assigned. D & L continue to provide a great service to students and teachers of etymologies. Now they have successfully updated their helpful workbook in a friendlier and more pedagogically useful format.

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