Vocabulary Timelines Are Arbitrary And (In General) Unnecessary

The other day I was chatting with my Spanish 4 students (my first year with them) about why I had missed work the day before. So I was telling them that my daughter's day care provider had cancelled because she had hurt herself the night before. I was trying to get them to guess what she hurt, and they were throwing out different body parts like neck and foot and head and stomach and nose and so on. No, no, and no.

Then one girl pointed to her back with an unsure look on her face. I said, "¿Se lastimó la espalda?" (She hurt her back?) following that up with "¿Saben la palabra 'espalda'? (Do you guys know the word 'espalda')" They all shook their heads. I kind of laughed, mostly in my head but a little out loud, and immediately apologized, not because they should have known it (I've long resigned the sequential vocabulary syllabus) but because this was one of the very first body part words picked up by one section of my Spanish 1 students this same year.

I quickly explained to them why I found the whole situation rather interesting. I don't think they were surprised that they were being neglected a lexical lock-step language learning experience by their new Spanish teacher. But I felt compelled to remind them that they shouldn't feel stupid or as if they should've known the word, and pointed out that they know a whole host of other words just as useful, like "hurt herself" for example.

The word for "back" emerged in Spanish 1 very early on, as we were in the middle of a short little scene about a student going to the local pizza place with his friend Templton the Football (our first One Word Image of the year). How did they go? Well, they rode an elephant, and so I asked if they rode on the elephant's head (I always start the first week with some simple TPR that includes "Touch your head/mouth/stomach/hand") and one student piped up with "No, monta en elefante's back!" and they all agreed and so I said, "¡Oh, monta en la espaaaaaalda del elefante!". They heard the word a few more times in my quick re-tells during the story-asking, from my comprehension questions, and in a couple quick TPR fits that I did with them during the story. That group from them on had "espalda" in their repertoire, as early as September.

Contrast this with the other group of students who were all experiencing this word for the first time in April of their fourth year of study. Was this group neglected somehow by their previous teachers? Was their Spanish career an automatic joke if someone later on had found out they had never learned the word for "back"? Well of course not. So much of the thematic vocabulary that we end up using, to complete our thoughts and color our stories and describe our surroundings, is completely dependent on the situation and hard if not impossible to predict what's most important for students at any given level.

Check out this list of the most commonly-used body part words in Spanish from Mark Davies' book A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish:

mano (hand) #150

ojo (eye) #247

cabeza (head) #298

cara (face) #356

pie (foot) #386

lengua (tongue) #596

sangre (blood) #613

brazo (arm) #620

boca (mouth) #635

corazon (heart) #649

pelo (hair) #1056

pierna (leg) #1201

dedo (finger) #1248

espalda (back) #1499

pecho (chest) #1649

hueso (bone) #1695

cerebro (brain) #1734

seno (bosom) #1776

diente (tooth) #1859

cuello (neck) #1920

hombro (shoulder) #1927

nariz (nose) #2119

rodilla (knee) #2208

oreja (ear) #2407

estomago (stomach) #2636

Therefore when it comes to the question "Which body parts should I teach first?", well, I think the top 3 are pretty solid starters, but beyond that, it doesn't really matter. My Spanish 1 students know the word for ceja/eyebrow (#4227) which could be quite handy in a conversation about Frida Kahlo's art for example, but probably not sangre/blood (#613) which could also be quite handy in a conversation about Frida Kahlo's art. Moreover, both could be circumlocuted with relative ease (e.g. "the hair close to your eyes" and "the red liquid inside your body").

There are of course high-frequency verbs that should be used a lot in the students' first years of study, most notably Terry Waltz' Super Seven and Mike Peto's Sweet Sixteen. But I challenge anyone to have an authentic conversation or tell a story or read anything that does NOT include at least a few of these verbs. They are after all high-frequency for a reason. As long as we judiciously limit their introduction so as to keep things comprehended by kids, and given we have the skills to keep CI flowing throughout our classes, those words will inevitably come up over and over and over again.

If presented with the option to introduce "road" or "highway", common-sense (and likely Davies' Frequency Dictionary) will typically instruct us to choose the more general term of the lot (road). I think this is a fine rule of thumb when contemplating such matters. But if the story or conversation really calls for the word "highway", why not? It's a useful word that carries meaning like any other.

In certain situations we might feel the need to introduce a word like "back" or "blood" or "dropped" or "hates" at a specific time (if it hasn't already come up). Sometimes it's a timely story that we want to tell kids, a conversation we want to start, or a book we are going to read (or must read!) with them. And for the overwhelming majority of vocabulary, if not all of it, we do not need a sequential list or timeline to tell us when kids must experience such language. I think if we're doing it right, the students will determine this for us.

What do you think?

(Disclaimer: I am a Department of 1, with relative freedom to teach how I think best. Though I would make the same argument within a multi-person department, I recognize that some readers will not have the option to ignore the sequential vocabulary timeline due to departmental requirements.)


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