Learning from Comenius

May 2011


Comenius was the greatest teacher of his age and one of history’s most seminal educationalists. His manuscripts are a captivating collection of enlightening works, the most famous of which is the Orbis Sensualium Pictus – The World of Things Obvious to the Senses, drawn in Pictures.

The Orbis Pictus is arguably the world’s first educational textbook and despite many movements in language learning pedagogy since the West turned the corner into the Modern Age, it is this original spell-binding masterpiece that I am drawn to in my own attempts to understand and create materials. So here’s why I like it.

It’s Written in Chunks – 400 years before Michael Lewis’s celebrated Lexical Approach, Comenius knew that embedding target words in short phrases and collocating them with appropriate verbs was the most palatable way to present language. As a result, the text abounds with meaning for the learner. His chunks are succinct, being several words in length and because of this nesting of concepts, the syntax and vocabulary is far easier to learn and recall.

The World

The Heaven hath Fire and Stars.

The Clouds hang in the Air.

Birds fly under the Clouds

Fishes swim in the Water.

The Earth hath Hills, Woods, Fields, Beasts and Men.

Thus the greatest Bodies of the World, the four Elements, are full of their own Inhabitants.

III – The World – Mundus.

It’s Deductive – There are no rule explanations. The learner is left to his or her own intuitions on the basis of connections between text, numbers and images to predict the meaning of the Latin translation. Thus the text embodies a natural, direct approach which stretches learners implicitly.

In the following example, the definitions of ‘whelp’ and ‘riddeth’ and the differentiations between ‘mice’ and ‘mouse’ are implied by the collocated verb and the whole phrase rather than by dictionary-style explicit definitions.

4-footed Beasts

The Dog[1] with the Whelp[2] is the keeper of the House.

The Cat[3] riddeth the house of Mice[4] which also a Mouse-trap[5] doth.

XVIII – Four-Footed Beasts: and first, those about the House – Quadrapeda: & Primum Domestica.

There Are No Exercises – Comenius understood how to give learners the most useful target language. He didn’t employ rule-based grammar instruction, formulaic functional phrases, nor tedious gap-fill exercises. Instead, he presented language through relevant and realistic quality content.

Flying Vermin

The Bee maketh honey which the Drone devoureth.

The Wasp and the Hornet molest with a sting.

The Cricket singeth.

The Butterfly is a winged Caterpillar.

The Glow-worm shineth by night.

XXVII – Flying Vermin – Insecta Volantia

It’s a Content-based Approach – The Orbis Pictus is intellectually didactic which means people can learn a lot more than just language from it. A classic example of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) long before the concept was formulated by tenure-seeking academics.

The Terrestrial Sphere

It is divided into five Zones, whereof the two Frigid ones are uninhabitable; the two Temperate ones and the Torrid one habitable.

Besides it is divided into Continents; this of ours which is subdivided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, (whose inhabitants are Antipodes to us) and the South Land, yet unknown.

They that dwell under the North Pole, have the days and nights six months long.

Infinite Islands float in the Seas.

CIX – The Terrestrial Sphere – Sphera Terrestris

There Are Images for Everything – Today it is accepted without question that visual elements significantly improve the learning of anything, not least languages. Comenius was the first educator to officially recognise the need for pictures and to this end he invested in the most beautiful wood carvings, making the Orbis Pictus an iconic classic.

The Sea-Fight

A Sea-fight is terrible when huge Ships like Castles run upon another with their Beaks or shatter one another with their Ordnance.

CXLIV – The Sea-Fight – Pugna Navalis

It’s Engaging – Because it is so encompassing and context-heavy yet simple and elegant, the book stands alone as a work of interest in its own right beyond its benefits for language learning. The Orbis Pictus provides a mini-immersion world to keep the reader absorbed in the zone of flow.

The Study

The Study is a place where a Student, apart from men, sitteth alone, addicted to his Studies, whilst he readeth Books, which being within his reach he layeth open on a Desk, and picketh all the best things out of them into his own Manual, or marketh in them with a Dash, or a little star in the Margin.

CI – The Study – Museum

It’s Relevant – The book is written in the vernacular and the concepts that constitute the chapters connect with the real-world. Learners can identify with the language and concepts. As such, it is a vehicle for learning that is a lot more engaging and authentic than scripture, doctrine, or high literature. The Orbis Pictus is a congruent, coherent and structured narrative with well-graded, clear and simple language use.


I. Invitation – Invitatio

M. Come boy, learn to be wise.

P. What doth this mean, to be wise?

M. To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.

P. Who will teach me this?

M. I, by God’s help.

P. How?

M. I will guide thee through all. I will shew thee all. I will name thee all.

P. See, Here I am, lead me in the name of God.

M. Before all things, thou oughteth to learn the plain sounds of which Man’s speech consisteth; which living creatures know how to make and thy Tongue knoweth how to imitate, and thy Hand can picture out.

Afterwards we will go into the World, and we will view all things.

Here thou hast a lively and vocal alphabet.

There Are Five Pages About Birds – Birds are a vast semantic field with great variety and a good topic for any observer of the world. The Orbis Pictus categorised objects on a scale of appropriateness and likeness rather than by the Aristotelian method of classical and complete definitions. In this way, Comenius seems to have adopted the basics of Prototype Theory long before Wittgenstein came up with his idea of Family Resemblances.

In his descriptions of birds, plants, animals, and other fields, Comenius was focussing on subtle similarities and stressing the relativity and connectedness of objects. This gives the text an enduring congruence and provides optimal semantic sentience.

Ravenous Birds

The Eagle, king of the birds looketh upon the Sun.

The Vulture and the Raven feed upon Carrion.

The Kite pursueth Chickens.

XXV – Ravenous Birds – Aves Rapaces

It’s Bizarre – Life was different in Comenius’ time and people expressed themselves in ways which seem so quaint to us now that reading it is a bit like ringing a distant bell in your inner cultural consciousness.

Monstrous and deformed People are those which differ in the body from the ordinary shape, as are the huge Giant, the little Dwarf, One with two Bodies, One with two Heads, and such like monsters.

Amongst these are reckoned, the jolt-headed, the great-nosed, the blubber-lipped, the blub-cheeked, the goggle-eyed, the wry-necked, the great-throated, the crump-backed, the crump-footed, the steeple-crowned. Add to these the bald-pated.

XLVI – Deformed and Monstrous People – Deformes & Monstrosi

It Transports You Back in Time – Because the book is authentic and comprehensive, it gives the reader a remarkably detailed view of seventeenth-century life and language. This makes it as interesting and educational today as it has ever been.

The Barber in the Barbers-shop, cutteth off the Hair and the Beard with a pair of Scizzars, or shaveth with a Razor, which he taketh out of his Case.

And he washeth one over a Bason, with Suds running out of a Laver. And also with Soap, and wipeth him with a Towel, combeth him with a Comb, and curleth him with a Crisping Iron.

Sometimes he cutteth a Vein with a Pen-knife, where the Blood spirteth out.

The Chirurgeon cureth Wounds.

LXXVI – The Barbers Shop – Tonstrina

It Mirrors Semantic Translation – When creating my own beginner-level experimental and taxonomic method, I took a very similar approach. Comenius employs the convenient crutch of direct translation from the reader’s L1 to Latin and he centres his phrases around the core nouns from the main semantic fields. The syntax, verbs, function words, modals, adjectives, and adverbs are built upon these capitalised nounal keystones. The book resonates with people’s perception of the world by employing concepts within concepts to create a compendium of the known universe.

Thus thou has seen in short all things that can be be shewed, and hast learned the chief words of the English and Latin Tongue. Go now and read other good books diligently and thou shalt become learned, wise and godly.

CLIII – The Close – Clausula

I think that the people of bygone centuries were probably better learners than we are today. They had to be to build their own homes, grow crops, navigate ships, be able to absorb and transmit encyclopaedic knowledge of flora, fauna, families, folklore, survival and medical techniques, mostly without pens and paper. There is an argument for saying that in the old days, weak learners would have been lost to natural selection much more so than in the modern urbanised environments of today. For our ancestors, learning meant the difference between life and death and so perhaps it’s time this book was readapted for modern audiences, who also need to frame and label the things that make up our increasingly complex world.

The obvious conclusion I want to make is that coursebooks are not inherently bad, they are just generally bad. Like the Orbis Pictus, they can be brilliant vehicles for the fusion of declarative and procedural learning. If course-designers can just peer beyond the grammar syllabus into the promised land where content is interesting enough to allow the reader to lose themselves of their own accord, then they can emulate the drive to modernity and empowerment that Comenius embodied.