There are a lot of good reasons for thinking that Latin should be restored to its former place of honor as the basic subject in the elementary years. In previous issues of The Classical Teacher, I talked about some of these. But knowing that you should teach it and knowing how to teach it are two entirely different things. How can a busy homeschool mom with no background in Latin hope to teach this sometimes difficult subject? I can answer this question. I can answer it because, at one time, I was a homeschool mother who didn’t know Latin. Here are 7 principles for teaching Latin for how those who don’t know Latin so they can successfully teach it.
Teach it Yourself
The good news is that you can teach your children Latin! The bad news is that you must learn it along with them. The materials are available for a successful elementary Latin program, but it is unrealistic to think that children will learn Latin without a teacher. They cannot be handed a Latin program and be expected to learn this rigorous subject alone. Latin programs like Latina Christiana and the First Form series are designed to enable people who don’t know Latin to teach it.
Do it in a Group Setting
I recommend, if possible, organizing a small Latin class, either within a family or by combining children from several homeschooling families. A mom, or several moms, in your homeschooling group may very well relish the task of learning and teaching Latin for interested families. If this is not a possibility, then just consider your younger children as your Latin class. Little ones love to mimic their older siblings and will happily chime in during recitations. Group recitation of forms, vocabulary, prayers, songs, and competitive games make learning Latin a lot more enjoyable.
Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and underestimate what they can accomplish in five. One reason for starting Latin in the third or fourth grade is to give you and your children plenty of time to learn this challenging subject. Learning Latin may seem like an overwhelming task, but when it is broken down into one workable lesson a week, it becomes just a matter of discipline: All you have to do is stick to it.
Approach it As a Basic Subject
Latin must be approached as a basic subject, just like arithmetic. We give our children seven or eight years to master arithmetic. It’s part of the daily routine. No one thinks of dropping arithmetic because the kids don’t like it or because it’s hard, boring, or not needed anymore because of computers. Latin must be thought of in the same way. Students derive their expectations from parents, and if Latin is presented to them as a basic subject necessary for a complete education—like math—they will accept that and learn it, year after year. If it is presented as a new subject that’s going to be lots of fun, or as enrichment, or optional, then when it gets to be routine and hard, students will want to drop it and take up something else that appears new and fun.
Keep Latin Front and Center
Make Latin the center of your language arts curriculum, not something your child is required to do after he has completed all of his other “English” assignments. You may find that a lot of those assignments are unnecessary when you are studying Latin. Children will be a lot more positive about doing Latin if they see that it takes the place of some of the English work they disliked anyway, instead of being additional work to do in an already overloaded curriculum. For instance, English grammar study for Latin students can be greatly reduced, and there certainly is no need for a vocabulary course. Students should feel that their subjects are being consolidated rather than expanded. Their retention will increase because much of what they are learning is connected.
Teach the History and Culture Associated with Latin
Students will be unmotivated to learn a language if they know nothing of the people who spoke it. Famous Men of Rome is a delightful introduction to history. Students will learn about the natural virtues of the Romans and why they have inspired so much admiration throughout history. Since the Romans are more suitable for younger ages, it is best to sacrifice chronological order and study Rome before Greece. Students will then have the opportunity to compare and contrast the Greeks and the Romans, and to understand their impact on history. After this foundation in the classical age, students will have a deeper knowledge of “the fullness of time” and have some appreciation of the momentous change brought about by the coming of Christ.
If you approach Latin with enthusiasm, your children will pick up that love and enthusiasm too. Teaching techniques are important in Latin. Memorization through oral drills and recitations can be fun. Singing songs and saying prayers in Latin motivates students and makes Latin a part of everyday life. The greatest satisfaction, however, is the feeling of accomplishment when something is completed. When the child looks back over what has been learned in one year, it can be exhilarating. At the end of Latina Christiana, students can say over twenty sets of grammar forms and twenty-five Latin sayings from memory. They look at each other and can’t believe they did it. At our school, when we have learned all five declensions we have a celebration. It is a great feeling. When we have a test over all four conjugations, six tenses, and active and passive voice, it is a milestone.
Latin is methodical, it is systematic, it is cumulative—and it is relentless. The student thinks it will never end, that he will never learn it all. But then one day he is sitting on top of this mountain we call Latin grammar and thinking to himself, “Well, I guess it really wasn’t that difficult after all.” He has learned an important lesson in life: Hard work and perseverance—not genius—are the keys to success.