The Four Principles of Latin Instruction

latin4In his 1911 book The Teaching of Latin and Greek, Charles Bennett listed the central principles of Latin instruction. Although this book has long been out of print, it contains what I believe to be the most helpful explanation of how Latin should be taught. It is these principles which underlie Memoria Press’ Forms series. Here is an explanation of each of these principles.

Principle #1: Memorize the Latin Grammar

Setting priorities is the key to success. There are many good things to do, but there is one essential thing. Do it, and let everything else take second place. In Latin, that one essential thing is to learn the Latin grammar—the declensions and conjugations, which we also call the “forms.” Work through the grammar systematically, not as a collection of random chants, or a declension here, a conjugation there. Teach the grammar as a system. Focus on it. Learn it. Master it. Remember that in the past, students and teachers had very little beyond the Latin grammar. Could that have been the key to their success?

A Latin grammar manual is a reference that contains the grammar forms and rules of syntax; there are no exercises. Whatever course you are using, be sure to purchase a Latin grammar. Latin Grammar for the Grammar Stage is a good and inexpensive choice.

Principle #2: Recite the Latin Grammar Orally

The Latin grammar is too much to only memorize visually or learn by writing over and over. Oral recitation of declensions and conjugations is an invaluable aid to the memory. Recite declensions and conjugations every day. This should not be an option. Students can recite all the basic Latin grammar forms in a single chant that lasts from 5-10 minutes from memory. Beginners hear forms they are going to learn, advanced students practice forms they have already learned. Everybody overlearns.

Principle #3: Drill Grammar Forms for Mastery

It is a great accomplishment to be able to recite and write all of the declensions and conjugations perfectly, but it is not enough. It is necessary to be able to give an immediate response to a “form” request. Ask your students for the “accusative plural of stella,” “of the laws,” “in the river,” “I had walked,” “we were seeing,” or “they have been attacked.” You get the idea. Strive for immediate recall. Drill 5-15 minutes every day.

Immediate recall will take several years to attain. Only when students have immediate recall are they actually ready to do any serious translation work. Translation work before mastering the grammar is a serious waste of time and energy. It leads to frustration and is the near universal error in Latin instruction today. We make this same mistake in all areas of teaching. In mathematics, for example, students do word problems, long division, and even algebra before they have mastered basic math facts.

Principle #4: Overlearn

When you think your students know the grammar, they probably don’t. Only students who have overlearned have even a faint chance of actually applying their knowledge when the time comes to use it.

I hope you have noticed that all four of these principles have to do with mastery of grammar forms. To bring these principles into clearer focus, let me tell you what not to do.

Corollary I: Vocabularylatin5

Do not have your students memorizing long vocabulary lists which they have no opportunity to use unless you intend to let them forget the words each week or invest serious time in flashcard drill. Vocabulary is best learned in context when the students are actually reading Latin, or by memorizing prayers and music. Invest your time in mastering the grammar and teach a basic vocabulary of 500-1,000 words over a period of 3-4 years. In other words, aim for a small, usable vocabulary that students can remember. It is too much to ask for elementary students to master the grammar and acquire a large vocabulary at the same time.

Corollary II: Translation and Syntax

The study of syntax and translation are logic-level skills and are best postponed until the logic stage (grades 6-8). Referring to the traditional approach to teaching Latin that he advocated, Bennett states, “During the acquisition of forms (grammar), little attention was paid to syntax. Only a few indispensable principles of the most elementary kind were introduced at this stage …. During the acquisition of the declension of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and largely during the study of the conjugations, the pupil was fed in the Reader on these isolated words and phrases. Complete sentences were almost unknown.” Lest you think this method is beneath middle and high school students, I should point out that I have taught adults who are just as happy as third graders, perhaps more so, to concentrate on grammar forms.

A good Latin program will have a modest vocabulary, present grammar forms systematically, drill isolated forms, and delay translation work until the grammar has been mastered. Translation work while learning the grammar should be limited to simple drills of inflected forms and very basic model sentences. English-to-Latin sentence translation is too difficult and should be limited and only done in the classroom with the assistance of the teacher.

Our Prima Latina, Latina Christiana, and Forms series programs conform closely to these principles.

As educators, we are tempted to push higher-level skills into the lower grades, thinking we are doing advanced work. This occurs in every subject, but especially Latin and mathematics, where students often try translation before learning grammar forms, and algebra before mastering arithmetic. Parents are impressed, and the program looks advanced, but the student suffers the consequences of our pride—for that is what it is.

Failure to master basic skills, whether it’s long division or Latin grammar forms, leads to creation of a glass ceiling. The students are unable to reach high levels in math, Latin, or other subjects because the foundation is so weak that it eventually crumbles under the weight of advanced academic demands. Student frustration increases and they drop out before calculus or Cicero or Shakespeare. When this happens, it is we who have failed our students.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2015 edition.

Leave a Reply

Skip to content