The Four Principles of Latin Study
In the last issue of the Classical Teacher, I gave some principles of Latin instruction as set forth in Charles Bennett’s 1911 book, The Teaching of Latin and Greek. This book, though long out of print, contains what I believe to be very sound insights into the teaching of classical languages.
Principle #1: Memorize the Latin Grammar
Setting priorities is a key to success. There are many good things to do, but there is usually one essential thing. Do it, and let everything else take second place. In Latin, the one essential thing for the beginner is to learn the Latin grammar—the declensions and conjugations, what 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. It is a thing of order and beauty, a pleasure in and of itself. It should not be rushed over as a necessary evil that has to be endured until we can get to the fun of translating.
Digging deep and working for mastery builds interest, confidence, and a feeling of accomplishment in students. Students like what they have mastered and they dislike what they have only half learned. So slow down, stay a while, let the student relish and enjoy learning the Latin grammar. The tendency to skim over, even to denigrate, the lower skills in a rush to get to the higher ones is a characteristic of modern education. The result is superficial learning, which I think is the cause of student boredom and frustration.
Principle #2: Recite the Latin Grammar Orally
Mastering the Latin grammar means learning a new set of grammar forms almost every week. How do you retain the old forms
when you are constantly adding new ones? Oral recitation.
There is no way to remember all of the declensions, conjugations, and principal parts of Latin unless you recite them all, every week, week after week. The Latin Grammar is too much to memorize visually or learn by writing. It is one thing to see something on the written page, but another thing entirely to hear it with your ears and recite it from memory. Repetitio mater studiorum.
Repetition is the mother of learning. I can’t say it enough.
At the turn of the century, class meetings were actually called Recitations. The students were required to recite the material they had learned, presumably in all subjects, not just in Latin. To stand up and recite something from memory is a good feeling. It is the satisfaction of knowing something really well.
At Highlands Latin School, where we have developed all of our programs, we recite sections of the grammar in our classrooms
and also in larger assemblies at the beginnning of Latin choir. Students hear the grammar forms they have already learned and
some they haven’t. Jingles and songs are not necessary; just a little rhythm will make them memorable. If you recite something
out loud enough times with your child, you will naturally make it memorable. If you are a homeshcooler, all it takes is two people, you and your child.
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 in a form drill. Here are some examples of form drills that will challenge your students and build speed and confi dence. Ask your students for:
a. the accusative plural of stella
b. of the laws
d. I had walked
You get the idea. Strive for immediate recall. Drill every day. These drills are fun and students enjoy them. They are great for board races and team competitions in the classroom. If you are a homeschooler, challenge your child to give correct answers within a set time limit.
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. By overlearning I mean the idea that a student must learn the grammar so well that it is simply second nature. You want to get to the point in your mastery of the forms that you are really not thinking about them at all.
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 focus on.
Corollary I: Limit vocabulary
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 learning 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 master the grammar and acquire a large vocabulary at the same time.
Corollary II: Limit translation and syntax
The study of syntax and translation are logic level skills and are best postponed until the logic stage, grades 7-8. In speaking of the traditional approach of which he approves, Dr. 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 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 limit syntax and translation work until the grammar has been mastered.
These principles, as I have described them, are consistent with the trivium model of learning, which, as it is used by the classical education movement, has two useful applications to the teaching and learning of Latin.
First, the trivium describes the developmental stages of the child in terms of cognitive skills and therefore helps us determine age-appropriate content and skills for our children in each stage. Memorizing the Latin grammar is an age-appropriate goal for the grammar stage, approximately grades 3-6. Learning syntax (how to use the grammar) and developing translations skills is an age-appropriate goal for the logic stage, approximately grades 7-8. Translation of Latin literature will then follow in the rhetoric stages in grades 9-12.
Second, the trivium model describes not only the stages of the developing child, but also the stages that any learner must go through when approaching a new subject. So if you are just starting Latin and your child is already past the grammar stage, or if you as an adult are trying to learn Latin yourself, take heart. The learning process and the stages are the same. If you are a beginner of any age, your fi rst and most important goal is to master the Latin grammar and these principles apply to you!
Learning the Latin grammar is fun and enjoyable. It is full of many milestones, and at each one you can look back at what you have accomplished and be amazed. Don’t overlook the grammar. The failure to master the basics is usually the cause of drop outs, those that are unable to run the course and cross the finish line. The grammar is the firm foundation that will enable you and your child to run the race and finish the course.