The History of the Natural Method of Teaching Latin: Part II

History of the Natural Method

Rugby_Chapel2In the first part of this article,  we discussed the origins of the modern Natural/Direct Method of teaching Latin in the unsuccessful attempt to teach modern languages by downplaying the traditional student memorization of the complicated grammatical forms and the emphasis on written translation exercises in favor of conversational methods of instruction and student response.

Largely because of its lack of success in teaching modern languages in the 1920s, the method began to die out as a way of teaching modern languages. But in a curious development, a number of classical language teachers around this time theorized that it might be used to teach a dead language.

W.H.D. Rouse was given credit for first applying the Natural/Direct Method to the teaching of Latin and for first popularizing it for this purpose. A brilliant linguist and the translater of popular editions of both the Iliad and Odyssey, Rouse became Headmaster of the Perse School at Cambridge and, from 1902 to 1928, conducted the most sustained experiment in the use of the Natural/Direct Method to teach Latin that made him the method’s greatest publicist. He saw the conversational method of instruction as a way to address the problem of boys who saw the work of grammar and translation as “an unmitigated grind.” He conducted his Latin classes in accordance with pure Natural Method standards, with no English permitted

Rouse was an able publicist and through the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching (now the Association for Latin Teaching), he created a vehicle through which he could spread his message throughout England and beyond. His flair for acting allowed him to present an engaging demonstration of the Natural Method in action to classroom visitors.

But throughout the experiment, two questions dogged Rouse: First, there were questions related to the objective assessment of the ability of Perse students compared to students in more traditional schools. Rouse made the questions harder to answer because of his noted dislike of testing and would not let his students take the annual Board of Education examinations. He steadfastly refused to allow any evaluation of the results of his experiment.

Second, there were questions about whether his methods could be successfully replicated in other classrooms. As C.W.E. Peckett remarked, “When asked [to explain how they taught the method], they could only answer, ‘Come and see some of our lessons, then you will know.’ Many people came to their lessons and thought them amazingly effective. Then they went away and tried the method in their own classrooms: and failed utterly.”

Andrew Lang once asserted that “Dr. Rouse’s method is an admirable method, but only a very clever man, I am afraid, can employ it.”

The British government seems to have noticed the problem of the method’s dependence on the skill of the teacher, and in a 1923 government committee report, concluded: “The Direct Method, though in the early stages it has proved to be in many respects successful when employed by specially competent teachers, is not suitable for general adoption.” As if in confirmation of this assessment, within two years of Rouse’s  retirement, the experiment was over, and Perse returned to the method that had been used there prior to Rouse’s headmastership.

Any evaluation of the efficacy of the Natural/Direct Method of Latin instruction must take into account three considerations: the historical record of its use, the soundness of its fundamental tenets, and its compatibility with the generally accepted goals of Latin instruction.

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First, conditions more conducive to success than those obtained at Perse would be hard to imagine. Despite its competent and energetic teachers devoted to the method and a supportive British government, the method was still found wanting. Tied so firmly to individual advocates, Natural Method programs seldom outlast the tenure of those individuals.

Second, the most basic idea behind the method is so counter-intuitive that it requires a great leap of faith to embrace it. The position that by learning to “think in Latin” one can progress more rapidly toward an ability to read ancient Latin literature is an unproven theory and even if true would still leave unsolved what seems the insurmountable problem of the two-year time constraint most Latin students face. In addition, can it ever make sense to deny a student, in learning anything, his most valuable learning tool—his native language?

Finally, the Natural/Direct Method fares poorly in comparison to the grammar translation method in terms of the major goals of Latin instruction, whether it is an acquaintance with Roman literature, the training and disciplining of the mind that the complex, precise Latin affords, the goal of understanding English grammar more thoroughly, or helping in the development of a larger and more nuanced English vocabulary. The time that must be devoted during the first two years to learning basic Latin conversation is time not spent on these instructional goals.

For these reasons, it is difficult to view the Natural/Direct Method as a viable instructional method for the teaching of Latin.

Winter1-Checked out to Tanya.indd


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2014 edition.

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