How to Teach Latin

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Because of the education meltdown in the twentieth century, the art of teaching Latin—and nearly everything else—has essentially been lost. As we work to restore the content of the classical curriculum, we must also strive to resurrect the art of teaching it.

Latin, as it was taught in the second half of the twentieth century, was a two-year ordeal—grammar in the ninth grade and Caesar in the tenth. Few students who experienced this grueling regimen signed up to spend a third year with Cicero. Having been required to learn in one year what previous generations had learned in four, most students have less than pleasant memories of Latin. But that is our way in the twentieth century; we are in a hurry to cover “everything” and we are addicted to superficial work. So the student pays the price: he must cover the text, receive a grade, and earn a credit. But has he learned anything? Has he been motivated and inspired to continue his study or has he developed a dislike for the subject? The grade and the credit mean nothing. It is the answers to the last two questions that really matter.

As Latin teachers, we need standards to judge How-to-Teach-Latin-Quoteourselves by; and when we look to the past, it is a sobering lesson indeed to see the achievements of former ages: In the 1800s, fluent readers of Latin were regularly admitted to Oxford at the age of sixteen. Even more startling are the meager instructional materials available to teachers at that time—eight-ounce grammars with very little in the way of translation exercises. How did they teach Latin with such skimpy little books?

Latin teachers in the past had mastery knowledge, and they also had a long tradition of mastery teaching. Not only did they know Latin, but they knew how to teach it. They had techniques honed through centuries of experience, refined through trial and error. I believe this forgotten art of teaching Latin must be rediscovered and restored in order for the classical education movement to thrive and grow. Classical education will remain an elusive dream, classical in name only, until we as teachers are able to develop Latin programs that are as successful as those of the past.

In his The Teaching of Latin and Greek, published in 1911 and long out of print, Charles Bennett outlined the scope, sequence, and methods of Latin instruction. I believe his principles are absolutely sound and have found them to be true from my own teaching experience. And further confirmation is that they are completely consistent with the trivium stages of learning. Dr. Bennett wrote his book at a time when the traditional methods of Latin instruction were being abandoned for more “progressive” methods. By explaining the failures of the newer textbooks of his own age, he sheds much light on what we need to do in ours.

What to Do

1. Memorize the whole Latin grammar.

2. Recite the Latin grammar orally.

3. Drill individual grammar forms for immediate recall.

4. Overlearn … until it’s second nature.

Around the turn of the century when Dr. Bennett wrote his book, progressive educators were abandoning the traditional pedagogy of Latin instruction (focus on memorizing the Latin grammar first and postpone syntax and translation). Thinking that memorizing conjugations and declensions was too boring for the student, newer textbooks began to teach grammar, syntax, and translation together, fragmenting and breaking up the unity of mastering grammar forms. Dr. Bennett observed that no one could deny that the newer textbooks produced students with a greatly diminished mastery of grammar forms and who were less prepared to read and translate Latin. He continued his book with his recommendations for returning to the traditional methods of Latin instruction that had served Latin teachers for centuries.

When Dr. Bennett wrote his book, students began their Latin study around the age of ten or eleven. In previous centuries, students had begun a year or two younger. While the age is not critical, I do think beginning Latin in the second or third grade is best. Students who are reading well at this age need a new challenge, and the Latin grammar gives them some good meat to chew on; it gives discipline to the student and structure, form, purpose, and goals to the whole elementary curriculum. Beginning Latin at a young age gives students ample time to master grammar in the grammar stage, syntax in the logic stage, and thus come to the rhetoric stage in the ninth and tenth grades fully prepared to tackle the great Latin classics of Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil.

What Not to Do

1. Don’t waste time memorizing long lists of vocabulary words. Learn words slowly, permanently, and in the context of something meaningful.

2. Don’t advance too quickly. Postpone translation and syntax until the logic stage (grades 6-8) or until grammar forms are mastered.

3. Don’t let inexperience or unfamiliarity intimidate you and keep you from learning Latin.

But what about those who begin later? No problem. Many of us in the classical education movement did not begin Latin until we began homeschooling, and we have still managed to achieve the rudiments of a classical education. If your child is beginning Latin in high school or even college, rejoice and be glad. He is still way ahead of the game. Young people can still expect to achieve Latin mastery and a life enriching classical education. But remember, Latin grammar cannot be learned in one year. If you are a novice teacher, give your studentsFirstFormLatin-CompleteSet plenty of time to master the subject. Better for him to take four years to learn Latin grammar and finish with a desire to continue in college, than to “cover” a high school text like Henle I and II in the prescribed two years, and then vow never to crack a Latin book again. The goal is lifelong learning, not lifelong avoidance, and the measure of our teaching is just that. The question we must ask is: Are we leading our students to love what we love or to dread it?

Dr. Bennett’s principles are consistent with the trivium and give us the tools we need to begin the process of restoring the art of teaching Latin. Grammar forms in the grammar stage, syntax in the logic stage, and translation in the rhetoric stage. Observing these principles, we can achieve the goal of restoring Latin to its rightful place in the classical curriculum.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2016 edition.

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