Latin: The Next Step After Phonics

Latin in elementary school, after phonics? This may sound like a new and experimental idea, but it’s really an old and traditional one. Have you ever read Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Anne of Green Gables?

If so, you may have noticed that the students in these books seemed to spend a lot of time studying Latin grammar and that it was completed before high school. In fact, this is where the name grammar school came from—from the days when the most important subject in elementary schools was Latin grammar. But just because Latin was considered very important 100 years ago, doesn’t mean that it is all that important today. Times change. Why should our students today study Latin, and why begin in the third or fourth grade, or even earlier?

Key to the English Language

The most practical reason for Latin study is that it also teaches English. Over half of our English words are really Latin words—and it’s not just any half; it’s the difficult half! The common one- or two-syllable words of every day speech are English, but the big three- to five-syllable words are usually Latin. These are the words students start to see in their reading in science, history, and literature beginning in the third and fourth grade. Do we really prepare students for this transition?

Let’s say Johnny has worked hard, learned phonics, and can read and spell the word father. Is he now prepared to decode the meanings of all of the words he will encounter that come from the Latin word for father (pater, patris)? How will he learn the spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of patriarch, patriarchy, paternal, paternalistic, patron, patronize, paternity, patrimony, etc.? He will probably learn these words mostly on his own, in a hit-or-miss fashion. Most students never really develop a command of the English language because they are not taught the English language in a systematic way after leaving phonics. Many students do not develop the vocabulary necessary to read well in their own language because they have not been given the tools to attack the incredibly large number of English words.

The advantage of beginning Latin early is that we give our students the tools to decode these big words just when they begin to encounter them, instead of five years later. I have noticed that young students love to learn big words even if they don’t know exactly what they mean. I teach them such words as ludicrous (ridiculous, silly) which comes from ludus (game). Even though this is a word they may not encounter soon, they seem to enjoy saying it. They become comfortable with big words because, after all, most of them come from Latin, and they’re not so scary after all. Students begin to see Latin roots in words everywhere and tell their parents about the new words they encounter and where they come from. Parents are thrilled, and students develop confidence. They are being given a valuable tool: Latin— the key that opens up the door to the English language. Students need this key while they are still young enough to be excited about words and while they are rapidly developing vocabulary through their new skill of reading.

Another reason to begin Latin in the early grades is that students at this age still find memorizing an enjoyable task, something not usually true of students in high school. Much of the vocabulary and forms of Latin can be learned in grades two through six. So Latin is good for vocabulary development. Why not just study 100 Latin and Greek roots, and be done with it? It sure seems a lot more efficient and quicker than studying all that grammar, those awful declensions and conjugations that go on forever.

Grammar, Grammar, Grammar

Obviously 100 root words can’t even compare to learning thousands of words in Latin, nearly all of which seem to have English derivatives. But there are more reasons to study Latin than a larger vocabulary and higher SAT scores. One is contained in the expression “all that grammar.” All that grammar is exactly what students get in Latin that they don’t get in French or Spanish. To really understand the structure of language (and that’s what grammar is), students must study a structured language. In Latin, grammar is the organizing principle, rather than a vestige, as it is in most modern languages. Students who learn English grammar by comparison and contrast with Latin grammar develop an understanding of language far superior to anything that can be achieved by the study of modern languages alone.

Why do we even care about grammar anyway? Most parents I know are really concerned about the poor writing skills of their children and feel that an understanding of grammar will help them write with more clarity and precision. Parents have an uneasy feeling that the muddled writing of their children is evidence of muddled thinking. Studying a disciplined, organized language like Latin helps students learn to think in a more disciplined, organized way. The very nature of the language affects the way students think and write.

Simplify Your Curriculum

There is a lot of interest in unit studies among homeschoolers today. I think there are several reasons for this. One is lack of retention. Have you ever taught what you thought was the greatest lesson ever, only to realize three months later that your children swear they never heard of the subject? How dare they forget what you were sure they would remember forever!

Another frustration of homeschooling is all that curriculum. So much to learn, so many books, so many programs, so little time. Isn’t there any way to pull all of this knowledge together and consolidate? A third reason is fragmentation. If we could only make more connections between all of the various fields of knowledge, there would be more meaning in their education and less learning for the short term.

I think all three of these reasons may be different ways of expressing the same idea. As my children went through their elementary years, I felt that there was something missing. There was no subject rigorous and challenging enough to train and discipline their minds, and there was no focus that helped pull everything else together.

I experimented with teaching them Latin and, although I did not have the materials I needed for their age, I found that I had finally discovered the subject that was my heart’s desire. My background was in math and science, but I fell in love with Latin. The more I worked with Latin, the more I realized it was an educator’s dream.

Latin is the mother tongue of Western civilization. Because it has been the language that has transmitted our cultural heritage for over 2,000 years, it pulls together language arts, history, geography, culture, art, architecture, music, values, religion, government, science, math. Everything in the modern world seems to be related to Latin and the ancient and medieval cultures that spoke it. By examining the roots of our culture in its mother language, knowledge begins to integrate naturally.

The best way to put it is this: Latin is a unit study where the work is done for you. Latin is the Basic Subject because it is the Basic Language, and the way to really get back to the basics is to study Latin. This will be a new concept to many people, but those parents struggling to integrate and simplify their curriculums (not to mention their lives) will find in the study of Latin, not just a language, but an organizing principle that could revolutionize their homeschools.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2014 edition.

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