The Value of Elementary Latin Programs

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The phenomenal national growth in elementary-school Latin programs, which began in 1968 with new curriculum and instructional materials developed in the Philadelphia school district, is continuing in the 1980's. The new approach is appealing to elementary educators because it emphasizes Latin's oral dimension, its value as a tool to build English vocabulary, and the language's rich cultural heritage (as opposed to the old-fashioned emphasis on grammar and translation).

Elementary-school Latin programs now exist on small and large scales in the schools of Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles (where the curriculum has been tailored to also emphasize Spanish derivatives and cognates), Miami, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Washington, D.C. Hundreds of smaller districts and individual schools are considering such programs. Today there is more elementary-school Latin being taught in the United States than at any time in this century.

(One indication of the subject's growth--which comes at a time when secondary-school Latin courses are also growing--is a critical national shortage of Latin teachers. The Teacher Placement Bureau of the American Classical League says it has only one candidate for every two requests for a Latin teacher.)

The growth of Latin could well be described as an American renaissance in the making (remember that the Renaissance was a revival of interest in Greek and Latin). Why this renaissance? And why does Latin in a new mold seem like such a good idea for elementary-school pupils?

One reason advanced by Philadelphia's superintendent of schools, Constance E. Clayton, is that there is a renewed appreciation of Latin as a tool for studying English. The usefulness of Latin as a means of expanding English students' reading skills, vocabulary, and facility with language has been argued eloquently on the conceptual level for a long time, for a number of reasons. About 70 percent of the vocabulary of the English language is from Latin. Educators have long believed that a pupil who knows the Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes has the keys to unlock the meaning of countless English derivatives and cognates. Structurally, Latin is quite different from English in that it is highly inflected and does not have the rigid word-order requirements of English. Latin "works" differently from English and thereby affords pupils the opportunity to step outside their own language and acquire a Sprachgefühl--a linguistic instinct that is helpful in using English.

But now for the first time there is also a whole corpus of experimental evidence about the benefits of Latin. This research, involving pupils of every background, ability level, and region, demonstrates that Latin study--especially in the elementary schools--does in fact enlarge English vocabulary and foster better reading skills. Such studies, which have been conducted in the public schools of Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Worcester, Mass., involved experimental groups of pupils taking Latin whose English verbal skills were pre-tested, post-tested, and compared with those of control groups. In each case, the Latin pupils showed significant gains over the control group. In one study in Philadelphia, for example, 5th graders taking Latin moved ahead of the control group one full year in their scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

The rich and timeless cultural values of Latin and the light it sheds on the beginnings of our civilization are also coming to be more widely understood and desired by educators, pupils, and parents. People see Latin as a cure, at least in part, for the rampant tendency of modern students to know only their own country and their own time. Through Latin, younger pupils learn about the ancient people--the strangeness and antiquity of the pre-industrial, pre-computerized, pre-Christian, multiracial world of the Roman Empire is part of its appeal to younger children. The myths that fascinated young children in the days of Homer and Virgil continue to do so today.

One could go on listing the values of Latin study for younger children, but to do so seems needlessly apologetic. The elementary-school Latin program in a sense speaks for itself (Res ipsa loquitur). Let's look at a typical lesson.

Our scene is a heterogeneous 5th-grade class in inner-city Philadelphia. The teacher is showing the class pictures of a boy of ancient Rome listening to his teacher, speaking to the class, reading his scroll, and writing on his wax tablet. The teacher uses the Latin question Quid agit puer? ("What is the boy doing?") and the appropriate picture to elicit the following answers:

Puer audit. ("The boy is listening.")

Puer dicit. ("The boy is speaking.")

Puer legit. ("The boy is reading.")

Puer scribit. ("The boy is writing.")

The direction Omnes! ("Everybody!") elicits a strong choral response. The teacher gives individual Latin questions throughout the class in rapid-fire succession. Not a word of English is used until there is thorough mastery of the Latin dialogue.

Next, the teacher discusses the English derivatives and cognates connected with the Latin words in the dialogue. From audit there is auditory, audible, audio, and auditorium. From dicit there is diction, dictum, dictaphone, and dictator. From legit we have legible, illegible, and legend. From scribit there is scribe, inscribe, scribble, scriptorium, and script. Even puer gives us puerile, puerperal, and puerility. For most of the pupils, these English derivatives and cognates are new. The pupils will echo these new words and learn to use them in sentences. Later, they will learn to read and write the new English words.

Also growing out of the Latin dialogue will be a lively discussion of Roman educational practices. What was expected of the teacher in old Rome? What was expected of the pupils? What were books like? How did pupils learn to write? What provisions were made for the education of girls? Would you like to have been in school in classical times?

But tempus fugit ("time flies"). The Latin dialogue is quickly reviewed chorally and individually, and the 15-minute daily Latin lesson ends with the farewell exchange, Valete discipuli! Vale magister! ("Goodbye pupils!" "Goodbye teacher!")

The lesson is fun and useful. In addition to the benefits already described, the Latin lessons stimulate interest among the children in the study of classical and modern foreign languages and in the humanities in general. And, as great language teachers beginning at least with Quintillian have always known, younger children are more likely to learn foreign languages successfully than teen-agers. The new elementary-school Latin programs capitalize on this fact and make a solid, cost-effective contribution to basic education.

Vol. 04, Issue 04, Page 21

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