To the Editor:
Commentary author Baynard Woods maintains that the study of Latin can help students increase their vocabulary and improve standardized-test performance (“Give Latin (and Potential Dropouts) a Chance,” edweek.org, Sept. 22, 2008). Studies done over the last century appear to support this suggestion, but there is reason to be cautious.
Latin provides readers with internal cues to word identification, allowing those with some Latin training to infer meanings of many unfamiliar words of Latin origin. Knowledge of internal cues is particularly useful on tests that present words out of context or in isolation.
In contrast, readers use cues external to a word when acquiring vocabulary by reading, from the text and their prior knowledge. They gradually build up meaning each time the word is encountered in print.
It may be that Latin gives a temporary boost, allowing less-advanced readers to appear to be improving on vocabulary tests. Reading, however, offers both a short- and a long-term benefit: Gains in vocabulary from reading generally are better than gains resulting from vocabulary study, and if students establish a reading habit, the gains continue throughout their lives.
In 1923, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike of Teachers College, Columbia University, provided evidence that Latin has only a temporary impact: High school Latin students excelled in English vocabulary after one year, but the difference was smaller after two. Also, Latin students did clearly better than comparisons on a test of English reading comprehension after one semester, but the difference was smaller after one year.
A better test of this hypothesis is to see whether there is a difference in vocabulary size and reading ability between widely read adults who have studied Latin and those who have not. If Latin gives only a temporary boost, there will be no difference between the two groups.
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as Impact of School Latin: Good, But Temporary?