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Teaching Latin at

Primary School Level




A research paper written by

Bijan Omrani


With the support of

Greg Martin,

Chief Executive,

Durand Primary School







This paper surveysand lists the benefits that the teaching of Latin can provide for children atprimary school level. It examines the teaching techniques and approaches thathave been most successful in the past and which may be most suitable forteaching Latin to children in this age group, and makes some general outlineproposals for a curriculum structure, techniques and activities which might beused to introduce it into a primary school. 


The benefits of Latinin the primary curriculum


Classicalcourses at university level often make the boast that they embrace and supporta multitude of other academic disciplines. A Classics degree will include notonly the study of language, but also literature, history and philosophy; itmight even stretch to include archaeology, anthropology and ethnography, or thedevelopment of mathematics and science. At primary school level similarly, thestudy of Latin has been shown to offer a wide range of benefits, not onlywithin the narrow field of developing literacy, but across the entire scope ofthe curriculum.


a)      Benefitsfor literacy and the primary curriculum


A number ofresearch programmes, for the most part conducted in the United States,[1]have shown the positive effects that Latin can have on literacy when includedin the primary curriculum. The evidence is manifold and authoritative.


i)                   Vocabulary: Around 60% of words inEnglish are derived from Latin, either directly, or else by way of Old French.It should be little surprise, therefore that children who are taught Latin havebeen found to made rapid advances in the scale of their vocabulary. A study inPhiladelphia, where children of 4th-6th grade were given20 minutes of Latin tuition daily, found that the performance of the Latingroup was one full year higher than a matched control group which had notstudied Latin.[2] Usingcurriculum materials developed during this study, a similar experiment wascarried out at P.S. 152, an elementary school in a multi-lingual “working-class”area of Brooklyn, New York. After a one year course of 45 hours instruction inLatin, the children were shown by means of the California Aptitude Test to havemade significant gains in the areas of vocabulary and comprehension.[3]Similarly, in Park School, Easthampton Massachusetts, where a group of 5thand 6th graders were given a programme of Latin instruction, whilstall pupils showed a “marked improvement”, as many as 24% showedmore than two years’ growth.[4]


ii)                 Reading skills: A study of 600 studentsin inner-city schools in Indianapolis found that after a five-month Latinteaching programme, the students being taught Latin made an advance of eightmonths in word knowledge, one year in reading, and one year one month inlanguage.[5]In a further study in Washington DC, children at three schools were given aone-year programme of Latin instruction. The children taking Latin were found,after this period, to have advanced five months ahead of children in a controlgroup not studying Latin. The comment was made that childrenwho had been learning Latin for a teaching period of eight months had “climbedfrom the lowest level of reading ability for the highest level of their grade.”A further finding of the same study was that the children who had studied Latinfor just one year overtook in reading skills others who had been studyingeither French or Spanish for 38 months.[6]


Further studies have demonstrated that thestudy of Latin can have specific benefits for children for whom English is asecond language. A study at Gallaudet College found that students “whosenative language was not English could make sudden and extraordinary jumps invocabulary and verbal skills – advancing on average a full year abovethose not taking Latin”. The study found that such children advanced onaverage eight months after just one term’s study of Latin.[7]


iii)               Spoken and oral work: Modern techniquesof teaching Latin, particularly at an initial level, lay a strong emphasis onthe language being spoken, and the use of listening and conversation as a meanswhereby vocabulary can be secured, and reading can become more fluent. The oraluse of the language allows many more learning styles to be accommodated, thanif the language were treated just as a written artefact. Latin presents fewerproblems for pronunciation than many modern languages as the rules are clearand regular, which makes it ideal for such work. The use of Latin in thisrespect allows students to develop their oral and listening skills.[8]


iv)               Benefits for other academic disciplines: Researchsuggests that the study of Latin has a strong positive impact on other unrelatedsubjects. The Indianapolis study quoted above, aside from looking at theprogress which Latin students made in the fields of reading, also tested theadvances they made in other areas. Against the control group, the study foundthe following gains: “seven months in math computation, eight months inmath concepts, nine months in math problem solving, five months in science, andseven months in social studies.”[9]


v)                 Benefits for modern languages: A previousexperience of Latin appears strongly to enhance the results of studentsstudying modern languages. A study of 245 pupils at CrispusAttucks High School, Indianapolis, found that pupils who had studied Latin fora year before going on to take up French or Spanish gained significantly bettermarks than those who had no previous experience of Latin.[10]A number of more recent studies have also confirmed this observation. In astudy in Washington, “students who had taken a foreign language and Latinscored in the 58th percentile on their English vocabulary level, while thosewith no foreign language scored an average percentile of 28”.[11] 


The reason thata study of Latin brings about these benefits is perhaps best expressed by theRussian child psychologist L.S. Vygotsky, who wrote“A foreign language facilitates mastering the higher forms of the nativelanguage. The child learns to see his language as one particular system amongmany, to view its phenomena under more general categories, and this leads toawareness of his linguistic operations”. Latin, with its inflectedcharacter and elegantly logical grammatical and syntactical structures, isperhaps better placed than many other modern languages to help children analysethe grammar and syntax of English, and hence to use English with greatereffectiveness and confidence. As another scholar put it, the study of Latinteaches “the art of study itself... in other words a mind used to thework of thought, to methodical research, to solving scientific problems... Andwhat could better fulfil this end than the study of a language different fromthe one they [the students] have learned by usage, but nevertheless related toit, and which therefore illuminates it and is illuminated by it in a thousandways...”[12]


b)      Benefitsbeyond the curriculum


i)                   Higher order thinking skills: It has beenshown that a study of Latin helps to develop the higher orders of cognitiveskills (which are defined by Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives as analysis,synthesis and evaluation). Statistics collated from the American SAT reasoningtest, in which a good performance indicates a strong grasp of the higher orderof cognitive skills, support this observation.  One study noted that “the SATVerbal average for those taking the Latin Achievement Test . . . was 144 pointshigher than the national average for all students.”[13]It is also of note that students taking Latin also outperformed in the SATreasoning test those only studying modern foreign languages.[14]


ii)                 Cultural and historical knowledge: Latinis not only important for the rigorous training that it gives in literacy andcognitive skills; even greater is the cultural benefit which aknowledge of Latin entails. Latin was the first ever written language inthe British Isles. As the language of the Roman Empire, it was used from the frontierwith Scotland to the borders of Persia and the deserts of Egypt. Even after thecollapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Latinremained the spoken and written lingua franca of Europe until at least the 18thcentury, and at the basis of European (and American education) until well intothe 20th century. It was the language of diplomacy, law, academia,medicine, religion and trade. As such, it is one of the great internationallanguages of the world, and the defining language of western civilisation. TheClassical authors constitute a body of great literature which are worthy to beread in their own right. However, more than this, they should be read by modernstudents to understand the incalculable impact they have had on Englishliterature and life over many generations. When kings looked to the educationof their heirs and successors, they drew on the works of Cicero and Seneca to inculcatethem with notions of civic duty and the difficulties of government.[15]Shakespeare looked to the myths of Ovid and the comedies of Plautus to shapehis own drama. Milton turned to Virgil as a model for creating an English epic,Paradise Lost. Donne and Pope foundin Latin satire a pattern for their own satirical works. Keats used the lyricof Horace as a basis for some of his most beautiful verse. Even to the presentday, Ted Hughes and Derek Walcott have drawn on classical authors as a springfor their creativity. Indeed, many European and English writers wrote in Latin,influenced by Latin; Milton, Petrarch, Erasmus, George Herbert, Sir FrancisBacon. The Carmina Burana (O Fortuna!) or songs of the youngwandering medieval students are products of the universal European Latinculture of the Middle Ages. Even the scientific treatisesof Isaac Newton were originally composed in Latin. The European world wassaturated in the Latin mind; to understand the European world fully, it isnecessary to understand Latin. As such, it is part of the birthrightand rightful inheritance of every schoolchild in this country, and should notbe denied them.


While some of these authors are perhaps beyond theprimary level, and should be

seen as the culmination of the educationalcourse of which the primary school is the beginning, there is still a multitudeof Roman and Latin cultural material which is both beneficial and exciting forchildren of this age group. Within a radius of just a few miles from central Lond there are a wealth of Roman remains which can bring tolife the everyday world of the Roman period – the Roman Wall and smallRoman forts still standing around the Square Mile, the remains of the MithrasTemple at Walbrook, the Roman burials discoveredrecently at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the great store of Roman finds, statues,coins, jewellery held at the Museum of London and the British Museum. Eachartefact is capable of opening up “‘new symbolic worlds’ fora child with limited cultural backgrounds” who then “is able‘to grow as a personality, to live a richer life’”.[16]  It is similarly the case for Romanhistory or legends, whether a child encounters the history of Caesar crossingthe Thames, Boadicea burning down the city of London, or the tales of Hercules,Theseus, Daedalus and Icarus, Phaeton and the Sun God. A knowledge of Latin andRoman culture can lead to any sort of encounter, high or low, mythical orpractical: epic poetry, or the raucous popular songs sung by the youthfulwandering students of the Middle Ages; the background to the architecture ofgrand London buildings such as St Paul’s Cathedral (with its dome basedin part on the Pantheon in Rome, which also, by way of HagiaSophia in Byzantium, became a model for the conventional domed mosque), or elsethe plumbing of Roman baths, hypocaust heating, and the toilets built for Romansoldiers in the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall. Latin provides newperspectives for schoolchildren on every possible level.


Latin is also being rediscovered and used in English schools preciselyfor the same reason which made it an indispensiblepart of the education of princes in the Renaissance: its value for teachingconcepts of citizenship and society. The golden period of Roman literature atthe end of the 1st century BC was a time of turbulence and changefor the Roman Empire. A republican government was giving way to autocracy.External populations were flowing into the city from all over Italy and theEmpire, bringing different customs, religions and ways of thought. Inequalityof wealth was growing rampant, and old traditions were being called intoquestion. With so many old certainties in doubt, one of the leading concerns ofLatin writers at the time was a search for a common identity, and a questioningabout what made a good citizen. What duties do Romans owe to each other and thewider world? How should they be governed? How should they relate to their past,and deal with the shock of the new? How do they deal with the presence ofdifferent cultures? One hardly needs to draw attention to the parallels betweenthe circumstances of Rome in the 1st century BC and the present day.Even the simplest stories and texts from Latin literature can illustrate notonly Roman history, but be an exciting andthought-provoking introduction to the problems of how to live in a modern andchanging society.


iii)               Confidence, self-esteem and motivation: Manyof the studies carried out on the academic benefits of learning Latin alsoreported a number of attendant positive psychological effects. The researcherson the programme at Gallaudet College (see above) mentioned that the studentsdemonstrated “above average motivation.” Latin, carrying the air ofa removed or special academic discipline, gave many a sense of privilege andhigh achievement. “The success that students feel in learning this newlanguage provides some of them with a sense of self-esteem and pride that theymay not experience in learning other subjects”.[17]Other teachers commented on students possessing greater self-reliance, and“a higher self-image”.[18]Teachers and parents involved in the Easthampton programme (see above) praisedthe “the intangible and untestable results in the development by thestudents of a more cosmopolitan outlook and a better understanding of others– an essential component of humanistic education”.


Teaching methods at primary school level


It might bethought unrealistic to expect primary school children to pick up more than asmattering of Latin at this stage in their educational career. However, itshould be remembered that until the middle of the 18th century inmost of Europe, the majority of primary education began with and was conductedin Latin, and students, by the conclusion of their studies at this level, wereable to speak and read Latin with considerable fluency, at the age of 12 beingable to deal with the verse of Ovid and Epistles of Cicero[19](now firmly texts of at least AS level standard). Although it would bedifficult to allow the same amount of teaching time to Latin as was thenavailable (perhaps up to 70% of the timetable), the employment of the bestpedagogical methods would certainly be able to achieve similar results giveneven a reduced, but sufficient timetable allowance. The success of manyEuropean countries in teaching second languages can certainly be attributed inpart to the early start which children make, for example Italy, Spain andNorway at the age of six, and foreign language teaching by immersion is notfound a difficult matter for children of this age.[20]


The latestresearch on the best pedagogical techniques for teaching Latin are beginning topoint back to a revival of teaching methods that were generally popular up to atleast the middle of the 17th century. From that time, particularlywith the rise of vernacular languages, Latin became more of a written and ossifiedartefact, learned more by getting grammar and vocabulary tables by heart. Itbecame a language of the exercise book, rather than a living means ofcommunication; indeed, English began to take over as the means of instructionand the commonly spoken tongue at schools. Before that time, except perhaps forthe very youngest children (under the age of 5-6) Latin was initially learnedby means of complete immersion; there was a Latin atmosphere in the classroom. Childrenfirst learned letters in a fashion not dissimilar to phonics, discerning andlearning how to pronounce the syllables, but using Latin psalms, prayers andsongs which would be committed to memory. Commands and comments would be givenin Latin, for example “sedete!” (sit down), “porrige manum” (hold out your hand [to receive abeating]), “palmas”(excellent) or “non potest legi”(illegible). Signs and notices equally were in Latin; might be labelled “sexta, quinta, quarta”, (sixth, fifth, fourth) or “schola grammaticae”(grammar class). The initial encounter with the language, and for its first fewyears, was intensely practical. The students would use textbooks called “colloquia” that would containsample phrases or conversations, in some cases gradated, which would be of usein the everyday life of the child. They would learn to say what time they hadwoken up, why they were late for class, to apologise for losing a book, ask forpaper, or to borrow money or a football. For the first two years or so, untilaround the age of eight (though promotion through subsequent grades weredependent of the mastery of material rather than progression of age), thiswould go hand in hand with a light study of grammar – the declensions andverb tables. At around the age of eight, when a good working knowledge of Latinvocabulary and simple grammar had been built up and was known instinctively andautomatically, would the child move to formalise his knowledge of Latin grammarby means of the textbooks written by Donatus andPriscian or similar authors.[21]


Many educationalistshave reported on the benefits of using approaches similar to those from theearlier age – what in the 20th century came to be looselycalled the “direct method”.[22]More recent Latin course textbooks, for example the Cambridge Latin Course, Minimus or Ecce Romani, especially the former withits video and computer-based resources, underscore the notion that there shouldbe a strong communicative basis to learning Latin in addition to thegrammatical aspect, particularly by basing the initial synthetic Latin texts ineveryday familial situations with which students might be familiar. However, onaccount of the lack of expertise amongst teachers and an unwillingness to takeon board the results of pedagogical research, a majority of classes are notexposed to Latin by means of oral immersion. Research indicates that thebenefits of a direct method in Latin are widespread. The use of speaking andlistening activities “provide[s] a wider array of opportunities forstudents of various learning styles”. Proficiency in oral and listeningskills aids the development of speaking and writing skills. In the words ofJohn Gruber-Miller of Cornell College:


“...listening, because of the speed of the discourse, forceslanguage learners to focus on meaning and chunks of information, and tocomprehend a passage in Latin word order. As students listen, they mustrely not only on their linguistic knowledge but also on background knowledgeand context for comprehension. Listening and reading, moreover, involve similarmental and memory operations: paying attention, decoding, comprehending, and inferencing. Thus, many of the same skills and processesused in listening help language learners become better, more fluent readers. Similarly,speaking is useful because it provides students opportunities to use thelanguage productively, thereby reinforcing vocabulary, grammar, and syntax andpushing students to higher levels of proficiency.”[23]


A recent Europeanconference of second language teachers from the primary school level agreedthat “methods, which encourage real communication with a wide range ofstimulating activities and, where possible, multi-sensory experiences, enhanceenjoyment and effective language learning... Pupils’ learning andprogress are hindered when they are not engaged in meaningful communicativesituations and there is a lack of variety in the teaching method so that pupilslose concentration and, ultimately, motivation.”[24]The report also emphasised the successful outcomes from early activities whichincluded communication, listening, role-play activities, drama, movement,games, and activities which encouraged an awareness of the cultural backgroundof the target language.


Any programmefor Latin teaching at a primary school, where a good timetable provision ismade for the subject, should in my view be predominantly divided into twosections.[25]The first part, from reception to year 3 or 4, should be focused on theacquisition of the Language primarily by means of the methods outlined above– the direct method, with Latin used orally, for communication.Activities should include storytelling and questioning, substitution responsedrills, use of pictures for description, transfer of ideas to different media (e.g listening and drawing, condensing information fromstories, filling in of blanks, dictation, repetition, interviews, physicalresponse to commands, scripted role-play, drama.[26]Vocabulary learning should be reinforced by large quantities of easy reading,using synthetic Latin texts with a low density of new vocabulary; this willallow the new vocabulary to be learned at a sustainable and secure rate, whilstthe grasp of that already known is strengthened.[27]There should be a small admixture of formal learning of grammar and wordendings, but only the most commonly used and most essential.[28]From around year 3 or 4, there should be an increasing emphasis on more formalgrammar, with a formalisation and confirmation of what has already been learnedby acquisition, although the earlier activities should also continue. Towardsyear 5 or 6, it should be possible to read the simpler original Latin texts,for example verses of Ovid, or (possibly adapted) passages of Caesar, or else otherLatin historians.


The way forward


The followingcourse of action should be considered to develop the teaching of Latin at aninterested primary school. A pilot scheme should be carried out before thewider introduction of Latin into the curriculum:


·        Training of staff in Latin and relevant teachingtechniques.

·        Survey and development of experimental coursematerial.

·        Teaching of pilot class or classes for the firstyear to develop the syllabus, teaching materials, teaching experience in thefield and best practice.

·        Wider introduction after the first year, andfurther development of course materials for higher year groups as the firstpilot classes ascend through the school.

[1]Professor Christopher Pelling comments that there isa certain advantage to the majority of the evidence being from the UnitedStates: “British evidence would be more open to the objection that we arelikely to be dealing with independent school pupils with the other advantagesthat a professional home background may give.” Many of the US trials, bycontrast, have been conducted in Public (i.e. state) Schools, particularlyamongst students from economically disadvantaged or marginalised communities. Latin for Language Learners, Openingopportunity for Primary Pupils C. Pelling and L.Morgan, (Politeia, 2010)

[2] “TheInfluence of Latin Study on Reading Skills,” Council for Basic Education Bulletin, 16 (December, 1971), 5-6, and“News and Notices: Philadelphia,” The Classical Outlook, 49 (March, 1972), 74-75, “quoted in TheEffect of Elementary Latin Instruction on Language Arts Performance”,Nancy A. Mavrogenes, The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Mar., 1977), pp.268-273

[3] “TheMeasurable Benefits of Teaching English through Latin in Elementary School”Arlene R. Fromchuck The Classical World, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Sep. - Oct., 1984), pp. 25-29

[4] “Latinfor Fifth and Sixth Graders in Easthampton, Massachusetts,” The Classical World, 68 (April-May,1975), 444, quoted in Mavrogenes, ibid.

[5] “Latinin the Elementary School: A Help for Reading and Language Arts” Nancy A. Mavrogenes, The PhiDelta Kappan, Vol. 60, No. 9 (May, 1979), pp.675-677

[6] JudithB. LeBovit. TheTeaching of Latin in the Elementary and Secondary School: A Hand- book forEducators and Administrators. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for theHumanities, 1973; Susan L. Jacoby. “Big City Schools IV -Washington:National Monument to Failure,” Saturday Review, 50 (November 18, 1967),71-73, 89-90, both quoted in Mavrogenes 1977.

[7] Townsley, L. (1985). Latin as avocabulary builder for hearing-impaired and second-language students ofEnglish. Teaching English to Deaf and Second-Language Students, 3 (1),4-8, quoted in “Efficacy of Latin Studies in the Information Age”,Alice K. DeVane, (1997). Paper submitted for PSY 702:Educational Psychology. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

[8]See for example “Developing Listening and Speaking Skills: Practical Waysto Implement the Standards with the OxfordLatin Course”, John Gruber-Miller, The Classical Journal, Vol. 101, No. 1 (Oct. - Nov., 2005), pp.87-98

[9] Mavrogenes,1979.

[10] “Latin,a Basis for French and Spanish Study as Evidenced by Teachers' Marks”Pauline Morton-Finney, The ModernLanguage Journal, Vol. 25, No. 11 (Dec., 1941), pp. 873-880

[11] Masciantonio, R. (1977), “Tangible Benefits of theStudy of Latin: A Review of Research” ForeignLanguage Annals, 10: 375–382, quoted in DeVane1997. See also Sparks, R. L., Ganschow, L., Fluharty, K. & Little, S. (1995-96, December/January). “An exploratory study on the effects of Latin on nativelanguage skills and foreign language aptitude of students with and withoutlearning disabilities.” TheClassical Journal, 91, 165-184.

[12] Inauguraladdress of Max Bonnet, Professor of Latin at the University of Lausanne, quotedin Latin or the Empire of a Sign,Françoise Waquet, tr.JHowe, Verso London 2002, pp. 188

[13] LaFleur, R. A. (1981). Latin students score high on SAT andachievement tests. ClassicalJournal, 76 (3), 254, quoted in DeVane (1997).

[14]Sparks, R. L. , Ganschow,L., Fluharty, K. & Little, S. (1995-96,December/January). An exploratory study on the effects ofLatin on native language skills and foreign language aptitude of students withand without learning disabilities. TheClassical Journal, 91, 165-184, quoted in DeVane(1997).

[15]See, for example, Erasmus, Institutio principis Christiani “Educationof a Christian Prince” (1516).

[16] JudithB. LeBovit, quoted in Gilbert Lawall,“Teaching the Classics in America and England Today and Some Thoughts forthe Future,” Classical Outlook,November/December, 1977, p. 11, and Mavrogenes 1979.

[17] Abbott,M. G. (1991). Critical issues in the classics for American schools. Foreign Language Annals, 24(1), 27-37,quoted in DeVane 1997

[18] ibid.

[19]See “Changing Objectives and Procedures in Teaching Latin, 1556-1956”,George E. Ganss, TheClassical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Oct., 1956), pp. 15-22

[20] See n. 24 below.

[21]For fuller details see Ganss 1956, Waquet 2002, or MedievalSchools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England, Nicholas Orme, (Yale, 2006)

[22]For a survey of language teaching methods, see Karl Conrad Diller, The Language Teaching Controversy. (Rowley,Massachusetts: Newbury House 1978)

[23] Gruber-Miller,2005

[24] GroupReport on the conference “Teaching Modern Languages InPrimary Schools” organised by Inspection Académiquede la Marne, March 2007.  See also“Stephen Krashenand the Classical Languages”, Rudolph Masciantonio,The Classical Journal, Vol. 84, No. 1. (Oct. - Nov., 1988), pp. 53-56.

[25]The benefits of such a structure have been long recognised (aside from theoriginal Renaissance curriculum). See for example “The Direct Method inLatin Teaching”, Edward C. Chickering, The Classical Weekly, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Nov.2, 1912), pp. 34-37

[26]The activities listed here are in essence an amalgamation of approaches fromdifferent methods of teaching languages in general derived from the directmethod. There are many approaches which claim to be different, with vociferousproponents (for example Total Physical Response (TPR), Teaching Proficiencythrough Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and so on), but in reality beingderived from the whole concept of the direct method, or being immersed in thetarget language, they share much, differing only in details or emphasis. Theactivities which are appropriate and profitable for specific situations shouldbe determined by further experimentation, although many potential activitiesare listed in detail in Gruber-Miller, 2005; also see for example “TheOral Method in Latin as Applied to the Teaching of Comprehension”, FredS. Dunham, The Classical Journal,Vol. 20, No. 4 (Jan., 1925), pp. 226-235; “Learning Process and ExerciseSequencing in Latin Instruction”, Andrea Webb DeagonThe Classical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 1(Oct. - Nov., 1991), pp. 59-70; Praeceptor, AMaster’s Book, S.O. Andrew, (Oxford, 1913). Other recent textbooksand resources exist, for example ConversationalLatin: For Oral Proficiency, John C. Traupman, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers; 4th edition, 2007, whichcould be adapted.

[27]On vocabulary learning methods see “Some Needed Research in the Teachingof Latin”, Mark E. Hutchinson, TheClassical Journal, Vol. 29, No. 5 (Feb., 1934), pp. 335-356

[28] “Realismin Latin Teaching” Mark E. Hutchinson, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 8 (May, 1935), pp. 477-488