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Learning to “Readerly” Latin

by Dr. Heather Harwood, Classics Department Chair



Although this is something I have been jokingly saying to my students for years in my efforts to dissuade them from reading out their English translations in class, I have never found it to be a very helpful or effective injunction. For years, Latin II was my hardest class to teach as year after year I continually struggled to make the transition from vocabulary acquisition and grammar to reading Latin and Greek a fruitful or easy one for many of my students.

Over the years I tried everything. I color-coded words, I made up a system of shapes to help students identify case endings, I sang, I danced, I threw pinky balls around the room.  I told them these grammar and morphology markers were their life-lines, their flotation devices and that they better learn them because they would need when the day came and they had to dive into the uncharted waters of that most dreaded body of water the OCEAN OF REAL LATIN PROSE. But every year it was the same, when we “dove in” a few of the students would resurface with a surge and begin to swim freestyle out in front of everyone, some would survive holding onto their diagrammed sentences and declension charts for dear life, heads bobbing just above the water line, but many, too many, would sink.

The summer before last when I read the chapters on language acquisition and reading in the Jossey Bass Reader The Brain and Learning, it was like a light turned on in my head. The article spelled out for me in very clear terms just why I had always found teaching my students to read so difficult. It explained how the decoding part of the brain was separate from the comprehending or meaning-making part of the brain and that the cognition involved in learning to read is a complex process involving at least three different parts of the brain.

This made me reconsider the way I had been teaching reading to my students. I had heard about a different approach to learning Latin known as “Readerly” or “Reading” method, but I had always considered it a less rigorous and less authentic approach to learning, in part because this was not the way I had been taught. After some further research into how the method works and after several departmental discussions with my colleague Jeanna Cook, we decided that we would switch over to this method in both our introductory Latin and Greek courses. Last year was the first year for both of us (she taught the Greek, I the Latin) and while we won’t know definitively if this method is more effective for another year or so, I feel that we have made the right decision for our department and one that is in line with the school’s innovative initiatives.

The change in pedagogy necessitated a change in our assessment pattern and style as well. Last summer’s readings on feedback and formative and summative assessments gave me the opportunity to think more intentionally about the way I was assessing my students. If my goal was to get students to be able to read a passage of Latin, I decided my summative assessments should be in this format exclusively. I also decided to make them open book for the first half of the year in Latin I. I discovered that students who had difficulty remembering case endings and verb subject agreement on charts and those for whom vocabulary memorization was a challenge had no problem at all translating these words correctly in context. While Ms. Cook and I continue to discuss our assessment practices and to share ideas about developmentally appropriate rubrics, we are both committed to making reading the primary assessment tool in our department.

Although I felt that my students had a positive experience with the new textbook and enjoyed more success as early readers than students in previous years had, I was still  dubious about whether I could trust this method alone to teach my students the finer points of Latin grammar and morphology.  This summer I attended a workshop for teachers of the Cambridge Latin Course and had a chance to meet with other Latin teachers who use the book and with one of the current authors of the curriculum. I came away with a deepened understanding of the rationale and progression of the series and was affirmed by many others in my new assessment practices. In addition, I attended sessions on the ancillary online material and am now able to make a more informed decision about how best to support the students’ learning experience with technology.

This year I will have the chance to teach Greek I with this same new method and Ms. Cook will teach Latin I. I have no doubt that as we grow into this new curriculum there will be kinks to work out along the way, but I am confident that this new method of teaching will serve our students better, both in the short and the long run, and will allow us to continue to foster Classics at St. Mark’s into the 21st century.

Dr. Heather Harwood is the Classics Department Chair.  She received her B.A. in Classics from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from Yale University.  Dr. Harwood advises the St. Marker, teaches Ashtanga Yoga, and lives in Elm with her son, Finnegan (VI Form).

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