Latin III's Big Secret: Johnny CAN Read!

Ellen Sassenberg

Rochester Mayo High School

            The topic of transitioning students from textbook Latin to university level Latin has received considerable attention recently.  In his article "Latin III's Dirty Little Secret: Why Johnny Can't Read," Ken Kitchell suggests that a student's lack of knowledge about the ancient world plays a more significant role in impeding a student's ability to read and comprehend Latin literature than having a solid knowledge of basic morphology and grammar.  Although this background knowledge can play a part in the evolution of a student's reading ability, based upon my experience, I would suggest that the lack of solid grammatical knowledge plays a far more significant role in the existence of a gap between high school and university levels of Latin. 

I have a particularly keen interest in this topic, because I concurrently teach at the 9-12 and intermediate university levels.  At my high school, Latin I, II, and III are offered.  Students who want to complete a fourth year of Latin register for the local university's intermediate Latin courses through a state program that allows them to take college classes for concurrent high school and college credit.  Because I am the university's instructor for these intermediate level classes, I see the same students through the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels of Latin—transition gap and all.

            My high school uses the Cambridge Latin Course, and, as is the case with most inductive learning textbook series, the presentation of the grammar in such courses often leaves something to be desired.  In my experience, I have found that capitalizing on the opportunity to supplement those presentations by first teaching the linguistic rules of the language and then insisting on students' abilities to master the fundamental grammar is the first step in preparing students to succeed at reading more advanced Latin. 

             The most effective way I have found to hold my students accountable for having mastered these fundamentals is by making use of the pop-quiz.  As we learn and review our grammar, especially in Latin II, the students know that I reserve the right to quiz them on all of the fundamental grammar that we have covered.  In no time at all, my students have committed to memory the words they love to hate:  "Take out a half a sheet of paper!"  From past negative experience in not insisting upon this level of mastery, and, quite frankly, learning the hard way, I have found that this degree of accountability is a critical factor in determining how well a student is able to bridge the reading gap. 

            When a student's grammatical background is solid, and recognizing morphemes and inflectional endings have become second nature, the style, not the grammar, of an individual author is what remains as the greatest challenge to a student encountering Vergil or Cicero or Catullus for the first time.  Instead of remaining in the rut of decoding a line of prose or poetry word for word or letter for letter, beginning on the left hand side of the page and laboring through to the right side, students increase their abilities to comprehend and decipher the grammar of each line.  Early mastery of fundamental grammar and a student's continued accountability for that knowledge play a critical part in a student's ability to transition from Cambridge's Quintus and Salvius to Catullus' Lesbia. 

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