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What I Teach & Why & How

by Rose Williams
Texas Classics in Action, Winter 1999; revised August 2009

Whether in high school or university, teaching Latin today involves building a bridge from our world to that of the Romans, enticing students to cross that bridge, and helping them gain some understanding of a very different environment so that they can better understand their own.

What I teach to the best of my ability is a) basic and widespread Latin grammar structure, spelling, and pronunciation for a grasp of the language, and b) Roman culture and literature for a better understanding of that language and of the Romans because of the great impact both had on their world and the modern one. Having briefly outlined the what and the why, let us boldly advance to the how.

Many different grammatical and linguistic approaches have their ardent supporters, and I have tried most of the well-known ones. The success of any method depends largely upon two things: the motivation of the students and the enthusiasm of the teacher, which contributes to that motivation. I use a blend of approaches in my classes, because every student is different, and one will react to one method best; another, another.

I like to have all students keep a Latin notebook in which they gather grammar and cultural notes they have taken, copied material I have handed out, a basic vocabulary list with all principal parts and some derivatives, marked papers I have returned, and special material they or their fellow students have brought in for extra credit. For a new teacher or one settling into a new textbook or a new level of teaching, those student projects, which can bring in everything from derivatives to cultural information, are almost as helpful as they are to students.

A critical factor in any class is time, so I break the grammar concepts that I feel must be covered into weeklong segments and build around them. These segments vary slightly according to the book we have, but for Latin I or the first university semester they include these: 5 declensions of nouns, including the five traditional cases; adjective declensions and basic pronoun(hic, ille, is, qui, quis) declensions subordinated to these; comparison of adjectives; and the six tenses and four conjugations of verbs and the verbals. In university I try to take a quick look at the subjunctive mood, but in both high school and university I tend to take that in the second course or level. The horizontal method is very useful in presenting the varied forms of the most-used cases, but, especially as Latin dictionaries tend to use only the genitive case to indicate the declension of such nouns as "status", once the students begin to write or speak Latin and need more vocabulary, the vertical method is very useful. Therefore I use both, emphasizing whichever my book uses and giving the other to my students in their notebooks to use as a reference. I have them learn three basic noun declension charts - 1st, 2nd masculine and neuter, and 3rd (regular) masculine/feminine and neuter. We then use these to create the adjective and pronoun charts. After this we familiarize ourselves with the more exotic declension forms by using them. We do the same with the six tenses of the first and third conjugations. From these they obtain a grasp of the language's structure and learn how to look for other things they need in reference tools. The basic concepts mentioned above are taught by old-fashioned grammar tests as well as oral exercises (1).We use real Latin literature as often as possible. The more grammar structure and usage they learn, the more literature they can understand.

Vocabulary, like grammar, is somewhat closely tied to the book one is using. The older books pointed toward the traditional course of study involving Caesar, Cicero and Virgil, and the vocabularies were a bit heavy with words relating to ancient warfare. Some of these, such as signum, have a varied and important life to the present day; some are a bit esoteric. The later texts tend to teach Latin words suitable for the daily-life stories they love; some of these are basic and important; some of them are also esoteric. I like to teach about 500 words in a year - that is, include them in the notebook vocabulary section, have them memorized, and use them for reading, writing, speaking, and derivative work. I choose these according to several guidelines - what my textbook offers, what will be useful for the literature I hope to teach, and which ones have many derivatives in Latin, English and other languages (2). The American Classical League Teaching Materials Center offers a Basic Latin Vocabulary booklet as well as running vocabularies for major authors. There are various study guides for standardized tests as well as the vocabularies at the back of the book used to teach upper level literature. I consult all of these, then draw up my yearly vocabulary list. English derivatives form an important part of the students' vocabulary study. We usually put these in the margin in front of the vocabulary word entered in the vocabulary section of the student notebook so that students will not confuse them with the English definition, as they are very prone to do. A derivative such as "portable" helps students remember the meaning of porto; a derivative such as "vulnerable" helps the students remember both the spelling and the true definition of the English word.

We learn these words in dictionary form: principal parts and English meaning with a special place for derivatives. One method used is an old-fashioned vocabulary test: I call out words in English and they must write the Latin word, give its parts and meaning. I teach numbers on such a test by giving the numbers in Latin and having them write sometimes Roman numerals, sometimes English ones (3). For vocabulary review I often give them a specific list and some study time; then they must clear their desks and make a short oral sentence with a Latin word I give to them. They get credit for making a sentence and credit for orally translating someone else's. Also effective is the use of pictures which I put on the overhead or opaque projector and have them name objects, actions, or descriptions in Latin aloud or on paper. Mottoes, or Latin phrases used in English, can be taught in the vocabulary study. They enhance the students' understanding and give students a boost when found in such places as newspapers and other textbooks.

Language study should be as complete as possible a cultural experience, so I employ sense-related study. On special days, we have one or two Roman foods, some music and some small art objects to touch and see. Oral work, letters written in Latin, singing, reading poetry aloud, and crafting of Roman-type objects all have their place.

No one said all this was going to be easy, but bright voices saying, "Look where I used my Latin," make it very worthwhile.


1. Oral exercises

A. the teacher holds up a penny, saying "Habeo pecuniam." He/she then hands it to the first student, saying "habebam pecuniam." The first student says "habeo pecuniam", a second student says, "habebo pecuniam", a student beside the first students says "habet pecuniam", and so forth.

B. Students love singing the conjugations or declensions - we have class contests to see who can make the best tune, then all use it.

C. Questions phrased and answered according to the gender of the speakers and subjects practice the use of gender inflections, question structure, and the present of sum.)

(Teacher/leader to first student)

Sum defessus(a). Esne defessus(a)? I am tired. Are you tired?

(First Student) Sum (non) defessus(a). I am (am not) tired.

(First Student to Second Student)

Sum (non) defessus(a). Esne defessus(a)? I am tired. Are you tired?

(Second Student) Sum (non) defessus(a) I am (am not) tired.

(Second Student to Third Student)

Sum (non) bonus(a). Esne bonus(a)? I am good. Are you good?

(Third Student) Sum (non) bonus(a). I am (am not) good.

(Third Student to Fourth Student)

Sum non stulta (us). Esne stulta (us)? I am not stupid. Are you stupid?

(Fourth Student) Sum non stulta(us). I am not stupid.

(Fourth Student to Fifth Student)

Bellum est malum. Esne malus(a)? War is bad. Are you bad?

(Fifth Student) Non sum malus(a). I am not bad

(Fifth Student to Sixth Student)

Templum est pulchrum. Esne pulcher(pulchra)? The temple is beautiful. Are you

beautiful (handsome)?

(Sixth student) Sum (non) pulcher (pulchrum) I am (not) beautiful.

(Sixth Student to Seventh Student)

Tempus est celere. Esne celer(is)? Time is swift. Are you swift?

(Seventh Student) Sum (non) celer (is) I am (not) swift.

Continue with the adjectives suggested below or others, changing the adjective often enough to keep interest but not too often to allow the students to develop confidence in speaking out.

hirsutus, a, um hairy

tardus, a, um slow

callidus, a, um clever

magnus, a, um great

altus, a, um tall

benignus, a, um kind

malignus, a, um evil

parvus, a, um small

D. Objects in classroom-give names on board or overhead

camera-room liber-book mensa-table

fenestra-window libellus-notebook erasura-eraser

ianua-door creta-chalk demonstra-point out

sella-chair pictura-picture da-give

scrivinium-desk carta-paper ambula ad-walk to

penna-pen tabula-chalk or writing board tange-touch pone-put

Have students act out commands:

Da librum puellae. Ambula ad fenestram. Demonstra cretam, etc.

2.There are ten Latin verbs that have many hundreds of Latin and English compounds made from them. Exercise in compounding verbs:

Compound each of the ten verbs with four of the prefixes to create new Latin verbs. Give and define English derivatives.

Notice that English verbs are often made from the present stem of a Latin verb and nouns from the fourth principal part.


ab--away in--in, not

ad--to inter--between

con--with, together prae--before

contra--against per--through

de--down pro--for

dis--away re--back, again

ex, e--out trans--across

Base Verbs:

1. duco, ducere, duxi, ductum--lead

2. cedo, cedere, cessi, cessum--move

3. mitto, mittere, misi, missum--send

4. pono, ponere, posui, positum--place, put

5. fero, ferre, tuli, latum--bear, carry

6. eo, ire, ii, iturum--go

7. porto, portare, portavi, portatum--carry

8. venio, venire, veni, ventum--come

9. scribo, scribere, scripsi, scriptum--write

10. verto, vertere, verti, versum--turn

3. If one has ever wrestled with Egyptian currency, one knows that the numbers we use are not the Arabic ones. Fibonacci calls them Indian numbers.

Rose Williams is a veteran Latin teacher at both high school and university levels. She is the author of numerous classical works, including three Latin history readers, a Vergil reader and a Vergil workbook, histories and children's stories. For more information on her writings and teaching materials, visit her website .

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