Arma Virumque Canō

Arma Virumque CanōI thought about titling this post “Amō, Amas, Amat” or “Venī, Vidī, Vicī”—well-known references to Latin I and Latin II—but I settled for the memorable opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid because my Latin IV class had to read all 12 books of the epic poem in Latin.  I say “had to,” but I really mean “got to.”  It is rare for that to happen in high school, and it is one of my proudest academic accomplishments to this day.  So what am I talking about right now?

I am talking about how important the study of Latin is and how dismally we do it as a nation.  I am guessing that a lot of you believe that Latin is a ridiculous choice of a language to study, but let me try to prove you wrong.  Parents of middle school students and high school students:  Since you might be in a position any day now to make a decision about language study for your child for next year, I don’t have much time left to convince you.  Parents of elementary school students:  Keep reading, because I am going to talk about a problem that affects your child’s ability to learn a fundamental skill in these early years.

Let me skip all of the obvious cultural and historical importance of Latin, because the study of any language will give that to your child.  All languages come with a rich culture and history, and that is one of the key reasons to study any language in addition to your own.  Let me also skip the fact that knowing Latin enables you to read all kinds of inscriptions on buildings and money and the like.  That’s cool, but probably not important.

What is important is the fact—the absolute fact—that studying Latin improves a student’s English vocabulary and, even more important, grammar skills.  Nothing teaches you English grammar like studying Latin.  And it is clear from many of my other posts, my USACollegeChat podcast episodes, and my upcoming speech at a KnowledgeWorks Early College conference in Orlando, that I believe that high school students’ grammar skills are woefully deficient.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to revamp a college’s freshman and sophomore core curriculum, which included mandatory language study.  I boldly advised that Latin be that mandatory study, given the struggles that many of that college’s students had with writing correctly and effectively.  After a lot of back and forth, the college ended up choosing Spanish instead, and I am still sorry.

It’s hard to get anyone to listen to my defense of Latin as the optimal language choice in middle school or high school or even college.  But, I now have new hope, based on my reading of a recent article in Educational Leadership (the well-respected journal of ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  The excellent article, written by Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak and Joanna Newton, is entitled “The Roots of Comprehension.”

Here is the authors’ opening statement of the problem, which I think will be quite recognizable to plenty of parents:

Research going back seven decades demonstrates that vocabulary knowledge is strongly associated with proficiency in reading comprehension.  Large vocabularies lead to better reading performance (Baumann et al., 2002; Davis, 1944).  Amazingly, more than 80 percent of students’ reading comprehension test scores can be accounted for by vocabulary knowledge (Reutzel & Cooter, 2015).  Yet, the most recent assessment of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students’ vocabulary development shows that at all three grade levels, U.S. students have demonstrated no improvement at all in their vocabulary knowledge since 2009 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

According to vocabulary scholar Margaret McKeown, very little vocabulary instruction happens in many U.S. classrooms (Banchero, 2013).  Where vocabulary instruction does occur, students often learn to view it as painful and meaningless: weekly word lists and quizzes. Students may memorize words, spellings, and definitions, but these are quickly forgotten.  The result of either approach—benign neglect or rote memorization—is stagnation in our students’ vocabulary knowledge. (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Doesn’t that make you sit up and take notice, parents?  Could improving your child’s vocabulary actually improve his or her reading comprehension?  That’s what the research says, and that is a powerful finding, given the number of standardized tests that depend of your child’s ability to read with comprehension.  And that’s not to mention the fact that poor reading comprehension will hold your child back in every school subject from elementary school right through graduate school.

What helps improve your child’s vocabulary most (according to me)—or, at least, a lot (according to the research and the ASCD article)?  It is the study of Latin and Greek roots.  A young friend of mine at Stony Brook University just took a whole linguistics course on the study of vocabulary and the value of recognizing the roots of words.  A vocabulary course in college!

Here is the article’s technical explanation of this simple thesis:

…The majority of academic words are connected by morphemic (meaning-based) patterns derived largely from Latin and Greek lexicons (Edwards, Font, Baumann & Boland, 2004; Graves, 2004; Padak, Newton, Rasinski, & Newton, 2008).  Scholars estimate that up to 90 percent of words with more than one syllable have origins in Latin and that many of the remaining multisyllabic words share roots in Greek (Padak et al., 2008).  These morphological patterns provide the foundation of much content-area vocabulary, as up to 76 percent of commonly occurring academic words share morphological roots (Coxhead, 2000; Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008).  By analyzing these patterns, students can make connections between words that are semantically and conceptually related (Baumann, et al., 2002; Edwards, et al., 2004). (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

In other words, learning Latin (and Greek) roots—along with prefixes and suffixes, which turn them into English words and which themselves often come from Latin (and Greek)—makes it possible for students to dissect new words when they meet them in their reading.   Figuring out the meaning of the words will, of course, help students figure out the meaning of the whole passage.

It should be obvious that knowing one root—or, even one prefix—can allow a child to figure out many words.  Just think how helpful it is for a child to know that words that have port (portō, portāre, L) in them probably have something to do with “carrying”—hence, transport (with trans, L, across), export (with ex, L, out or away from), portable, porter.  There are a million—well, many, many—examples of roots and prefixes just like this.

I frequently find myself surprised when one of my own children does not know what a word means and I have to explain it to them.  Then, I remember that only my oldest child had the chance to take Latin in high school.  My children’s middle school did not offer it, and the high schools that my younger two children attended did not offer it, either.  I tried to get my youngest to take Latin in college—better late than never, I thought—but we could never get it to work in her schedule.  Even though the younger two studied both French and Italian both here and abroad, I continue to be disappointed that they missed Latin.

I often wonder what it must be like for students who don’t have any knowledge of Latin—even of Latin roots, which can be taught easily, starting in elementary school.  The authors of the article make this rather insightful statement:

Words in English aren’t random strings of letters; their patterns have logic and meaning, much of which comes from Latin and Greek.  Unfortunately, many students are unaware of this link and unable to use it to learn new words and concepts.

Yes, indeed.  What could look like random strings of letters to students with no Latin background look like actual words to students with that Latin background.  Think how empowering that must be to students when they are reading a passage and they come upon a word they don’t know.

Well, I haven’t even started on the case for how knowing Latin grammar can make the mastery of English grammar so much easier or how well Latin grammar is typically taught and how poorly English grammar is often taught.  Just trust me on that, though your own experience likely supports it.

And let me say, for the record, that studying Latin does not substitute for studying a modern foreign language.  Kids should study both—for quite different, but equally valuable, reasons.  So, parents, think hard about what your kids are taking in middle school and high school (and, if you are lucky, in elementary school) when it comes to studying a second or third language, and don’t underestimate the value of Latin.

Parents of elementary school students:  How is vocabulary taught in your school? Do they teach Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes?  If not, why not?  Find out.  Show the ASCD article to your principal.  Bring up the subject at a PTA meeting.  Parents should have a say in curriculum.  Have yours.

Parents of middle school and high school students:  Does your school offer Latin?  If not, why not?  Is it the lack of interest on the part of the students/parents or the inability to get a certified teacher?  Find out.  Both problems are solvable.  Ask your principal or superintendent or school board to solve them.