Learning Latin: The Next Step After Phonics

Author: Cheryl Lowe


Cheryl Lowe

Cheryl Lowe and her husband Jim have been married 25 years. Their two sons were both National Merit Finalists and are now in college. Cheryl, who graduated cum laude from the University of Louisville with a B.A. in Chemistry and from Western Kentucky University with an M.S. in Biology, is the co-founder of the Dorothy Sayers Cottage School where over 85 homeschooled students are studying Latin.

Latin in elementary school — after phonics? If this sounds like a new and experimental idea, don't be alarmed. It's really an old and traditional one. Have you ever read Goodbye Mr. Chips or Anne of Green Gables? If so, you may have noticed that the students seemed to spend much time studying Latin grammar — and that it was completed before high school!

In fact, the origin of the name "grammar school" came from the days when the most important subject in elementary school was Latin grammar!

Now just because Latin was considered very important 100 years ago, does this mean that it is all that important today? After all, times change. Why should our children today study Latin and why begin in the third or fourth grade?

The Key to the English Language

Perhaps the most important reason students should study Latin is to learn English. Over half our English words are really Latin words. And it's not just any half — it's the most difficult half! The common one and two syllable words of every day speech are in English, but the big three to five syllable words usually derive from Latin. These are the words students start to see when reading their science, history and literature — beginning in the third and fourth grade. Do we really prepare students for this transition?

Let's say young Johny has worked hard, learned phonics, and can read and spell the word father. Is he now prepared to decode the meanings of all the words he will encounter that come from the Latin word for fatherpater, patris? How will he learn the spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of patriarch, patriarchy, paternal, paternalistic, patron, patronize, paternity, patrimony, etc.? He will probably learn these words mostly on his own, in a hit-and-miss fashion.

Most students never really develop a command of the English language because they are not taught this same language in a systematic way after leaving phonics. Many children do not develop the vocabulary necessary to read well in their own language because they have not been given the tools to attack the incredibly large number of words in the English language.

The advantage to beginning the study of Latin in the third grade is that we give our students the tools to decode these big words just when they begin to encounter them (instead of five years later).

I have noticed young students love to learn big words even if they don't know exactly what they mean. I teach them such words as ludicrous (ridiculous, silly) which comes from the Latin ludus (game). Even though this is a word they will not encounter soon, they seem to enjoy saying it. The children become comfortable with big words because they know most of them come from Latin — and they're not so scary after all.

Students begin to see Latin roots in words everywhere and will tell their parents about the new words they encounter and where they come from. Parents are thrilled and students develop confidence. These children are being given a valuable tool — Latin — the key that opens the door to the English language. Students need this key while they are still young enough to be excited about words and are rapidly developing vocabulary through their new skill of reading.

Another good reason to begin Latin in grades three to four is that students at this age still find memorizing an enjoyable task, something not usually true of high school students. Most of the vocabulary and forms of Latin can be learned in grade three through six.

So, now we know that Latin is good for vocabulary development. Why not just study 100 Latin and Greek roots — and be done with it? It's a lot more efficient and quicker than studying all that grammar, and those awful declensions and conjugations that go on forever. Isn't it?

Latin Assists the Study of Grammar Too!

Well, in the first place, 100 root words can't even compare to learning thousands of words in Latin, nearly all of which seem to have English derivatives. There are more reasons to study Latin than vocabulary and higher SAT scores.

One is contained in the expression "all that grammar." Grammar is exactly what students get in Latin that they don't get in the study of French or Spanish.

To really understand the structure of language (and that is what grammar is), students must study a structured language. With Latin, grammar is the organizing principle rather than a vestige, as it is in most modern languages. A student can 't learn Latin without learning grammar.

Have you ever wanted to force your children to learn grammar (because force seems to be the only method that may work)? The study of Latin is your chance.

Why do we even care about grammar, anyway? Most parents I know are really concerned about their children's poor writing skills, so they feel that an understanding of grammar will help the children write with more clarity and precision. Parents have an uneasy feeling that the muddled writing of their children is evidence of muddled thinking. Studying a disciplined, organized language like Latin helps students learn to think in a more disciplined, organized way. The very nature of the language affects the way the children think and write.

Lack of Retention? Simplify Your Curriculum

There is much interest in unit studies among homeschoolers today. I believe there are several reasons for this.

One is the lack of retention displayed by children. Have you ever taught what you thought was the greatest lesson ever — only to have your children, three months later, act as if they never heard of the subject? How could they forget what you were so sure they would remember forever?

Another frustration of homeschooling can be all that curriculum. So much to learn, so many books, so many programs and so little time! Isn't there any way to pull all of this knowledge together and consolidate it?

A third reason is fragmentation. If we could only make more connections between all of the various fields of knowledge, there would be more meaning to the children's education and less learning for the short term.

I think all three of these reasons may be different ways of expressing the same idea. As my children went through their elementary years, I felt that there was something missing. There was no subject rigorous and challenging enough to train and discipline their minds. There was no focus that helped pull everything together.

I experimented with teaching my children Latin, and although I did not have the materials I needed for their ages, I finally discovered the subject that was my heart's desire. My background was in math and science, but I fell in love with Latin. The more I worked with Latin the more I realized it was an educator's dream.

This is because Latin has been the language that transmitted our cultural heritage for over 2,000 years! It pulls together language arts, history, geography, culture, art, architecture, music, values, religion, government, science, and math. Everything in the modern world seems to be related to Latin and the ancient and medieval cultures that spoke it. By examining the roots of our culture in its mother language of Latin, knowledge begins to integrate naturally. Latin is a unit study where the work is done for you.

It is my belief that Latin is the basic subject because it is the basic language. The way to really get back to the basics is to study Latin. But can homeschooling parents with no background in Latin be successful in teaching it?

I believe they can and will outline the fundamentals for success in teaching and learning Latin in an upcoming issue.

Latin grammar programs for 3rd-5th grade or for older student at accelerated pace available from Memoria Press, memoriapress.com, phone 877-862-1097.

Taken from the February/May 1995 issue of
The Catholic Family's Magnificat!
P.O. Box 43-1015
Pontiac, MI 48343-1015