Literacy through Latin: Teaching ideas

Written by: Erin Miller | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How can ancient languages such as Latin and Greek be used to inform and improve literacy teaching? Erin Miller offers some ideas and inspiration

Here’s something I never expected: that ancient language would inject new life into my teaching. As a secondary English teacher, I’m always thinking of new ways to get my students to think critically, to acquire and use ambitious vocabulary, and (perhaps the biggest challenge) to write with technical accuracy.

Sixty per cent of words in English derive from Greek and Latin roots, meaning that our language is heavily meaning-based. A quick investigation of a word’s meaning often takes us to a breakdown of the units of meaning in the word, many of which will have origins in Greek or Latin languages.

Beyond understanding words, light-touch exploration of ancient languages and cultures can help students to structure and present logical argument, while also helping them to better understand Western culture.

Developing literacy and critical-thinking is the responsibility of every educator; everyone in a school plays a role in this. I feel as though I’ve found a consistent approach to underpin literacy at secondary. Below are some ways in which you can begin to embed classical awareness to support your students’ development:

Enrich your approach to spelling

The national curriculum (December 2014 onwards) states that “phonic knowledge should continue to underpin spelling after key stage 1”. Great emphasis is placed upon using GPCs (grapheme-phoneme correspondence) to teach spellings, which is often successful when dealing with the English language.

However, as we know, the English language is a glorious and rich concoction of languages that have fused together over time, and is thus strewn with anomalies, variations and inconsistencies. As such, it is irrational to suppose that one approach to the teaching of spelling can be sufficient, or indeed that teaching “spelling rules” such as “I before E” are adequate.

The national curriculum acknowledges the role of etymology in assisting spelling: “Pupils also need to understand the role of morphology and etymology.”

However, the word “also” here is slightly troubling. I believe that etymology and morphology can and should play a much larger role in the teaching of spelling and vocabulary, and that it offers far more value than we seem to think. At present, Greek and Latin roots words seem only to appear in national curriculum guidance under the statutory requirement to teach spellings of prefixes and suffixes.

At key stages 3 and 4, the curriculum directs teachers to follow the “spelling patterns and rules set out in key stage 1 and 2 programmes of study”.

Referencing what an 11-year-old “should” already know is insufficient guidance, especially when it is considered that technical accuracy marks account for 20 per cent of students’ overall GCSE grade in English language.

A comprehensive knowledge of a wide range of roots is extremely beneficial to spelling ability. I have found that students tend to remember irregular spelling patterns better when they are able to link them to a particular meaning. For example, the root “chron” is from Ancient Greek, and it means “time”. Immediately, we think of chronology, and students do too. When students understand this, they can be introduced to (and attempt to spell) words that share this root: such as synchronization, anachronism and chronometer.

The beauty of understanding Greek and Latin roots is that students have another strategy to use when phonics fail them. They also have knowledge of the meaning, rather than just knowledge of sounds.

Extend vocabulary acquisition

In relation to vocabulary acquisition, the national curriculum is similarly vague at key stage 4, suggesting that students will accumulate new vocabulary “from their reading”. Perhaps this would be true if students consistently read challenging texts outside of school.

As teachers know, students are often only as good as their vocabulary. The success of explanations and analysis in many subjects are wholly dependent upon the ability to access a complex range of vocabulary to develop sophisticated ideas.

Students can create word families (or word trees) from Greek or Latin roots, and thus meaningfully extend their vocabularies. For example, the root “fid” is of Latin origin, and it means “trust” or “faith”. My students did some research into which words contain this root, and were able to teach themselves new words such as “infidel”, “perfidy” and “fidelity”. When new vocabulary items are linked by their roots, the learning makes more sense. Explicit vocabulary instruction for random, unconnected words is ineffective because the learning lacks context.

Ultimately, the correlation of symbols to sounds in our alphabet is unreliable. I have found that the implementation of Greek and Latin roots in spelling and vocabulary lessons, has roused much more interest and sparked greater enjoyment than using phonics or “spelling rules”.

I also believe that I have witnessed greater progress in vocabulary acquisition and retention by approaching the teaching of vocabulary through etymology and morphology. I do not suggest that knowledge of morphemes is more important than phonic decoding, but rather that these two approaches should be taught together (beyond just prefixes and suffixes!)

Support cultural literacy

“Cultural literacy” is a hot term among those who advocate the dominance of knowledge over skills in education. It is a term coined by ED Hirsch, referring to the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture. Western culture is infused with allusions and references to classical antiquity.

Often, such allusions prevent groups of people from accessing texts, and the culture, because they were never taught about the classical period.

The use of “high brow” classical references in certain newspapers immediately excludes people who weren’t privy to such an education because they won’t understand them. Through explicit teaching of words/phrases such as “Pyrrhic victory”, “Trojan horse”, or even just names such as “Apollo”, “Neptune” or “Oedipus”, we give students the keys to unlock a world that seems to be exclusively inhabited by those who were fortunate enough to receive education in such disciplines (yes, I’m referring to private education.)

Teaching the classical background of such idiomatic phrases and cultural references is particularly important for some EAL students; it can help them to better able to access the culture and feel more confident when they encounter language in challenging texts.

Teach logical development of argument and effective presentation skills

An English teacher will always tell you that one of the biggest challenges we face is getting students to develop their writing in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. Drawing on the classical period, we can help students to construct and develop coherent and logical argument.

The Greeks had very prescriptive ideas about how to build and structure rhetoric debate. Sharing such knowledge with students will help them to gain a sense of how they ought to shape, build and develop their arguments, using concepts such as logos, ethos and pathos (and not just in English lessons!)

Look beyond the English language

Giving students the tools to detect Greek/Latin roots in English enables them to begin to make sense of other European languages. Languages that originate from Latin also include Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian, meaning that knowledge of Latin roots will assist in developing the ability to decode many words from any of these languages.

And finally...

I thoroughly believe that through applying a small dose of classical education, we give our students a greater chance to succeed in literacy, and in the wider world of academia. Like it or not, the ancient world is everywhere: in politics, in universities, in advertising, in private schools, everywhere.

I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of embedding knowledge of classical languages. If you have any further questions about how I have approached this, feel free to contact me.


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