The languages disaster that has overtaken English schools* has been coincident with a vague kind of teaching—giving disconnected information to students, along with infantilising material and pictures, and spraying them with large amounts of vocabulary which they are supposed to notice but do not actually learn.

Disappointment with a language is due most often to lack of vocabulary—and not just being ignorant of the meanings of words, but also not understanding how they work and how they form.

Advice from a committee of classicists in 1961: ‘Short written tests at regular intervals are necessary as a check on progress. The young teacher should never forget that the coordination between the hand and brain is often immature in the young, when writing is required, especially when the manual skill of writing receives less attention in the early stages than it should. Oral work is in consequence often deceptive, and most teachers are familiar with the disappointments they receive when a class which is bright at oral work totally fails at the written examination.’ The Teaching of Classics, IAAMSS, CUP 1961, pp.29-30.

Vocabulary, we need to be reminded, is paramount: and so time must be spent on it. Classicists have their own methods  of inspiring a permanent interest in vocabulary. But what follows has been found to work well.

Every word that is presented to a student for permanent knowledge is written down by his or her own hand. And every word written down is said aloud several times by teacher or student, and discussed with reference to one or more of the following:

  • formation
  • declension and gender, if a noun
  • conjugation and principal parts, if a verb
  • connection with other Latin or Greek words already known
  • connection with any English words
  • connection with words in any other language
  • the concept it denotes, and how that may differ from our own
  • its connotations.

And, regularly and frequently, all students can be set a number of words to learn and in a subsequent test required to write out those words again, as well as giving their meaning.

Next post: Gratia and Charis.


*most recently adverted to by Ian Bauckham, CEO of the Tenax Schools Trust, in the magazine Leader, March/April 2017.