Latin, Greek, and English Vocabulary

A recent article in The Times, “Bit-sized Greek and Latin lessons boost reading and maths skills,” praised a program in English schools for helping students who are struggling with English and with math improve and catch up to their peers.  The program uses Latin and Greek roots to help students pull apart English words so that they can better understand the directions, terms, or words in their other classes: math, English, science, anything.

In the sessions, right, pupils faced with unknown words are taught how to analyse them and look for familiar syllables. They are given timed challenges to encourage them to improve quickly.

Examples include bio meaning “life” in Greek, giving clues to the meaning of biography, biology and symbiotic; dict meaning “to say” in Latin, as in dictation, predict and contradict; and dis meaning “not” or “not any” from the Latin, as in disbelief and disrespect.

Children also learn that anthrop is the Greek root for “human” (anthropomorphic, anthropology), and chron is Greek for “time” (chronic, synchronise), among many others.

The program seems to be helping students–“Some children have advanced by six years in as many weeks”–and it does seem to benefit greatly from the timed part, but there are a few aspects of the program that I think are worth dwelling on:

  • Student gains depend on the teachers’ skills and commitment.  When I was in high school, a similar program was part of an English class that I took but it was poorly implemented.  The teacher did not integrate it into the larger class, and she seemed to only be making us memorize “word parts” because she had to.  This is clearly not the way to run this program–and it was ended the year after I took the class.
  • It is divorced from a Latin or Greek class.  This raises several concerns.  First, it may threaten Latin classes.  If students get one of the primary perceived benefits of Latin from something other than Latin, why should schools offer Latin classes? Conversely, if teachers are honest and open about the origins of these roots (Latin and Greek), perhaps this will encourage students to take more Latin and Greek courses.  And this is something else: be honest and open that the roots, like much of English language, are from Latin and Greek words.  This will help show students why learning the word roots is important.
  • It does not present the entire Greek and Latin word.  When I was taking that English class in high school, I was also taking Latin.  I was not very confident in the program because I knew it wasn’t providing “caput, capitis” for “head.”  Admittedly, it may not be a huge problem for most students, but it does present a program for convincing some students why the unit or the program is valuable.
  • Why aren’t Latin and Greek classes doing this?  Latin and Greek classes should encourage students to think about (and know the meaning of) derivatives.  When students are stumped about the meaning of a Latin word, I often suggest an English derivative to help them.  Sometimes this works, but often it runs into the problem this program is trying to address: students don’t know the meaning of the derivatives.  So we should help them understand the meaning of derivatives instead of just requiring students to know that X English word is a derivative of Y Latin word.
  • We should also encourage them to develop their English vocabulary/comprehension at the same time. This is an explicit main goal of this program, but not always of our Latin classes.  But how do we do this in a reasonable way? We can’t always assign Shakespeare or Dickens, even if we want to, right? We can assign students readings about the ancient Greek and Roman cultures in English that may have slightly challenging vocabulary and sentence structure for their grade level.  This may show students that their Latin and Greek vocabulary help them understand English, and it may help expose them to some more complex English sentence structures that will help them translate more complex Latin sentences.
  • This program is also great for another reason: it encourages students to break a word down into more manageable chunks to understand a word.  For example, it helps us notice “decapitate” is from “de (from, down from, about/concerning)” and “caput, capitis (head)” and so it is something related to the removal of a head.  This is a valuable strategy that we can encourage with compound words in Latin and Greek.  For example, “depono, deponere (to put down, deposit)” comes from “de (from, down from, about/concerning)” and “pono, ponere (to put, place)” so it should be something like “to put down or to put away from someone.” This doesn’t work perfectly for every Latin compound but it can help students understand Latin words and ideas better if we teach the meanings or sense of prefixes.  We can also show how this strategy helps students understand English words too (and by the time they get to compound words, they will have a sizable Latin vocabulary to help them better understand English words).  Additionally, this idea can help reinforce the chunking strategy for breaking down and understanding more complicated Latin sentences.

Admittedly, my knowledge of this program is limited to the information contained in this article, but these ideas seem to remain valid and important for Latin teachers to consider, especially as we try to make Latin and Classics matter (or at least show why it matters).

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