Category: Latin

New Latin YouTube Video Series!

With a new job and a new semester, I thought it was time to give the blog a new look and let you know about a side project I’ve been (slowly) working on: a set of YouTube videos about Latin constructions!  Latintutorial is an excellent YouTube channel that helps students study morphology, but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any videos about constructions like indirect statement or purpose clauses or any of the other uses of the subjunctive.  I was able to find a lot of videos introducing a new chapter of Wheelock’s Latin or another textbook’s chapter on result clauses or the like, but they were way too longabout 30 minutes.  So, I set out to fill the void and produce some of my own videos.

You can find my new videos as part of my “Latin Grammar” playlist on YouTube.

I wanted them to be brief, but I also am creating them to help students review the construction and how they translate it as they read.  I do not intend them to be the first thing to teach students these concepts.  I was happy to read a sort of similar logic expressed on Michael Feldstein’s blog, e-Literate:

we spontaneously came up with a term that we both like and that seemed to resonate with the audience: antisocial deconstructivism. It’s the approach of breaking learning down into teeny, tiny bits, tied to fine-grained competencies and micro-assessments, that students learn on their own by following a prescription that is created for them, possibly with the help of a robot. To be clear, the term isn’t entirely meant to mock. There are times when antisocial deconstructivism is an appropriate pedagogical technique. For example, it’s pretty good for helping nursing students memorize medical terminology or IT students learn the basic components of a network. It can be good for learning some math kinds of skills, depending on your philosophy of math education. Any situation in which you are working fairly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy might be OK for it as an approach. Procedural knowledge that either doesn’t require higher order problem solving skills or where problem solving skills are best built incrementally by slowing increasing problem complexity is a particularly appropriate type of candidate for antisocial deconstructivism.

Enjoy! I hope these videos help you and your students!

  • This old post explains how I made these videos.

Coding and the Beginning Latin Learner

Recently, I read Chris Bartlo’s article about how programming supports math students‘ abilities to be more precise, receive prompt feedback, accept and normalize the struggle of working, work collaboratively, and be more metacognitive. The article appealed to me because teaching Latin, like teaching math, is about teaching students a skill. One paragraph from the article seemed particularly appealing to me:

Programming forces students to be explicit about their problem solving strategies. Writing code encourages students to break the problem into discrete chunks; which is one of the most powerful problem solving techniques in mathematics. A danger with the pencil and paper calculations we rely on in a traditional math assignment is that a student can combine many elements of their problem solving process into one step. As educators, seeing how students approach a problem is invaluable information in supporting their learning.

I like this paragraph because it reminded me about how I often teach Latin verb forms: by breaking the forms down into their constituent parts so students know exactly how to form them.  Let’s use the verb cano, canere as an example.

  • Present: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) +  stem vowel (depends on conjugation) + ending –> can + i + t
  • Imperfect: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) + stem vowel (depends on conjugation) + tense marker (ba) + ending –> can + e + ba + t
  • Future: verb stem (2nd principle part – ere) + stem vowel / tense marker (depends on conjugation) + ending –> can + e + t

When I teach students to use this method, I help break the problem (i.e. translating this verb) into discrete chunks. They need to learn the ending to know the person, number, and voice of the verb. They need to use the stem vowel and tense markers to know the tense and mood of the verb. And they need to know the stem in order to know the meaning of the verb.  Some students quickly learn this pattern and the need to use the inflected word endings to translate, some do not.

Perhaps one way to emphasize the importance of the Latin’s inflection is to have students code. You can ask them to write a program that parses words for them. This will require students to determine how to break down the verb, noun, adjective, etc. into its constituent parts so that they can better understand everything that is going on in the word canit.

Of course, there are already tools out there that do this. The back of each textbook and grammar books are usually filled with charts to help students identify forms. The popular online dictionary William Whitaker’s Words both parses and defines any Latin word that you plug into it. For example, this is what it came up with for canit:

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 10.23.13 AM

So why should students re-invent the wheel? To teach students the mental steps that they need to use in order to parse, understand, and translate each word. To help them understand the complexities of each new tense, voice, or mood that we teach them instead of making them memorize just a chart. To give students a tool that they created to help themselves. I remember creating websites with Latin morphology charts and stacks of notecards with Greek morphology charts so that I could use them as references. The act of creating these charts helped me remember the forms better and I preferred using them to flipping through grammar books or a textbook to find the chart I needed when I could go straight to my tools that were easily accessible. Students have also expressed their appreciation when I have asked them to complete this large packet of charts (Morphology Review – Full) to help them review, and have a reference for later.

Perhaps this is a little bit of wishful thinking, and I’m not certain how well it would work out (especially since I thought this up a few days ago), but here are some other things to consider:

  • This teaches morphology and the importance of inflection. It does not necessarily teach students the various uses of each case or how to translate each verb’s tense, voice, and mood.
  • Not every student will know how to code and you probably don’t want to teach them a programming language on top of Latin, so this is probably only worth attempting where most students have the knowledge and resources to code.
  • Even where students know how to code (and you know how to help them with their code), is this an ideal use of class time?
  • I often advise students not to use Whitaker’s Words because it becomes too much of a crutch–usually for remembering vocab. A program code that parses words can be a nice back-up, but it could also teach students they don’t need to memorize forms if they can just feed them into their program for instantaneous parsing. So, how would you make sure that this complements memorizing morphology charts?


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).

Checklist for student papers

During a discussion of how to improve student writing, a colleague remarked that she gave her students a checklist for each paper and required them to complete it and attach it to their assignments. This checklist included all the formatting guidelines, like font size and margins, that students often forget (or fudge), and some of the paper requirements, like how many primary sources to cite.  In some ways, this infantilized students; in other ways, it is a useful and helpful way to remind them about the paper’s requirements.  And, possibly most importantly for some teachers, it is a way of minimizing your own irritation with some pet peeves.  And if we’re less annoyed by minutiae, we can actually evaluate the students for what they wrote: what they thought and on what evidence and logic these thoughts were based.

Here is an example from when I tried this on a paper (but did not require students to turn in the completed checklist with their paper):

Final Draft Checklist

Before you turn in the final draft of the paper, please make sure you have done at least the following:

  • Discussed one quotation from a piece of literary evidence
  • Discussed one other piece of archaeological, epigraphic, literary, or numismatic evidence
  • Properly cited, in footnotes, at least two secondary sources
  • Included a bibliography of secondary sources after the conclusion of the paper
  • Proofread your paper for logical consistency
  • Proofread your paper for typos and grammatical errors
  • Made the font size 12 and Times New Roman
  • All margins are 1 inch
  • Double-spaced the paper
  • Added page numbers in the footer
  • Printed and stapled the paper
  • Bring a hard copy of the paper to class on Monday, April 7, 2014.

Uses of Latin Cases – Word Web

Students always struggle with remembering the various uses of each Latin case, even after/if you’re able to convince them to pay attention to the uses of cases.  In my experience, they have the most trouble remembering the uses of the ablative and the genitive cases.  I have attempted various strategies to help students remember the uses of these cases.  I have given them a list of all the uses of each case with a brief explanation and example of each, and I have suggested clues that will help students remember (like that the ablative of agent must be with a passive verb).  These seem harder to remember for students.  The strategy that seems to have been most successful for helping students remember the uses of cases has been to create a word web for students to use:

Ablative Web

For this web, I have separated the uses of the ablative case into various categories (in black font).  The uses of the ablative are in red (or black) and clues for the uses of the ablative are in orange.  The categorization works very well for places, time words, things, people, and abstract nouns; but other rarer uses of the ablative, like attendant circumstance, are less easily categorized.  Students have loved this chart and it has really helped them translate Latin more quickly.

There are two downsides of this: it is a little bit of a crutch, and it doesn’t work as well for other cases (a similar genitive chart is less successful).

What are other ways have you used to help students understand the cases better?

Make Classics Matter

Tom Tulliver hated learning Latin from Mr. Stelling.  He hated memorizing conjugations and declensions, and he had no clue why it was useful for him.  Tom just wanted to play and learn things that would help him take over his father’s business.  Tom was so distressed by Latin that he turned to prayer in order to make his studies better.  Tom did not understand that there had even been a culture such as the Romans who had used Latin in their daily life.

Even though Tom Tulliver and his tutor Mr. Stelling are fictional creations of Mary Ann Evans (pseudonym: George Eliot) in Mill on the Floss, they do offer a warning. Like Tom, many of our students and many Americans believe that college should teach you life skills in order to help you in your future career.  The utility of a dead language or of the lives, culture, and history of people who have been dead for two thousand years are not necessarily readily apparent.  So we need to make the utility apparent to our students.  We need to make Classics matter.

Thankfully, the Classical tradition has been an important part of Western culture for hundreds of years, so we have a lot to draw on to make Classics matter.  Here are some ways and strategies to help make Classics matter (and be educational at the same time):

  • Make Classics fun.  You enjoy it so try to make students enjoy it.  Point out what you find fun, enjoyable, and amusing or what you think they will–you have some sense of who your students are, or play games with them, or make the course into a game.
  • Teach students about the cultural and historical contexts of the texts or sentences that you’re reading.  They will appreciate seeing why this text was historically and culturally significant at some point in time.
  • Teach students the immediate and the enduring consequences and the significance of the events and texts we teach. 
  • Don’t just translate or read a text.  Dive into it, explicate it, and talk about what is being said and how it is being said.  What techniques help the author create the desired effects?
  • Talk about how texts are being repurposed, whether it’s a quotation of Vergil at the 9/11 memorial or the parody of Cicero’s speech by Sen. Ted Cruz or by Shakespeare or one of my examples below. Why does this repurposing matter?  Why do these more recent authors do this?  What do we learn from these quotations or parodies? How do we benefit from understanding the original context of the parodied/quoted material?
  • During the Middle Ages, Cicero’s De Inventione and the Rhetorica ad Herennium, which had been likely misattributed to Cicero, were the handbooks for how to write speeches.  When we read a speech of Cicero, or any other orator for that matter, we can point out the skill and techniques Cicero uses to craft his speech and drive his point home.
  • Andrea Palladio‘s buildings in Vicenza, Italy drew heavily on ancient buildings that he saw while on a Grand Tour, and his buildings have since had a tremendous influence on subsequent architecture.  Pointing out the classical influences on modern architecture can be great.  I have also always thought that, in order to teach students architectural terms, it would be a good exercise to have them take pictures of Classically-inspired elements of buildings around town.  Find a pediment, take a picture, say where you found it, and say why the architect would have wanted to include a pediment on that building. 
  • The Founding Fathers drew heavily on ancient examples when they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America.  When you talk about ancient government structures, this tidbit may help perk students up to learn about what, to many, is the dry minutiae of ancient constitutions.
  • Many paintings draw on or depict Classical themes or ideas, so I have used them throughout lecture slides (always with a caption and date) to subtlely show that the Classical tradition exists and has inspired people for centuries.  These paintings are also a way to show events or ideas for which we may not have ancient artistic depictions.  For example, I show Nicolas Poussin’s 1631-1633 painting Bacchanalia to help show how Bacchants worshipped Dionysus and how the Romans may have had a problem with this in 186 B.C.
  • Let students choose their own topics for a writing assignment.  They will enjoy it more if it is partly for themselves rather than just for you.
  • Show how Latin or Classics are immediately beneficial for our students: memorization techniques, improving study skills, improving reading comprehension, improving critical thinking abilities, improving research skills and answering their own questions (inspired by and satisfying their curiosity), gaining knowledge that allows them to understand thousands of years of cultural references, and improving their English vocabulary through derivatives. 

Transitioning from Textbook Latin to Ancient Latin: Cicero, In Catilinam 1

This semester, I had the pleasure of reading excerpts from Cicero’s First Catilinarian Oration with my Intensive Latin class after we had finished going through the grammar in the textbook.  It was a great text to read because there are lots of materials available for it and because it is a great text to review Latin grammar.  The speech reviews lots of different uses of the subjunctive mood and it uses the same type of construction repeatedly within a paragraph, so one day reviewed indirect questions and another reviewed hortatory subjunctives.  It also helps students adjust to longer sentences more characteristic of Latin than many of the sentences in our textbook.  When we were coming to the end of our textbook, I realized that the students would have to adjust to a different type of material and a different class structure for the speech (and for future classes in a Latin sequence) and I wanted them to get as much out of this Cicero unit as possible.  Therefore, I took the following steps to ease the transition for my students and to help them appreciate it as much as possible:

Provide continuity in instruction methods.  Before the Cicero unit, I used a lot of group work in class but we reviewed homework as a class, usually going over certain sentences on the chalkboard.  During the Cicero unit, I had students go over difficult sentences in groups a few days and then we went over the entire reading as a class.  We eventually cut out this group work element since later classes in the Latin sequence will not have it as frequently.  When we went over the sentences, I used an overhead projector to display a copy of Cicero’s text at the front of the room so that I could mark it up while we went over it in much detail.  I chose to go over the text in great detail because they were introductory students.

Provide continuity in material.  During the Cicero unit, students will, of course, still be reading Latin.  But I knew that I would be reading Cicero with them so I assigned more textbook sentences based on Cicero’s thoughts or style so that they could have an easier transition to “ancient Latin.”  Additionally, I did not shy away from assigning slightly altered passages of Latin well before the Cicero unit.  If the goal is to get students to read ancient Latin, why not expose students to it early?

Provide continuity in evaluation.  I knew that I would be testing the Cicero unit by having them translate passages that they had already seen in class.  Therefore, I made sure to include passages that they had already seen on earlier tests.  The test for the Cicero unit just had more passages that they had seen rather than a single passage on a test with other sections, but the students were familiar with this method of testing their knowledge.  I also made sure to give them a weekly quiz to test how well they were understanding Cicero’s Latin and to prepare them for a test with no vocabulary help.

Introduce new resources.  At the beginning of the unit, I made sure to give students a list of dictionaries–both ones for quick reference and more scholarly ones so they would know about them for future classes.  I also made sure to provide a very good commentary–Susan Shapiro’s O Tempora! O Mores!–for the students and to explain how commentaries (and the numbering of paragraphs) work.  I also told them about a few Latin grammar books in addition to their textbook where they could go to understand confusing passages.  During class, I made sure to provide a photocopy of an explanation of a use of the genitive from one of these grammar books so that they had exposure to these book’s format.  Finally, I mentioned a few series of books–Penguin Books, the Loeb Classical Library–that provide translations of the text, but I did not emphasize these much so that students did not rely on someone else’s translation to read Cicero.  I figured it was better to guide them towards better translations than to hope they never realized translations of Cicero’s speech had been published before.

Formally introduce/review reading strategies.  When we had gone over textbook sentences on the board, I had chunked word groups (noun-adjective pairs, prepositional phrases, etc.) and drew arrows to show modifiers and the dependent clauses or words.  So, when we started the Cicero unit, I formally told them to do this same chunking activity.  Many students found this incredibly useful and did it even when I did not require it, even though one student found the word “chunking” distasteful.

More importantly for future good habits, I required my students to record the vocabulary and grammar that they did not know so that they could use it when they reread the speech–essentially to make themselves a personalized commentary.  I stressed the importance of this by telling them that they should be rereading what we went over in class each day.  I encouraged them to stop writing out translations of their homework and I checked that they had taken these notes.  In retrospect, I should have been asking them to take these notes much earlier than the Cicero unit.

Assign reasonably long assignments. When we started reading Cicero, I did not know how much Latin to assign each night but I knew I did not want to overwhelm the students.  Therefore, for the first Cicero assignment, I asked them to read Latin for an hour.  On the following class, I asked how far they had gotten.  Based on an approximate average of these answers and on the divisions within the text itself, I think I kept the assignments to a reasonable length for most students.

Help the students understand the historical context of the text.  Cicero gave his First Oration Against Catiline in response to certain historical and social actions.  I tried to help students understand these factors through a YouTube video about Catiline’s conspiracy (for how I made the video, see this post) and then we discussed this information in class before we began reading the speech.  I also helped clarify things whenever any specific reference to the historical situation occurred.  For example, in the first paragraph, Cicero refers to nocturnum praesidium Palati, “night-time guards on the Palatine Hill,” and the power of this statement is much clearer when students learn that many senators live on that hill and are in the audience.  If students understand the historical context of the speech, they can understand why the speech mattered historically.

Help the students understand the text as a speech.  Not only did I want students to know the speech’s historical context, but I wanted students to consider its genre.  It was a speech to the Senate whose opinions Cicero could sense as he read the speech and who he was attempting to persuade to do certain things.  Therefore, I briefly told them about procedures in the Senate.  Based on the advice of Christopher P. Craig’s 1993 Classical Journal article, “Three Simple Questions for Teaching Cicero’s ‘First Catilinarian’“, I frequently asked my students to consider three questions: (1) Why does Cicero deliver this speech? (2) What is Cicero trying to persuade his hearers to feel or to do? and (3) What problems stand in the way of achieving Cicero’s persuasive goals?  Since the answers to these questions change throughout the speech, I asked my students to answer this for each excerpt we read.

Secondly, it was a speech that was delivered in real life, not written and distributed to be read.  A more experienced Latin reader can sense that Cicero was speaking incredibly emotionally, but my students probably could not tease that out as some of them were struggling to understand the meaning of each sentence.  Fortunately, there are several dramatic recordings of people reading Cicero’s speech.  I provided links to two of the best ones (best and second best) and asked students to write about how the emotion of the delivery helped them better understand the speech, how the emotion of the delivery could have helped Cicero persuade his audience.

While I did not try this specific strategy, I considered having my students do a Reacting to the Past game that is under production by Bret Mulligan.  The game would have asked students to deliver speeches as if they were in the Roman Senate and then vote on what to do about Catiline and his conspiracy.

Help the students understand the text as a continuous piece of prose.  Even though we read excerpts, we still read long bits of continuous prose from this speech and the speech was meant to be a continuous piece of prose.  Therefore, I began each class by asking what Cicero said in the previous reading(s).  Not only did this encourage students to be continually reviewing the text at home, but it reacquainted them with the text so that they had a better understanding of the text as we reviewed it in class.

Help students see how this text is relevant today. Again, my choice of Cicero’s First Catilinarian was fortuitous because it has been a frequently quoted and invoked text.  Recently, Senator Ted Cruz had parodied this speech, so I asked students to write a response to this parody: compare and contrast the original to Sen. Cruz’s speech, does it matter how faithful Sen. Cruz’s speech was to Cicero’s original? What does our understanding of Cicero’s speech help add to our understanding of Sen. Cruz’s speech?  Students had great responses to this prompt that showed not only a memory of the text of Cicero’s speech but also a great understanding and ability to offer interpretations of the ideas behind that text and Sen. Cruz’s speech.

The goal behind all these activities was not only to help the students translate and understand the Latin but also to understand why this Latin has value and why they should study it.  I wanted to help prepare them to move onto the next level of Latin instruction and to help them make important connections.

Grading translations

One of the things that I have found most difficult and puzzling about teaching is how to grade translations.  It is hard to balance objectivity and subjectivity.  Furthermore, at what level do you expect students to try to mimic the author’s word order? How do you account for the translator’s writing style? To what degree can we even say that a translation is “correct” when we have to move thoughts from 2000 years ago into today’s vocabulary and mindsets?  For the most part, the answer to the last question must be that a translation actually needs to reflect an understanding of Latin grammar–does the translation maintain the passive voice? do all nouns retain their singular/plural quality from the Latin? do the English adjectives modify the nouns that they modify in Latin?

When I first started teaching Latin, I attempted to be incredibly objective and take off half a point for each mistake in the translation.  As the term progressed, I quickly realized a flaw in this system.  If the student thought the subject was singular, then the verb will also be singular.  Is this one or two mistakes?  If the student switched the subject and direction object in their translations, is this one or two mistakes? How do you adjust the grade to reflect mistakes that you clearly understand resulted in other mistakes?  I began to only take off half a point for some of these translations, but it still seemed like a flawed grading system.  For example, is it more important that the student translated the verb passively in a quiz about the passive voice than that the subject was singular instead of plural? How many points can you take off for each word that might have several problems?

Next, I attempted to deal with these issues by considering what I considered to be “minor” and “major” mistakes. A minor mistake could be confusing singular words for plural or using a meaning for a vocabulary word that was accurate but not the best meaning in this sentence. A major mistake was confusing the voice or tense of the verb or confusing the case of a noun.  With these in mind, I developed this basic idea for how to grade students for a sentence worth 10 points:

  • 10 points for perfect, grammatically correct sentence
  • 9 points for 1-3 minor errors (singular/plural, alternate meaning of word or idiom)
  • 8 points for 1-5 minor errors or 1-2 major errors (case usage, tense, voice, mood, meaning of word)
  • 7 points for 1-7 minor errors and/or 1-3 major errors
  • 6 points for 1-9 minor errors and/or 1-5 major errors
  • 5 points for effort – whole sentence translated but incorrectly
  • 3 points for partially complete translation

As I used this scheme, I realized a problem: minor mistakes were giving a student a 90% (or the borderline between an A and a B on my grading scale).  This seemed harsh so I began mainly giving students 9.5 or 8.5/10 rather than the even 9/10.  Another problem arose: I was writing short sentences for students to translate so that I could ensure that I was testing that chapter’s concept.  Short sentences eliminated the utility of this seemingly objective grading scheme.  If a student completely translated Carthago delenda est but with several major errors, did that count as 7, 6, or 5 points?

Therefore, currently, I grade students based on a more subjective scale.  I determine whether their translation merits an A, B, C, D or F.  The grading scheme that I use, then, is:

  • 10 points for perfect, grammatically correct sentence
  • A = 9.5 points for minor errors that show a clear understanding of the sentence, but with a slightly off translation of one word (i.e. vocabulary meaning may be wrong, a singular for plural, and possibly even a tense being off).
  • B = 8.5 points for a translation that shows the student understands the basic sense of the sentence but is struggling to put the translation together.  There are more “major” errors but the student nearly understands the grammar concept tested in this sentence.  If a student writes a blank instead of a translation of a word, this is usually the highest they can earn.
  • C = 7.5 points for a translation that shows several major problems, has some potential to understand the grammar concept tested in this sentence but is not quite there yet, and/or has some problems with the voice or mood of the verb that are preventing the sentence from being properly translated.
  • D = 6.5 points for a sentence that has some vocabulary or cases correct but shows major confusion in terms of piecing the puzzle of the sentence together.
  • F = 5.5 (though usually actually 5 or 6) points for a sentence that shows very little understanding of the Latin.  Usually, only one or two words is even in the correct case or has a proper translation of the word’s meaning.
  • Incomplete translations earn a varied number of points based on how complete the sentence is and how accurate the complete parts are.

This scheme is not perfect.  It is more subjective and can make it hard for students to understand where their grades come from, but I think it does the best so far of allowing a teacher to give a fair grade that does not penalize a student for too many small mistakes or reward them for only having one or two major mistakes. After all, how can you be perfectly objective grading a language when language and grammar are more subjective ideas?

I will point out two potential flaws with it: it works better with a scale of 10 points/sentence.  When I have asked students to translate a passage on a test, I have tried not to make the passages worth too many points in relation to other parts of a test.  In doing so, I have used the same system but made each sentence or clause worth 5 points.  While it is simple to divide the above points by two, I have generally been reluctant to award students quarter points so that calculating the final grade is easier (especially after test corrections).  Secondly, it makes test corrections a little more difficult for students.  They are not always sure why they have not earned full credit for their translations.  However, making students work a little harder to find their mistakes is fully within the spirit of offering test corrections, so I am little less concerned with this potential flaw.

I would be more than happy to hear other people’s strategies for grading translations and how to make translation grades as fair as possible.

Vocabulary Quizzes, a Follow Up

Way back in September, I had written shared various thoughts about how to best assess vocabulary.  These thoughts all came back to me after the first week of school when I gave a vocabulary test on all the vocabulary from last semester, and the students did miserably.  Admittedly, part of the problem was the number of words, but I also thought that part of the problem was the format of the test.  At the same time, I happened to read Rebecca Harrison’s article “Exercises for Developing Prediction in Reading Latin Sentences,” Teaching Classical Languages, Fall 2010, 1-30.  The article advocates using activities that encourage students to think in Latin and choose the most appropriate word based on the Latin sentences–so, what would a Latin reader expect to follow in this sentence.  I used these ideas to improve how I encouraged students to learn about comparative adjectives with multiple choice questions.

Ex.  Puella puerum belliōrem quam _______ desīderāvit.
A. illum               B. illō

But I also remembered that my English vocabulary had be tested with multiple choice questions.  Therefore, inspired by Harrison’s article, I thought I would try this method with Latin vocabulary to see how my students would fare.

Ex. 1. _______ lūx in caelō est.
A. Sōl       B. Nepōs      C.  Mēnsa       D. Lēx

Ex. 2. Fīlius fīliī est ___________.
A. pater    B. māter       C. nēpos         D. soror

Advantages of the new method

  • It lets me test multiple vocabulary words in the same sentence.  For this quiz, both sōl and lūx were new words.
  • It encourages students to think in and be more comfortable with Latin word order or various constructions that you might slip into the sentences.  Most of my sentences used the typical Latin Subject-Object-Verb order, but Ex 2 happened not to.
  • It gives students more practice with reading Latin–a major student learning objective of any class.
  • It allows us to subtlely communicate which meanings of a word may be more common than others.  You can also suggest more nuance in a word this way by using it in a Latin context.  You cannot always do this with vocabulary assessments.
  • It does not encourage the false belief that all Latin words have a direct one-to-one English equivalent.  It makes students think of Latin words in a Latin context.


  • It only tested one meaning of a word–but students needed to know all of them because they didn’t know what I would test them with.
  • It requires us to write several Latin sentences that clearly define Latin words or have clearly predictable Latin answers.  This may be challenging to do, and is partly why most of the answers in Ex 1 are clearly bogus.

Finally, after today’s vocabulary quiz when I first used this method for them, I asked the students how they felt about it.  About half the class was willing to say they preferred this method.  Several students wanted to wait until they saw their grades.  One or two wanted to try it again before passing their final judgment on it.  However, overall, all my students scored better with this method.  Therefore, I think it will be a much more common method for testing my students’ vocabulary knowledge.

Why Latin? Why Classics?

Often, when someone learns that I study Classics, they ask “What are you going to do with that?”  I respond that I want to teach because I love teaching.  I also love learning about the ancient world and sharing this knowledge with my students and others.  But not everyone studies Classics because they love to teach and want to share this knowledge with others.  However, those of us that do should be aware of why people study Classics and Latin, or why they would want to do so.  As we plan courses, we can plan to incorporate activities that reflect some of the reasons that our students might have to be in our classes (rather than only addressing some of the reasons that we ourselves study Latin or Classics).  This will help us motivate and encourage our students, help us recruit new students, and ultimately help the field stay alive.

So here are some answers that I’ve heard or thought up:

  • Study literature.  There is nothing quite like studying and appreciating a text in its original language and understanding all its nuances.
  • Study human nature.  We can learn a lot about humans and ourselves when we understand and compare how different cultures and governments functions and operated.  (The tension between this goal and the previous goal for a Latin course are discussed further in Pearcy, LT. 2010. “Preparing Classicists or Preparing Humanists?” Teaching Classical Languages. Vol, 1, number 2. Pp 192–195.)
  • Similarly, learn lessons from the past that are still relevant today, including views about various people and cultures (In a recent Irish Times article, “Why bother to read the Classics today?”)
  • Learn about ancient Greece and Rome.  Greece and Rome provide the origins of so much of Western civilization so it’s important to know about them in order to better appreciate and understand our own world.
  • Learn about history.
  • Learn more about a specific field that is interesting, such as medicine or the military.
  • Improve vocabulary or learn medical terminology.  Greek and Latin (through French) provide the roots for many complicated, sophisticated words in the English language.
  • Connect with (great) historical figures, be they statesmen, military leaders, or artists (Several art students mention this as a joy of drawing casts of ancient sculpture)
  • Understand the culture in which the Bible was written/recorded and in which Jesus lived.  For some students, even reading the Bible in a language closer to the original Greek or Aramaic is one of their goals.
  • The inherent fun and interest in these topics.
  • And one of the most common reasons for our students: It fulfills a requirement.

What other explanations have you noticed? What other reasons do you have for studying the ancient world and its languages?