12 minute read

Teaching of Latin in Schools

Enrollments, Teaching Methods and Textbooks, Issues Trends and Controversies

Since it was first instituted as a formal course of study–first for Roman children, and then for members of the ever-expanding Roman Empire–Latin has been a staple of formal curricula. And for almost all of that time, controversy has swirled around the methodologies that should be used to teach Latin, its precise role in the curricula, and the aims and goals of teaching Latin. As the arguments and counterarguments have evolved, definite (and cyclical) trends have emerged.


At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 50 percent of the public secondary-school students in the United States were studying Latin. Until 1928 Latin enrollments in U.S. secondary schools were greater than enrollments in all other foreign languages combined, and in the mid-1930s the number of Latin students rose to 899,000. This is not surprising, since Latin was commonly required for admission to college and was seen as the mark of an educated individual. Latin continued to be the front-runner for about another twenty years, until Spanish took the lead. Still, over the next ten years, Latin enrollments generally kept pace, rising 46 percent, compared to 56 percent for Spanish and 90 percent for French. Despite a sudden postwar drop in Latin studies (the number of students fell to about 429,000), Latin was fairly secure in the curriculum, and the numbers grew steadily thereafter.

In 1958 in response to a national concern in the United States over the nation's global status in mathematics and science, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which omitted support for all Latin, except at the graduate level. Latin soon began a gradual decline, though it retained much of its old cachet. This would soon change, however. In 1962 there were 702,000 students enrolled in Latin classes in U.S. secondary schools. By 1976 the number had dropped 79 percent, to 150,000, largely due to pressure for more relevant and elective courses at all education levels. The classics profession began a swift counteroffensive, and by 1978 enrollments were on the rise once more. More recent data suggest a slight leveling off at grades nine through twelve, with a total enrollment of 188,833 students in 1994, representing some 1.6 percent of the total enrolled population. New growth areas include middle-school Latin, with more than 25,349 enrolled in grades seven and eight, and 4,265 elementary students of Latin.

At the college level, the overall number of Latin students has changed less dramatically, with 39,600 reported in 1965 and 25,897 in 1995. But given the surge in college enrollments, this represents a percentage drop from .669 percent in 1965 to only .180 percent in 1995. While hard data are not readily available, it is fair to say that the 1980s and 1990s saw a definite decline in traditional classics majors (concentrating in Latin and Greek language study) and an increasing move toward those minoring, and majoring, in classical civilization or classical studies, a curriculum that demands only the rudimentary study of the actual languages. As a result, while K–12 Latin enrollments have increased slightly, an aging population of Latin teachers is facing retirement, with an inadequate number of qualified teachers available to take their place.

Latin is also taught at the junior college level, but with no regularity. Here also, courses in classical civilization, history, and mythology are far more common than the actual study of the languages themselves. It is also worth noting that Latin retained its special status in countries such as England and Germany far longer than it did in the United States. But recent curricular reforms in these countries have put Latin at risk there as well.

Teaching Methods and Textbooks

Few methodologies have been both as traditional and as innovative as those associated with Latin. For the Romans themselves, the goal of learning Latin was totally utilitarian–to learn, as Quintilian put it, "the ability to speak Latin properly and to elucidate the poets" (recte loquendi scientiam et poetarum enarrationem) (Marrou, p. 274). In its higher forms, of course, it aimed at the proper use of the language in the fine art of rhetoric, for the way to success in the Roman world was through the effective use of oratory. What we know of the way in which Romans taught their children Latin would not stand the scrutiny of twenty-first-century educational theorists for very long, for there was a heavy emphasis on rote memorization and corporal punishment. Once the students had the rudiments down, they moved on to the grammar school, where, from roughly age six through age twelve, they began the acquisition of Latin grammar under the tutelage of the appropriately named grammaticus. Historian Henri Marrou carefully defines the subject matter as a dull analysis of each word in a text from as many perspectives as possible.

But the ultimate goal of Roman education was the enarratio poetarum, and to this day most claim that the sole aim of studying Latin is to acquire a proper appreciation of the Latin classics. Roman students were expected to be able to read, aloud and with expression, a given passage from the works of a poet. Then they were grilled, line by line and word by word, on the many intricacies of the grammar, rhetorical figures, and mythological allusions. Advanced students went on to rhetorical studies to prepare them for public life.

In the Middle Ages Latin continued to be taught as a living tongue. Though no country had Latin as its language, the ability to speak, read, and write Latin was still essential for advancement in church or state circles. Thus, in the elementary schools, "the chief objective and emphasis of teachers and pupils was the ability to speak Latin with ease. Success in this almost automatically entailed ability to read and write it as well" (Ganss, p. 122). A well-written survey of teaching methods, some of them rather innovative, remains to written for this and subsequent periods.

Much has been made about the emphasis on the study of Latin and Greek in early America. To be sure, any educated American needed Latin and Greek to enter college, but Latin was commonly charged with being irrelevant, poorly taught, and dull. Throughout the nineteenth century, and until 1924, the grammar/translation method held sway. In this method the grammar was laid out in orderly charts for the student to memorize. Only after endings and forms were memorized and usage had been thoroughly explained was the new material to be applied to practice sentences and, finally, to translation from the Latin. This method traditionally exposed the student to all the basic grammar in Latin in one year. The second year was traditionally given over to reading Caesar, the third to Cicero, and the fourth to Virgil. In these courses the emphasis was on accurate translation and meticulous grammatical explication of the text. Under this methodology, it was found that in the mid-1920s only about 30 percent of students continued beyond the second year, and only 15 percent beyond the third. In 1924 the American Classical League commissioned a study of the teaching of Latin. The so-called Advisory Committee published its Classical Investigation, in which it recommended some forward-thinking reforms for Latin teaching, such as adding cultural materials to be read in English, a change from the traditional grammar/translation paradigm (and a move to have students read Latin more naturally as Latin), and the inclusion of other authors in the curriculum. The report was farsighted, but largely ignored. As Judith Sebesta has shown, textbooks remained essentially unchanged until well after the sharp decline in enrollments of the 1960s and 1970s. Several of these grammar/translation texts are still in use in the early twenty-first century (e.g., Wheelock, Jenney) and other, newer texts, still follow their essential format (e.g., Goldman and Nyenhuis, Johnson).

A major break with this tradition was in response to the theories of behaviorism and structural linguistics, which led to Waldo Sweet's text based on programmed learning, where the student is allowed to acquire forms at the student's own pace. Glenn Knudsvig's Latin for Reading (1986) was influenced by Sweet and relied heavily on linguistic theory to help the student learn how to read Latin in a less rigid and more flowing fashion.

Cognitive psychology and the theories of Noam Chomsky led to the creation of a series of textbooks generally referred to as reading method texts. These texts have as their main goal enabling students to read extensive passages in Latin with relative ease. They are marked by their lack of formal grammar explication, use of stories with a connected plot written for the volumes, little if any use of authentic texts in the earlier volumes, and a reliance on illustrations to help students grasp new concepts. Only after a student has seen a new construction used several times is the construction explained. These textbooks are widely used at all levels today, and similar textbooks have been created for special use at the elementary and middle school levels.

Issues Trends and Controversies

Latin has made a remarkable comeback in U.S. schools at the start of the twenty-first century. In many districts it ranks as the second most popular language–second only to Spanish. Yet the continued presence of Latin in K–12 curricula depends on the profession's prompt attention to many different forces at work in education. The first problem is a direct result of the profession's aggressive promotion of Latin in the face of the dramatic decline in Latin study during the 1960s and 1970s. The United States is facing an increasingly severe shortage of Latin teachers. Many school districts drop Latin programs each year for lack of teachers, and each year the standard placement services show many more openings for Latin teachers than job applicants.

The placement services also show an increasing call for Latin teachers who can teach one other language, most commonly Spanish. Since Spanish is closely related to Latin it represents a natural alliance that has had great success in pilot programs combining the two languages. Further, as Latin continues to expand at the elementary and middle school levels, the field will be increasingly called upon to devise further curricula and materials suitable for these levels.

Many national initiatives have influenced Latin in the K–12 curriculum. For example, both block scheduling and the International Baccalaureate (which initially did not accommodate the study of Latin) have, over recent years, caused Latin professionals once more both to mount proactive campaigns and to modify outdated teaching methodologies. Such change is facilitated by alliances between such national groups as The American Classical League (ACL; traditionally a K–12 organization) and the American Philological Association (APA; traditionally a college and university organization). As such alliances increase, insularity among Latin teacher groups is becoming a thing of the past. Likewise, the national classics organizations have increasingly allied themselves with modern language groups such as The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). As a result, Latin is routinely included whenever issues affecting all languages are discussed.

This was never more evident than in the matter of the national standards movement. The resurgence of Latin occurred along several tracks at once, with markedly different goals and target audiences. The profession first took note of the disparity among curricula in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This insight was spurred on by ACTFL's Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the Twenty-First Century and a broad coalition of classicists from all levels gathered to produce Standards for Classical Language Learning, which was jointly published by the ACL and APA and has become the accepted standard in its field.

The future of Latin in the schools is somewhat unclear at present. The president of a major state university, looking back at the "good old days" put it well: "I do not know, of course, what is to become of classical study in this country, but personally I should regard it as a great blow to the development of some of the finest and most important sides of American life if the study of Greek and Latin should fall to the relatively unimportant place now occupied by the study of Assyrian and Babylonian, as some people think it is bound to do" (West, p. 188). This nervous statement, however, was made in 1917 by Edmund J. James of the University of Illinois. The study of Latin, it seems, will always have its challenges, and its doubters, but if the past is any indication, it will rise to meet the future as well as it has the past.


ABBOTT, MARTHA GORDON. 1991. "Priority: Classics–Critical Instructional Issues in the Classics for American Schools." Foreign Language Annals 24:27–37.

BELL, BARBARA. 2000. Minimus: Starting Out in Latin. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

GANSS, GEORGE, S.J. 1956. Saint Ignatius' Idea of a Jesuit University. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.

GEORGE, ED. 1998. "Latin and Spanish: Roman Culture and Hispanic America." In Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom, ed. Richard LaFleur. Glenville, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

GOLDMAN, NORMA, and NYENHUIS, JACOB. 1982. Latin Via Ovid: A First Course, 2nd edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

JENNEY, CHARLES, JR., et al. 1990. First Year Latin and Second Year Latin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

JOHNSON, PATRICIA A. 1988. Traditio: An Introduction to the Latin Language and Its Influence. New York: Macmillan.

KITCHELL, KENNETH F. 1998. "The Great Latin Debate: The Futility of Utility?" In Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom, ed. Richard LaFleur. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

KITCHELL, KENNETH F. 2000. "The Latin Teacher Shortage: A Call to Action." Classical Outlook 78:1–18.

KNUDSVIG, GLENN M., et al. 1986. Latin for Reading: A Beginner's Textbook with Exercises, 2nd edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

KNUDSVIG, GLENN M., and ROSS, DEBORAH PENNELL. 1998. "The Linguistic Perspective." In Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom, ed. Richard LaFleur. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

LAFLEUR, RICHARD A. 1985. "1984: Latin in the United States Twenty Years After the Fall." Foreign Language Annals 18 (4): 341–347.

LAFLEUR, RICHARD A. 1987. The Teaching of Latin in American Schools: A Profession in Crisis. Decatur, GA: Scholars Press.

LAFLEUR, RICHARD A. 1997. "Latina Resurgens: Classical Language Enrollments in American Schools and Colleges." Classical Outlook 74 (4):125–130.

LAFLEUR, RICHARD A., ed. 1998. Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

LAWALL, GILBERT, et al. 1994. Ecce Romani: A Latin Reading Program, 2nd edition. Glenview IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

MARROU, HENRI. 1982. A History of Education in Antiquity, tr. George Lamb (1956). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

PHINNEY, ED, and BELL, PATRICIA. 1988. The Cambridge Latin Course. Units 1–4, 3rd. edition. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

POLSKY, MARION. 1998. First Latin: A Language Discovery Program, 2nd edition. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

SEBESTA, JUDITH LYNN. 1998. "Aliquid Semper Novi: New Challenges, New Approaches." In Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom, ed. Richard LaFleur. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley.

SWEET, WALDO. 1957. Latin: A Structural Approach. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

SWEET, WALDO. 1966. Artes Latinae. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci.

WEST, ANDREW F., ed. 1917. Value of the Classics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

WHEELOCK, FREDERICK M. 1995. Wheelock's Latin, 5th edition, ed. Richard LaFleur. New York: Harper Collins.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia