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Learning a Little Latin can Help Close the Attainment Gap

If you dismiss Latin as an ‘elitist’ subject, you’re missing a solid opportunity to help level the playing field for all your students

  • Learning a Little Latin can Help Close the Attainment Gap

Ask people for their thoughts about Latin and they are quite likely to assert that it is a “dead language”.

Enquire further whether they think it should be taught in our schools, and you can expect be told that sure, “more able” students might enjoy it – but only as an academic exercise; otherwise, really, it’s just not relevant to modern life. And yet, when you dig a little deeper into the curriculum, the real value of learning Latin becomes clear.

We’re surrounded by snippets of this so-called “dead language” in our everyday lives. Take AM, RIP, or even eg. How many people could actually name the Latin words that these common abbreviations represent?

The answer for am is ‘ante meridiem’, meaning ‘before midday’. Contrary to popular believe, RIP does not denote ‘rest in peace’, but rather, ‘requiescat in pace’? Finally, we have ‘exempli gratia’, meaning ‘for the sake of example’.

Now, you could fairly argue that such knowledge is largely redundant – but in doing so, we close down rich opportunities to broaden the vocabulary of our children, and we choose to hide the primary roots of our academic communication.

Indeed, the language of school is inextricably linked to the ancient languages of Latin and Greek. With a little more knowledge of the roots of academic English, we unlock a world of learning for our students – both ancient and modern.

Getting to the roots

Etymology is the study of the history of words – their origins and how they change over time. These word histories are all around us, and prove much more than a mere curiosity or the answer to a QI quiz question.

In fact, we know that around sixty percent of our English lexicon is drawn from a combination of Latin and Greek origins, with the more technical vocabulary of school reaching even higher, to something like a massive ninety present.

We know that when children learn the story and the deeper meaning of a word it can prove memorable and revelatory. Given the consistent origins of our academic vocabulary, then, we are surely missing a teaching trick.

The stark reality is that most teachers are uncomfortable, or simply not familiar, with tackling vocabulary beyond sharing dictionary definitions and using the context of the sentence to teach a word.

We may teach words like ‘democracy’, ‘plutocracy’, ‘oligarchy’ and ‘monarchy’ in history, citizenship and politics, but do we help students make meaningful, rich connections between those words?

The information is readily at hand: the suffix ‘cracy’ means ‘power’, with ‘archy’ meaning ‘rulership’; ‘demo’ means ‘people’, with ‘pluto’ meaning ‘wealth’; ‘oligo’ meaning ‘few’, and ‘mono’, meaning ‘one / alone’.

By foregrounding the word parts – the study of morphology – and the stories underpinning them, we unlock their meaning. And a little bit of Latin can go a long way. Take the prefix ‘nom’, for example.

When children know it comes from the Latin ‘nominalis’ (pertaining to a name or names), and from ‘nomen’, meaning ‘name’, English words like ‘nominate’, ‘nominee’, ‘nomenclature’ ‘ignomy’ and ‘binomial’, all begin to make sense in the way they are related to the concept of naming.

When faced with the word ‘nominal’, students can draw upon their background knowledge and morphological knowledge and understanding. They have a memorable hook. And when they study French, they instantly recognise that ‘nom’ means ‘name’.

Tricky terms

In maths, practice of equations can be undertaken with little need for lengthy forays into language – however, teacher explanations, and student understanding, can be enriched by quickly making explicit the Latin and Greek morphemes that make up the mathematical lexicon.

‘Tri’, for example, denoting ‘three’, or ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’. When students are aware of the latter definition, then a number of words become easier to decipher: ‘polygon’, ‘polynomial’, ‘polymath’ and ‘polymer’ etc. (just be wary of a debate on polygamy!).

In subjects like maths, science and geography – not just English – students will come across a wealth of tricky subject terms that are Latin in origin. By offering learners the tools to help them understand and connect these words, we can give them strategies to better independently read the challenging academic texts of school.

Clearly, teachers need support to help unlock Latin learning in their subject. Teaching the etymology and morphology can be tricky – however, with collaboration and some easy-to-use tools (Etymology Online – etymonline.com – is one such accessible resource), educators can begin to weave a little bit of Latin into every lesson, thereby unlocking a lot more learning for every student about words and the world.

Alex Quigley is an English teacher and Director of Huntington Research School. His next book, Closing the Vocabulary Gap, is being released by Routledge in April, 2018.

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