Teaching Beyond Translation

A sophomore, designated the "Special Student” of the day, stands in front of a classroom of her Upper School peers. She replies to interview questions asked by her teacher and classmates, speaking enthusiastically about Tom Hanks movies, her favorite Marvel characters, and her love of One Direction. It’s an entertaining exercise, and an impressive one—for the majority of the discussion has been spoken in Latin.
This isn’t necessarily the dialogue you’d find in a traditional textbook, but for Ellis Latin students, that’s exactly the point. The Studens Illustris (“Special Student”) interview series exemplifies the teaching methodology that underlies the Upper School Latin experience: comprehensible input. This learning style focuses primarily on developing students’ ability to comprehend and communicate with the language in a meaningful way. The approach emphasizes moving beyond translation and memorization to develop genuine, in-depth understanding. As a result, students learn to utilize their voices in a whole new way, using an ancient language to speak about themselves and their personal interests in modern terms.   

"My single biggest goal for all of my students is to be able to read and understand Latin on their own,” says Latin Teacher Josh Thomas. "When they encounter Latin out in the world, can they relate to it? To me, that’s more important than being able to diagram a sentence or fill out a verb chart. Traditional Latin classes that are focused on memorizing grammar and translating vocabulary words can be a mile wide and an inch deep; at Ellis, we try to do the opposite. The students master the basics and really dig into what they’re learning. We take time in class to explore the topics that are interesting to them. We don’t always have to talk about the Romans; I want the students to be able to use the language to express their own ideas.”

To sharpen the literacy and communication skills they showcase in Studens Illustris, Upper School students on the Latin language track read and examine novels written entirely in the classical language as part of their coursework. Penned by Latin teachers specifically for Latin students, most of the stories are fictionalizations of real historic events and characters, providing insight into ancient Roman culture and daily life. The novels incorporate a precise vocabulary and are designed to use words repetitively so students establish a familiarity with the words, what they mean, and how they can be used. 

In Latin I and II, students start with more basic texts that align with where they are in their learning journey. As students progress to Latin III, the novels become more advanced and there’s a heavier focus on reading comprehension. By the time students reach Latin IV or AP Latin, they’re able to read excerpts from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico and Virgil’s Aeneid, two of the most sophisticated and influential bodies of work in Latin literature. Students are reaping a variety of benefits from these studies, from a deeper understanding of the English language (over 60% of all English words have Latin roots!) to improved grammar and clarity of expression. But the most essential part of this work is that students are reading the Latin texts directly and interpreting their meaning for themselves, establishing independence in their intellectual pursuits.

"All translation is interpretation,” says Mr. Thomas. "If you’re reading a translation of an important work that was originally written in Latin, you’re really reading the opinion of the English translator and what they think the text means; you’re removed from the text. If students are able to not only translate but also understand the text for themselves, they can then form their own opinions and ideas about what they’ve read. They can experience and understand these ancient philosophies, their legacy, and the influence they have on today’s world in a much more tangible way.”

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