“Grammar-Translation” vs “Reading” Methods in Latin Pedagogy

To create a dichotomy where there is not necessarily one, I would like to ask my very small group of followers/anyone who happens across this blog what they think about a grammar-translate approach to teaching Latin (Wheelock/Jenny’s Latin) vs. a reading based one (Orberg’s Lingua Latina/Ecce Romani). I’ll get to Cambridge/Oxford Latin Course in a bit. I will try to be unbiased in my descriptions of the two methods, and as I understand them (which may not be very well), here are the pros and cons of each):


  • Grammar-TranslationAn better understanding of Latin & English grammar is one of the major benefits to studying Latin. Since most of what we have is fairly formal, natural language doesn’t really enter in to the Latin we read. A grammar approach teaches the students the principles underlying the actual Latin they will encounter so they can identify the formula when they see it. The intense study of grammar is good brain exercise – it hones a student’s ability to memorize large quantities of information and to draw connections between what they have learned and the practical application of those lessons. So a student who memorizes the present system of all four conjugations has practiced memorizing, following a formula, and then practices making the connections between the abstract concept of ‘present system’ and what the see in a piece of Latin literature. This prepares the student for a deeper and more exact understanding of a text. Students also gain a deeper understanding of how languages can use syntax, morphology, and phonology to produce meaning. Students who are successful will not need to rely on context to arrive at the exact meaning of a sentence of Latin.
  • ReadingThe Reading method is more focused on developing a student’s ability to read Latin than their ability to understand grammar. A reading approach considers grammar to be be secondary to the main goal, which is reading literature. Students learn to pick up grammar from their readings and attempt to read Latin more naturally (left to right, as opposed to hunting for the verb). Memorization is aided by the addition of context. Students may not know that the present indicative active of the verb amo, amare, amaui, amatum is ‘amat’, rather, they see the word ‘amat’ and it triggers the concept ‘he/she/it loves’. Students who find memorization difficult or who find the application of abstract concepts to practical situations difficult will usually do better when taught with this method.


  • Grammar-TranslationThe majority of students find this method of learning difficult. It doesn’t treat Latin as a language, but rather as a puzzle to be solved. Students who have learned imperfectly with this method are likely to produce ‘word-salad’ sentences because they haven’t been trained to use context to guide their decisions. Their teachers tend to tell them that ‘they will know which form is being used because of the context’, but they are not often taught how to use the context until much later in their education, and in some cases must figure out how to do so on their own.
  • ReadingStudents who learn with the reading method find identifying grammar difficult. When asked to produce the ‘present indicative active 3rd S.’ of a verb, they may find themselves overwhelmed by the terminology and uncertain of a form they actually know quite well, even if they have heard these terms used before. They find it difficult to apply abstract grammatical concepts to what they are reading. When precision is needed to understand the meaning of a sentence, the student may have a general idea of what is going on, but be unable to pinpoint exactly what.

Are these assessments fair? What have your own experiences been? How were you taught Latin? How (if applicable) do you teach Latin? If you use one of the above methods, why have you chosen to use it and what have your experiences been?

Of course, there are some textbooks which seem to have combined these two methods rather well, for example, the Cambridge/Oxford Latin course.
If you have experience with these textbooks, what do you like about them? What don’t you like about them?

Personally, I prefer an emphasis on the reading approach with strong supplemental grammar. I remember encountering Orberg’s Lingua Latina in my 2nd year of College and thinking it was magical. I still really like it, especially when combined with the college companion, but apart from using it as a refresher for myself, I don’t have much practical experience teaching with it. I’m also finding Moreland & Fleischer to be really good – it’s giving me a grammar workout but I’m still able to read the sentences in a natural way. Is there a textbook with the same sort of quality of Moreland and Fleischer that would be appropriate for high school Latin?

If your subject is Greek, how do you feel about Athenaze? Wilding? Another book? What methods do you find successful?

I’m really curious to know what people’s opinions are on the topic.


8 comments on ““Grammar-Translation” vs “Reading” Methods in Latin Pedagogy

  1. mattitiahu says:

    I really can’t comment that much on Latin pedagogy. (I learned with Wheelock and have taught from it on occasion since it was up until recently the main textbook used at the UofA.) Greek I think I can comment on a little bit better since I’ve read a couple of Greek textbooks. I’ve had a lot of people complain about Athenaze being too light on grammar, but if you use the workbooks in conjunction with the main text, they balance out quite nicely. Of course, drills and memorization need to be actively encouraged by the instructor through regular quizzes along with the teaching. I learned with Athenaze in this way and I thought it was perfect balance. (Mind you there are occasional mistakes in Athenaze’s presentation of Greek grammar.)

    One year the regular first-year Greek teacher was on sabbatical and the lecturer who was standing in was absolutely opposed to reading-based approaches (like Athenaze), and used Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek instead for its strict schoolmaster approach to learning Greek. I think, if I remember correctly, all the students had serious difficulties with it, and ultimately coming out of it only had the vocabulary to read the prose of Xenophon and Plato. To teach Greek, I think you really need to build up an exposure to a wide variety of genres, unless of course you’re only learning to read Greek to read a particular corpus, like philosophical Greek, or the New Testament. (Although, even if you do that you’re probably doing yourself something a of disservice, since the person who only knows New Testament and Septuagint Greek will have no idea how linguistically bizarre it is in comparison to real, honest-to-god koiné, or fifth-century Attic for that matter.)

    I haven’t taught with the Cambridge JACT Reading Greek yet, but I am tempted to try it out to see how it compares with Athenaze.

    • Thanks for the comment! I completely agree with your thoughts about Greek & Athenaze. I’m tutoring students right now who are learning with Hanson and Quinn – some of the class seems to be doing well, the rest….not so much. The main problem seems to be digesting Greek verbs. How do you feel about memorizing principle parts (I-VI) vs learning how to form tenses from a basic stem? How do you teach irregularities? Is there any way to give students nice formulas to follow like in Latin (present stem+tense indicator+personal ending)? How did you feel about Wheelock? When you were using it? Personally I hate it, but I’m interesting in understanding what draws people to it. How did you find using it? How did your students do?

      I though you were teaching grk this year, btw? how’s it going?

      • mattitiahu says:

        I used to think that I would be able to get around forcing students to memorize principal parts I-VI, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think I would make them memorize them, but try to explain some basics in word-formation in the verb as the actual teaching progressed, and try to explain that they are synchronically suppletive, but there is some internal logic to it a certain portion of the time (e.g. Ablaut in λείπ-ω, ἔ-λιπ-ο-ν, λέ-λοιπ-α) cf. Engl. sing, sang, sung, and the rest of the time it’s historical accident and that’s why some verbs are lexically suppletive (φέρω ~ οἴσω ~ ἤνεγκα), cf. English go, went from two originally different verbs in earlier Germanic. A Greek class is, of course, not the place to be teaching historical linguistics over the language itself, but at least teaching an appreciation for some basic concepts goes, I think, a long way in helping students understand irregularity in the language, especially in such a historically and dialectally variegated large-corpus language like Ancient Greek c. 750 BC ~ 250 AD.

        I don’t particularly like Wheelock. It’s just so… parochial in its take on the Roman world. And its presentation of grammar isn’t that great, in that it loads far too many important (dare I say essential) grammatical concepts in the final 10 chapters that could have been introduced earlier. Especially if you’re nearing the end of a year-long Introduction to Latin course, and you’re going to be starting with reading actual texts in the following year. It makes for a very harsh transition. (Also, the stuff that occurs in Latin that Wheelock tells you is ‘optional’, which actually happens all the time.) I learned okay out of it. My experience teaching from it and that of students I’ve had using it has been highly variable.

        I applied for the Greek teaching bursary last year, but there was a large number of applicants so they decided to give it to someone a year ahead of me in the Ph.D. who could use the teaching experience more at this stage. At least that seems to be their reasoning, and they told me to apply again next year. So, I’m supervising for the 1A Intro to Philology and E1 Intro to Indo-European papers in the meantime. I think I like the small group teaching better anyway.

        • hm, that is the difficulty with Greek – it’s so three dimensional (i’m imagining 3 separate things to teach – grammar, vocab, and historical development). Sometimes I feel like Greek would only make sense if you could start from PIE.

          No wizard hat this year then? Maybe next. Intro Philology & Intro IE sound right up you alley though.

        • mattitiahu says:

          I hear (it may be an apochryphal story) that Tom Palaima teaches his Intro Greek classes as Intro Greek/Intro PIE combo classes, but I can’t even begin to imagine how traumatizing that would end up being.

  2. John Cowan says:

    The high school textbook I used back in 1971-72 was a mixture of grammar and readings, pretty balanced as I recall, though I have completely forgotten its name. It had cartoons, though, and one of them was a trident-wielding gladiator with his foot on the wheel of a one-person chariot with a togaed driver. The caption was “Ubi ignis?”

    After that it was Caesar, Virgil, and Cicero in that order (the Virgil and Cicero classes were taught only every other year, so which order you got them in depended on what year you entered high school). In my second semester of college (spring 1977) I took a class that was half Catullus and half someone else, I forget who. Here’s an anecdote about that class. I didn’t mean it to come out as free verse, it just sort of did.

    • I think the story works really well in free verse – what an awkward way to deal with Catullus! I once had a prof end my reading section early and move on to a guy to translate μίσγεται in Odyssey 8, and I’ve had some awkward conversations about Catullus XVI, but never seen anything that blatant!

      The cartoons sound awesome :)

  3. Sophronios says:

    I first learned Greek using some Grammar-Translation books -Mounce, Duff, and Black- until I found JACT Reading Greek then it became my favorite.

    JACT RG, I think, tries to combine the both methods so that anyone finishing the textbook will get both the good advantages of the methods and avoiding the bad disadvantages. My only complain about JACT is that the layout is somehow confusing, also dry list of vocab for each chapter rather that picture associated and context help as in natural methods.
    However overall from a beginner point of view JACT would be very nice option with teacher available. but for the self-taught me, it does work because I’ve had ahead start using the trio above.

    for Latin, because I’ve already acquire some basic Greek grammar construction, am going to Orberg’s LL as primary text and Wheelock’s as supplement. otherwise, I reverse the methods.


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