Off you go and learn it

Time and again I am struck by how little guidance some students are given about how to go about the process of learning. I’m not talking about school assemblies on “study skills”, which I guarantee you most teenagers will switch off from; the guidance needs to come directly from each individual classroom teacher, the subject expert, and it needs to be explicitly taught, modelled and demonstrated on a regular basis. Schools need to agree what methods they are going to recommend and this needs to be reflected right across the school in all subjects, tailored specifically to what works best in each academic discipline.

Too often, it seems to me, students are still being told: here is your Latin set text, now off you go and learn the first section. I was guilty of this in my first few years of teaching – rote-learning comes relatively easy to me and I didn’t really comprehend that students need to be shown how to go about engaging with the process. Furthermore, I was working in a very high-achieving grammar school, where we were not really encouraged to support students proactively with their learning; it was assumed that all the students in the school could cope well in academia without such support.

When it comes to the literature element of the Latin GCSE, whether or not a student knows the translation of the set text off by heart and whether they can relate that knowledge to the the Latin version in front of them is without doubt the single most important differentiator between a student’s success and failure in the exam. Despite this inescapable fact, few Latin teachers appear willing to dedicate classroom time to the learning process, so wedded are they to the conviction that students can manage the learning “in their own time”. Many of my tutees have been told time and again that they “don’t know the text” well enough, that they “need to learn” it, that they need to “spend more time” on it, that generally they need to do something to gain the knowledge required. Yet when I ask them, “what methods have you practised in class?” they stare at me blankly. I have come to realise that most students are not being taught how to learn things off by heart, beyond the most rudimentary of introductions.

I am not naive. Having taught in secondary schools for 21 years, 13 of those years in a comprehensive setting, I am more than well aware of students’ uncanny ability to claim that they have “never been taught” something that they in fact have been told on more than one occasion. However, the extreme cluelessness of so many of my clients when it comes to what to do and their apparent awe when they are taught some very basic methods such as colour-coding and the first-letter technique do leave me increasingly convinced that many classroom teachers are not dedicating enough (or in some extreme cases any) classroom time to learning methodologies. I’ll bet most of them are doing what I used to do in my first few years of teaching – giving students a few bullet points of advice on how to go about learning the texts, then assuming that those students will remember this going forward. But why do we believe that? We would not (I hope) present them with the endings of the 1st declension in one lesson then assume that they will remember those endings for the rest of time – so why should that be the case when it comes to study skills?

One possible reason is teachers’ anxiety about time. One of the greatest strains that GCSE Latin teachers are under is time pressure. Very schools offer enough space on the timetable for our subject and I am fully aware that making it through both set texts within the time available is a mammoth task. I rarely finished the second set text prior to the end of March – on the few occasions that I managed to do so it was real cause for celebration. Yet despite this, as my career progressed I allocated an ever-increasing amount of classroom time to teaching students how to go about the learning process and also to giving them short bursts of learning time to actually get on with it in silence. Any spare few minutes that I found myself in possession of at the end of a new section or a new concept, I would allow them to bow their heads and spend 10 minutes using the first-letter technique to get a few sentences of the text under their belts. I wonder whether classroom teachers are afraid of allowing students this time, as if it somehow undermines the important of our teaching role. I used to remind students that I was painfully aware how much pressure I was putting them under, asking them to rote-learn a new chunk of text almost every single week. So part of the deal I made with them was that – whenever I could – I would let them have a few minutes of classroom time to kick-start the process.

The benefits of allocating this time are twofold. Firstly, it literally does get the children started on the process and is an opportunity to remind them once again of the methods that have been recommended: I used to put them up on a summary slide, even when they could all recite the methods without hesitation. Secondly, while students are studying, a teacher can circulate the room and check whether they are actually using the methods – there will always be a few hardcore reluctants who claim that the recommended methods “don’t work for them”. This is when a teacher needs to be strong. The evidence for what works and what doesn’t work in terms of how we learn is overwhelming, and unless that child can perform perfectly in every test you give them then they need to get on board with the methods!

As for what the methods should be, I recommend a variety but one is definitely stand-out brilliant and so far has worked for every student I have ever met. So if you haven’t read my previous post on how to use the first-letter technique then do so straight away – you will never look back!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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