On my reading list for some time has been Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Quigley is an English teacher, a blogger and the author of several books on how schools should go about closing the literacy gap between “word rich” and “word poor” students – those with high levels of literacy and a huge mental word bank compared to those without. His work ties in with other reading I have done about the literacy crisis in the USA and the debates that have raged in this country and in America about how we teach children to read.
I didn’t necessarily expect to find an empassioned defence of my subject embedded in a modern book about the wider and more fundamental issue of children’s literacy, but find it I did. Quigley, it seems, is a believer in Latin (and Greek!) for all. In the third chapter of his book he outlines precisely the ways in which children who already struggle with reading are further impoverished by the difficulties that they face when presented with texts of an increasingly academic nature. He explores the fact that technical and scientific terminology is so dominated by Latinate words that there really does become a case for teaching these word-patterns explicitly in the classroom: “teaching with etymology in mind is therefore a reliable and helpful tool, not just for English teachers, but also for every classroom teacher. In fact, it may prove more valuable for teachers of maths, science and geography, given the narrower roots of their subject specific language.” To find the case for this being made in such a book was exciting enough, but I nearly fell out of my chair when I read the next paragraph:
“You could rightly ask, why aren’t ancient languages like Latin on the curriculum for all? Why do we still perceive the powerful roots of our language as exclusive to the few who already prove word rich? Here, we could also speculate about how useful it would prove for English teachers to learn an ancient language as part of their professional development and enrichment.”
Not only is Quigley suggesting that ancient languages have a valuable place in a modern curriculum, he is even suggesting that teachers of English would all benefit from studying an ancient language. This is music to my ears and if I’m honest (sorry, English teachers) I have never understood how anyone goes on to study English literature at a higher level without such knowledge. I’ll take just one example: if you think you understand Milton, but you haven’t read Virgil in the original Latin, then – I hate to break this to you – but you don’t fully understand Milton; you’re missing out on the richness of what he is attempting to do, because you lack that frame of reference.
Quigley goes on to argue that children who are not taught explicitly about etymology are being shut out of “a wealth of intriguing knowledge”. He also points out that the kind of cultural capital afforded to children with a knowledge of Latin and Greek is one of the fundamental divides between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
This is genuinely exciting. It is widely accepted (and not incorrect) that the traditional arguments from the past that “Latin makes you clever” are simply not evidence-based; studying Latin and Greek makes you good at Latin and Greek, it doesn’t necessarily gift you with transferrable skills beyond that knowledge-base. However, Quigley presents the case for ancient languages by highlighting the importance of the academic vocabulary which is required in order to access all subjects beyond the very basics; it is something of a clincher for those of us who still believe in the value of ancient languages, and really does make the case for the academic advantage that Latin and Greek affords its students.
Quigley explores further the fact that Latin remains the preserve of the elite and is still considered by many to be appropriate only for high-attaining students, despite the evidence gathered by Arlene Holmes-Henderson from Classics for All that an exposure to Latin in fact has a greater impact on students with low literacy levels than it does on those who are already highly literate. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Children who are already highly literate, who are exposed to a wide range of reading at home and who have articulate discussion modelled for them from a young age will always be fine; it is for those students for whom this is not the norm that we should be concerned, and the teaching of Latin absolutely has a place in our quest to close this advantage gap.
I picked up Quigley’s book with the intention of enriching and updating my knowledge of how children acquire vocabulary, and I still expect to learn much in this area as I work through the second half. It has been a lovely surprise and an added bonus to find the case for Latin as a subject made so clearly in a book that has been hailed as essential in education’s work towards opening the doors of opportunity for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students. I am very glad to have spent 21 years in the state sector, building up the numbers of students for whom an exposure to this valuable subject was an opportunity and a right. Until Latin is a normalised part of the curriculum in a greater number of state schools than the current dismal figures, it and all of its advantages will remain the preserve of the elite.