It was the year 2000, I was an NQT and I was standing in front of a class, teaching a subject I had not trained in, perhaps rather less well-prepared than I should have been.
The class were reading The Turn of the Screw, a novella I felt reasonably confident I could bluff my way through for half an hour, but the inevitable happened – I was presented with a word I had never seen before. The governess in the novel was describing how much the children in her care were absorbed in their imaginary games and how they would assign to her a role in their game that was befitting of her position – “a happy and highly distinguished sinecure.” I had never seen the word sinecure before.
Given my knowledge of Latin, alongside the context of the passage, I was able to deduce that sinecure meant something that required little effort: sine in Latin means “without” and cura means “effort, care or worry”. This is just one of a thousand ways that a knowledge of Latin can help widen your scope as a reader – it can help you to deduce the meaning of a word you have never met before.
Most students find derivatives much more difficult than adults imagine, and this is something I have only come to realise in recent years. The derivatives question in the OCR GCSE language paper is worth 4 marks – that’s 4% of the whole paper – yet most classroom teachers (and I include myself in this) have not prepared students well for it. It is easy to assume that students will be able to do the question without any support or guidance, but in my experience the marks that students score in this element of the paper do not bear out this assumption.
I’ll be honest – I don’t like the derivatives question and I don’t think it should be there in its current form. The question significantly advantages students who have read more widely, students who like and respond well to reading and who have been exposed to a lot of challenging books from a young age. Yet even they sometimes struggle with the question unless they are prepared for it.
The GCSE question in its current form looks like this: students are asked to state an English word which derives from the Latin and to define the English word. It is the latter that even strong readers can struggle with, given that parts of speech are no longer something which their English teachers will be making much reference to. Asking students of 16 years to give a dictionary definition of a word is a fair bit more challenging than one might assume. The question always gives an example to show students what to do, but they still need to practise it.
I used the above example this week with a very intelligent and very well-read student. His mother is an English teacher. He could not come up with a derivative for annos – fascinatingly, he came up with annular, a word which I had never heard of, but which derives in fact from the Latin for ring (anulus, also spelled annulus, meaning “small ring”). The word therefore means “ring-shaped” and I believe that he knew the word because he does astronomy! He could not think of the word annual and only recognised it when I gave him examples of it in compound words such as biannual. The second word in the question gave him no problem and he confidently both named and defined sedentary; but in my experience this is very unusual for a 16-year old, as most of them have not heard of this word and are more likely (if they can come up with anything at all) to draw on their studies in geography or chemistry and come up with sediment.
Common Entrance papers in the past have taken a slightly different approach to derivatives questions. They used to say something like “explain the connection beteeen the Latin word sedebat and the English word sedentary“. This at least gave students the derivative rather than expecting them to come up with it, but it still advantaged strong and/or experienced readers because they were still going to struggle if they had no experience of the English word.
In terms of how students can get better at this question, I’m afraid I feel a little dismal about it because “read more widely” is advice that they need to have been given from an age when really responsibility lies not with them but with their parents or guardians. The extent to which children struggle with this question is just one tiny example of how important reading is and how much advantage it gives to those whose parents have had the money, the time and the education to promote its importance at home.
I certainly recommend to all GCSE students that they get hold of a copy of Caroline K. Mackenzie’s GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon. The book works through the whole of the GCSE vocabulary list and explores suggested derivatives for each word, so it is definitely worthwhile as a supplement volume for students who want to gain mastery in this part of the exam.
One thing I would recommend from experience is that students come back to the derivatives question during the spare time that almost all of them have at the end of the language paper. Many students plump for a poor choice of derivative, my favourite example of which is when shown a Latin word such as audivit (he heard) and asked to give a derivative, nine times out of ten they will say “audio”. Now, audio is in the English dictionary. But can they define it? Of course they can’t. Much better to give the matter some more thought and come up with audition, audience or audible, all of which are likely to be words that they know and can define.
Last week I reviewed the 5th edition of the Cambridge Latin Course Book 1. While the changes were notable, they were perhaps only apparent to someone who knows the course inside out. By contrast, the moment one opens the second book and compares it to its 4th edition predecessor, it is apparent that the changes here are far more radical. From the very first set of cartoons, the difference it striking.
Okay. Full disclosure from the outset: I don’t like Book 2. As a result, I’m afraid that this review is not going to be gushing. It is difficult enough to hold the attention of Year 9 (especially once they’ve chosen their options, which happens remarkably early in the academic year); with CLC Book 2, it was nigh on impossible and I have never felt so liberated as when I ditched it altogether. Yet the authors of the 5th edition have clearly made significant improvements to make the transition from the first to the second book is more palatable. To date, students have struggled to move on from the loss of Caecilius and other favourite characters, so the authors of the new edition have done the right thing in attempting to give Quintus more character in Book 1 and providing him with a new companion to accompany him on his travels. I retain my reservations about Book 2, even in its new format but, with such radical changes employed, it is undeniable that the authors have given it their best shot to adapt it.
The first stage of the book (Stage 13 in the series) has been radically altered. The lazy slave motifs of yesteryear are gone, and the opening cartoons demonstrate this from the outset. The monumentally dull opening story Tres Servi has been removed and replaced with a much better story entitled Romanus Vulneratus, which introduces us to Salvius in the distance, observed by a local farmer and his family. This is a much cleverer way to spark interest in the story Coniuratio which follows, and which we now hear as an explanation as to how the wealthy Roman Salvius came by his wound. I think the very idea of seeing these Roman characters through local eyes is excellent and a terrific approach taken by the authors throughout the new edition.
Rufilla is given a more dominant role, notable in the way the cartoons are presented and how the story of Bregans is shaped around her rather than Varica. The story is now divided into two parts, but still introduces the dog sent as a gift by King Togidubnus (renamed in line with updated research). A new character of Vitellianus is introduced and there is much better story-telling, with Rufilla noticing that her husband is wounded, and much less “Romanising”, with Bregans no longer being the stupid, lazy slave. The twins, Loquax and Anti-Loquax, are notable by their absence in this Stage. Salvius Fundum Inspicit has been renamed Fundus Britannicus, and once again this story has been adapted to reflect the viewpoint of local farmers living under the Roman occupation.
The order in which the grammar is introduced throughout Book 2 remains the same. For example, Stage 13 still introduces the verbs volo, nolo and possum used with the infinitive, and this grammatical point is rather better represented throughout the stories than it was before. I still ache for the lack of exercises provided; regretfully (and – as I undetstand it – deliberately) the CLC still relies heavily on the classroom teacher supplementing students’ studies. The authors have moved the practising the language exercises to the back of the book and added in extra comprehensions in every stage; given that the exercises require extensive vocabulary support, I do wonder whether the authors have considered just how much work the CLC demands of the clasroom teachers who work with it. When I think of the thousands of Latin teachers all over the country typing out hundreds of exercises on the most basic of grammatical principles, it makes me want to weep at the inefficiency. Changes have been made to the vocabulary checklists, largely (although not entirely) to better represent the list of words required at GCSE. I retain serious concerns about the vocabulary used outside of the checklists, which I shall come back to later.
The authors have decided to ditch the motif of Rufilla as the nagging, 1970s-style housewife, which is a great relief. She has an equally if not more dominant role in Stage 14 as before, but the row between her and Salvius, in which she was portrayed as fickle and spoilt, has been replaced with Familia Occupata, in which her focus is preparing the guest bedroom – a much better way to build anticipation about who that guest might be. The household slaves are also much better represented throughout Stage 14 in the build up to Quintus Advenit, now renamed Familiaris Advenit to allow students to discover the guest’s identity for themselves as they translate. The story of the silver tripods remains, followed by a new story for comprehension, which once again replaces the exercises now moved to the back of the book. This certainly cements the “reading course” approach – to those of us unconvinced by that philosophy, I fear it is another nail in the coffin for the CLC. Many teachers, however, will be very pleased to see some beginners’ level literary criticism brought in – I am aware that some schools take this approach with the CLC already and it seems the team has taken it on board.
It is notable that the background sections, which continue to exploit the idea of the characters appearing as talking heads, are now spread out more widely throughout some of the stages, meaning that teachers are perhaps more likely to weave the background material into their lessons as originally intended by the philosophy of the CLC. Women are better represented (i.e. they are represented full stop) and there is a pleasing exploration as to why we know so little about them and indeed about anyone who was not rich, male and powerful. I will not explore and discuss the changes to the background in depth because – like many state-school teachers, I had no time for them anyway and therefore lack the expertise. Suffice to say it is clear that the changes are radical, thorough and for the better, so schools with the time to explore them in depth will have much better quality material to work with.
The changes to the stories in Stage 15 appear less radical and therefore what’s most noticeable is once again the practising the language being a comprehension rather than exercises, which have again been moved to the back of the book. There is a welcome change to the cartoons at the start of Stage 16, which previously had the most extraordinary representation of enslaved people with dwarfism, randomly juggling for the entertainment of some dinner guests. While it is absolutely undeniable that the Romans did this kind of thing, to make this image the only representation of disability within the pages of the CLC and drop it in without comment was frankly appalling and something that I am very glad to see the back of. These unfortunate (and nameless) characters have been replaced with the previously absent twins, named in previous editions as Loquax and Anti-Loquax, who make an appearance here although are not named. In the same set of cartoons the authors have also removed the bizarre and frankly distracting moment when a dancing girl appears out of an enormous egg and have replaced her with some birds. Below is the image as it appears in the 4th edition followed by its replacement in the 5th.
I was pleased to see Quintus De Se still in place, as this is a pivotal and grammatically useful story, where Quintus articulates his trauma and which I used to use in an adapted form to test students on verb endings. The story has some pleasing tweaks, incorporating the fate of Lucia, Quintus’s sister, and explaining how Clemens found the two siblings after some time and gave Quintus the ring handed to him by Caecilius at the end of Stage 12 (which to my recollection was never mentioned again in previous editions).
But Stages 15 and 16 in general are the point where the CLC starts to go a bit wild, in my opinion. To my dismay, the authors have chosen to keep the storyline about Belimicus, the tedious boat race and the bear – in my experience, children honestly do not find these stories even half as exciting as the authors seem to think they are, but maybe other teachers have found differently. And yes, of course, I used to throw myself into it, get the children to act out the stories, draw diagrams of the race, label what happened at each point, you name it, I did it. We were all doing it back in 2010. Some teachers are still doing it. What an epic waste of class time! Let’s focus on the language: in my experience, by this point in the course, the amount of unusual vocabulary weighs so heavily upon students that they find themselves endlessly frustrated by the translation process and therefore lose heart with it. My concerns in this regard are perpetuated in this new edition, where the authors have elected to continue to use relatively unusual vocabulary to introduce and demonstrate core grammar. As just one example, the sentence which demonstrates the pluperfect in Stage 16 is constructed almost entirely out of words which do not appear on either of the GCSE specifications, nor in Dickinson’s One Thousand: artifices, qui picturas pinxerant, peritissimi erant. Other than the verb to be and the relative pronoun, these words are frankly irrelevant and I think it’s madness, given the depth of the overhaul that this course has undergone, that the authors haven’t taken the opportunity to resolve this issue. I suspect it is because they genuinely don’t see the excessive amount of unusual vocabulary as an issue to the extent that I have found it to be in the classroom.
Stages 17-20 remain, as in prior editions, a flashback to Quintus’s time in Alexandria, with the notable change that his sister Lucia, introduced in the new 5th edition of Book 1, is also a survivor and therefore joins Quintus on his travels. An extra story in Stage 17 entitled Tres Aves focuses on her and makes further pleasing mention of the siblings’ losses in Pompeii – in previous editions, there wasn’t enough opportunity taken to make links for the characters with their past, so this is really good to see – the course and its narrative certainly feels more coherent now. Stage 18 retains its focus on Clemens, his Alexandrian shop and the protection racketeering and Stage 19 still introduces the characters of Aristo, Galatea and Helena – mention is now made in the cartoons that they are friends of Barbillus, which goes some considerable way towards maintaining the thread of the storyline better than in previous editions. Lucia is also woven into the stories of Stage 19, with this being the focus in a total re-write of Dies Festus. The story of the hen-pecked Aristo has – mercifully – been removed and we are then into endgame, with the story Venatio depicting the scenario which will finish off Barbillus, who has thus been much better woven into the extended narrative throughout Book 1 and Book 2. Barbillus’s demise seems much more poignant, not just because he has been better painted as a character and friend of the family, but because his will is represented nicely in the book and the relationship between him and the siblings Quintus and Lucia is much more explicitly drawn.
While the storyline hangs together really well and the narrative is undeniably entertaining, I maintain that the vocabulary of Book 2 is overwhelming for students and that this burden will continue to cause them to lose interest, both in the narrative and in the language itself. Were I still a classroom teacher I do not believe that I would have re-embraced the use of Book 2, solely due to this fact. While Book 1 requires heavy supplementation, this is just about manageable and definitely worth doing. But when I found myself glossing virtually every single word in a lengthy story – as I did for Book 2 – and when those words are, on the whole, not useful for GCSE, I had to ask myself what purpose the book was serving. My professional judgement that Book 2 was not serving my needs as a time-pressed classroom teacher sadly remains the same having examined the 5th edition: the authors simply haven’t addressed the core reasons behind why I ditched it in the first place. Others will feel very differently of course, and I suspect that ardent fans of the course will be delighted with the changes.
I was always going to be a tough audience, with my fundamental dislike for Book 2 and my sincere belief that it is pretty much irreconcilable with the needs of the classroom teacher, particularly in a comprehensive setting. I remain convinced that the CLC and its usefulness starts to crumble beyond repair at this point. The passages are packed with too much difficult, irrelevant and overwhelming vocabulary and – perhaps most crucially of all – far too much relies on the classroom teacher to produce countless supplementary worksheets; the requirement to do this is so onerous that one is left wondering why one would invest in these expensive text books at all, when they fail so fundamentally to provide the core content of a Latin course.
The Cambridge Latin Course has endured for so long that it has become a lens through which our subject is viewed by the outside world. Written originally in the 1970s as a radical push-back against traditional methods of Latin teaching, the CLC has become the orthodoxy for recent generations. Whilst complained about and much-discussed by tradtionalists and modernists alike, Book 1 in particular is used in the overwhelming majority of schools that teach Latin. I personally used it throughout my 21-year career, despite having much to say about about its approach and scope; the first book is truly inspired and therefore inspiring, and even those of us who take issue with its theoretical approach to the language find it hard to resist its allure.
The course is currently in the midst of a radical overhaul, overseen by Caroline Bristow and her team of writers at CSCP, whom she describes as passionate curators of the characters and their stories. I recently interviewed Caroline for my podcast, and found her insights into how the course has been restructured and reinvented for the modern world truly fascinating. I immediately ordered myself a copy of what’s already available, which is the first two volumes, and have decided to review the changes to Book 1 in this blog post; next week I shall examine Book 2 as there is far too much to say about both volumes to cover it all in one post. There has been a surprising lack of response from the Classics world about the 5th edition, although its attempts to rethink itself have been seized upon with tedious predictability by certain quarters of the mainstream media, who found themselves in a panic that Caecilius and his friends were going woke.
So what exactly has changed for Caecilius?
To the untrained eye, the changes to Book 1 might seem somewhat superficial. As a perhaps reluctant CLC expert, I can assure you that they are not. I have worked with this course for 21 years and I probably know Book 1 better than most people – not least because I spent the last few years of my career re-writing it in order to resolve some of the concerns I had with its approach. Many of the changes I chose to make were as a result of the fact that I am not convinced by the philosophy behind the CLC and other courses which are usually named “reading courses” – if you’d like to know more about this, then my discussion with Caroline is definitely worth you listening to, as is my final interview of the same season with David Carter, who is an advocate for comprehensible input. My ongoing concerns aside, my focus for this blog post is on the specific changes made between the new 5th edition and its predecessor. The pedagogical philosophy behind the course remains unchanged.
The first thing to say is that the cartoons are now colourised. This may feel less radical and exciting since we have had access to the colourised versions online for some time, but let us not forget that this is the first time that these have appeared in print. The 4th edition was streets ahead of its predecessors in terms of presentation and the use of colour photographs, but Caecilius 5.0 is colourised throughout and the cartoons far more appealing as a result of this simple fact. Aside from this, the cartoons attached to the model sentences remain largely familiar, with the addition of Lucia, a sister for Quintus. She seems like as good a place to start as any, so let’s begin with Lucia and the portayal of women.
Why Lucia – and what about women in general?
There are numerous and overwhelming benefits to the inclusion of a daughter for Caecilius and Metella. To start with the obvious, the book is immediately more balanced, with the addition of a female character being shown reading within the first couple of pages. Her prior non-existence had little to do with the realities of the Roman world and far more to do with the fact that the CLC was written in the 1970s. It may have escaped some people’s notice, but the female characters in the series to date reflect the way in which women were portrayed in 1970s situation comedy: you have nagging wives and and you have pretty girls without much to say for themselves other than what men purport to find pleasing. It is surely not to enter some Daily Express reader’s fantasy of radical wokeness to suggest that we can do better than this now.
Lucia is given an important role in the book and – much as I do not wish for her to be nothing but a foil for the male characters – she does indeed provide opportunities for the writers to flesh out the character of Quintus, who has always been somewhat flat in the first book. I’ll come back to why that’s important later.
In general, the writers have done a magnificent job of illustrating the realities of life as it was for Roman women. Metella has been fleshed out as a character and appears by Caecilius’s side, as per the reality for the wife of a wealthy, successful man. Previously, it had felt like they didn’t have any kind of partnership at all and led entirely separate lives, when the reality would have seen Metella involved in Caecilius’s business relationships and friendships. Some of the changes made are subtle but crucially important for this; for example, the opening line of Fabula Mirabilis now reads “multi amici cum Caecilio et cum Metella cenabant” instead of “multi amici cum Caecilio cenabant”. So Metella is there as a host also. Likewise in the story Felix et Fur it is the daughter, Lucia, who asks why Felix was freed (at last making sense of the use of the 3rd person in the last line, which has always grated on me!) Small tweaks matter, because they flesh out the image of the ancient world we are portraying to children.
At the end of Stage 7, after the radically adapted story that portrays Melissa (more on her below), the authors introduce a new story called Lucia callida, which echoes the language used in the story Decens and shows Lucia and a female friend outwitting a rather unpleasant gladiator. By the by, the feminine version of the Latin word for friend (amica) was not previously used in the book, which only serves to illustrate the extent to which women were overlooked in previous editions.
Workers and slaves
The 5th edition authors swap the painter Celer for a female character called Clara, basing their decision to do so on original sources and opening up the opportunity for teachers to explore with their classes what kind of work women might have been seen performing. They also radically adjust the presentation of the slave girl Melissa, giving her a back story and making her welcomed by the other slaves; previously, the story of Melissa showed her as being easy on the eye, simpering while being purchased by (a potentially somewhat lascivious) Caecilius and appreciated by all the men in the household but not by Metella. Distinctly less than ideal. This has been removed, as has the storyline of Melissa getting everything wrong, being criticised by the other (supremely happy) household slaves and eventually settling in to the proper ways of the house. The story which used to be called Metella et Melissa in Stage 7 has been radically transformed, showing empathy between the household slaves and explaining how Melissa ended up being sold into slavery. Metella is no longer the one who makes Melissa feel at home, it is her fellow slaves.
Empathy is also evoked between the slaves in a very interesting change to Stage 4. The authors have completely adapted the story Grumio et Leo, which previously portrayed Grumio as being so drunk that he mistook a fresh mural for reality and became convinced that there was a lion in the house. Ho ho ho for all concerned, isn’t alcohol abuse hilarious? Possibly less than ideal, one has to admit. The story has now been adjusted and has Melissa comparing the image of Hercules in the painting to Grumio and Clemens being unconvinced. Grumio still retains his naughty side, and rest assured that his ongoing flirtation with Poppaea remains in place, as does Clemens’s smug usurpation at the end of the playlet in Stage 11.
Overall, the shift away from portraying the household as packed with a bunch of enslaved workers who were thoroughly happy with their lot is subtle but distinct.
Foreshadowing Book 2: Quintus and Barbillus
One of the many reasons, in my opinion, that children’s interest in the stories wanes after CLC Book 1, is that students never get over the loss of Caecilius. Quintus is not developed enough as a character in Book 1 for him to become the hero in the later books, and this was one of the ways in which I felt things needed changing (the others all relate to grammar and vocabulary).
The authors of the 5th edition have gone some way towards adjusting this, with extra stories that flesh out the character of Quintus and give him a personality. Quintus audax has been introduced in Stage 8, which shows Quintus hunting with his father and Felix, a hair-raising encounter with a boar affording him the opportunity to pay back his debt to the old freedman. This leads us nicely into him being the focus in much of Stage 9, with his birthday and his visit to the baths, and in Stage 10, with his Greek friend Alexander. Pleasingly, Lucia shows an interest in Alexander in a short interaction with Melissa, and it’s nice to see the main characters forming attractions, which was previously only the preserve of the slaves (read into that what you will).
An inspired change for the better is the pointless characters of Marcus and Quartus have been ditched from Stage 11 and instead the debate regarding which candidate’s name to paint on the wall of their house happens between Quintus and Lucia, giving both characters life and illustrating what we know from the very kind of graffiti being portrayed – that Roman women supported political campaigning and put both their voice and their wealth behind their preferred candidates. Another pleasing addition to this stage is a discussion between Metella and Lucia, in which Metella reveals that Caecilius is looking to his wealthy contact Holconius (boo!) to help him arrange a marriage for Lucia. There is lots of scope for discussion in the story, which shows Lucia’s feelings (she only has eyes for Alexander) and touches on various other themes relating to marriage and how women were treated in the Roman world. The notion of arranged marriage was distinctly missing before, along with pretty much every lived reality for 50% of the population of the ancient world.
One of the cleverest adjustments made by the authors is easy to miss and I confess I might have done so had Caroline Bristow not flagged it up to me in her interview. In a stroke of genius, the authors have tweaked the cartoons and the storyline ever so slightly in Stage 2, taking the previously nameless merchant friend from the cartoons and calling him Barbillus. He then pops up again in Stage 12, replacing the hitherto pointless Iulius, who is introduced in previous editions only to be left to an unknown fate and never mentioned again. As a result of all this, Barbillus – a pivotal character for Book 2 – is flagged as a solid friend and business contact for Caecilius in Book 1, enabling the authors (one hopes) to create more of a bond between him and the surviving members of the family in Book 2 and thus more pathos for his death.
The presentation of the background
As a state school teacher with excessively limited classroom time, I am far less of an expert with how the background material is presented. However, the differences are still striking even to my eye. The “talking heads” are a great idea, as the background sections become an opportunity for the characters to tell us about their lives rather than the background seeming unrelated to them. From what I can see, the authors have also made significant improvements to how the background sections are written, meaning that teachers in a similar situation to mine might at least feel able to set a reading homework for students, facilitated perhaps by the “thinking points” or questions now included to promote discussion; previously, some of the language used was so archaic and/or so advanced that this was never really an option with younger children in a comprehensive setting.
The 5th edition is a marvellous rewrite and a credit to the authors. I only hope they succeed in persuading schools to make the leap in these financially testing times; to date, I will confess, not one of my tutees is in a school which has made the switch, although it may be early days. But truth be told, if you’re a fan of the course, the new edition holds nothing to fear and everything to like. For pedagogical doubters like myself, I’m afraid that the language elements remain the same, with the one exception that they have (I believe under pressure from teachers) introduced a mention of the ablative case after prepositions in Stage 11. Personally, if I were still a classroom teacher, I would still be teaching the grammar explicitly in the old-fashioned way and I would also still be re-writing the stories to remove nominative pronouns and tweak the vocabulary (small issues like the constant use of contendo – not on the GCSE vocabulary list – instead of festino). I would also still be adjusting the way that the vocabulary is presented (I take issue with verbs being listed in the 3rd person).
I did all this with Book 1 as I believed the story arc was magnificent and maintained an undeniably engaging appeal. Book 2, as of around four years ago, I had ditched altogether for numerous reasons, in particular the excessive use of irrelevant vocabulary which overwhelmed students and caused them to lose all heart. I have not studied Book 2 in detail yet, and look forward to considering whether it could have tempted me back into the fold.
I have a deep-rooted terror of not being able to read. I don’t mean that I’ll forget how to do it – I have always been an irritatingly confident reader and complex texts hold no fear for me; I’m talking about the physiological process of focusing your eyes on a page.
Born with little to no sight in one eye and now in my late 40s, I have inevitably started to experience further changes in my one sighted eye (and that one’s not particularly great, by the way). I suffer constantly with eye strain. My optician told me (cheerfully) that this was inevitable and expected. I’m embarassed to say it’s not something that occurred to me as likely when I was younger. Like most youngsters, I just assumed I was invincible.
The potential failure of my sight is just one of the reasons why I feel so viscerally irritated by the mantra that “real books” are better than electronic ones or indeed than audiobooks. The whole thing seems so tied up with an air of smugness and is usually disguised as a humble-brag such as “I guess I’m just old-fashioned.” But the underlying implication is always that there is something soul-less and empty about you if you don’t prefer “real” books to the modern alternative. Well, try reading a small-print book (especially one of those 1970s paperbacks) in poor lighting with sight like mine. It simply can’t be done. So when a device came along which allows me to select the font style, font size and page colour: forgive me for doing a little happy dance and never looking back.
On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took me some considerable time to convince him that I was actually reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders.
I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of ’70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. It’s easy to forget just what a short time we have all had access to this joyous wonder of modern technology. And when audiobooks exploded into my life, my cup overflowed. I now “read” around 100 books a year; I use scare-quotes because there are plenty of anti-audio-snobs who will tell me that I am not really “reading” at all. But the audiobook has freed me up, not only to read all the time without tiring, but also to experience novels that I know, hand on heart, I would not find the mental energy to get through on my own.
How anyone who claims to “love books” can be suspicious of either the Kindle or of audiobooks amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a literal reality. As for audiobooks, they allow us all to fulfill the book-lover’s ideal of “always having a book on the go” – quite literally.
But how should one experience a book? In the ancient and medieval world, the oral tradition was dominant. Not until the invention of the printing press was literature widely disseminated, and even then much of it was the preserve of the wealthier classes. Mass availability of literature in print, let alone through the wonderful range of electronic options we have now, is in itself a modern privilege and one I am unspeakably grateful for. With my eyesight, even as it is, there is no way I would ever have learned to read, never mind been able to continue to do so into my middle age and my dotage.
We have little to no idea what percentage of people were taught to read in the ancient world, but let’s talk about those who were. People would most often have read out loud – not because they lacked the capacity to read in silence (there is plenty of evidence from classical texts that they could do so), but rather because accessibility was an issue. It would certainly not be the norm for an ancient family to sit about reading different texts – they simply did not have access to them. Performance aloud was therefore considered normality, and readings and recitations were the standard way of sharing literature in the ancient world. Recitation was basically publication – it was how your work was disseminated. Do audiobooks perhaps take us back to reading as the ancients experienced it?
When it comes to the suspiscion with which some people view the process of listening to a book rather than reading it, I wonder whether they were not read to beyond babyhood. My childhood was different. Both my parents, but particularly my father, read aloud to the whole family throughout my formative years and into my teens. I was read books at an age when I could not (or would not) have read them myself – Treasure Island, some Dickens, dozens of novels by John Wyndham, some classic ghost stories. So I come from a family where reading as a group was a thing. My parents still read books together and I sometimes choose books for them to read together rather than individually. Perhaps that is why audiobooks appealed to me so readily. I saw reading aloud as something to be celebrated and something of value; it certainly never occured to me that it was second best.
When I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection, for I was tired of the excessive number in the house, his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair. Audiobooks, I grant you, are less ideal when it comes to this approach; but they are good for short attention spans and you can always rewind them. They are also ideal for making mindless tasks more bearable.
I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean … really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I used to work with were considerably younger than I, yet they spoke in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines. I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish. And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.
In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up: ‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’ A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value: ‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’
Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.
Latin is a heavily inflected language. Inflection is a process of word formation by which the word is modified according to its grammatical category. For verbs, inflection (called conjugation), means that the ending (and in some instances the stem) of the verb will change according to tense (e.g. present or future), voice (active or passive), person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) or number (singular or plural).
English is different. English relies heavily on pronouns to identify who is performing the action of a verb. For example, let’s take the verb “to warn” in the present tense. To conjugate this English verb, I need to use a series of different pronouns to express whoever is the subject of the verb – there is only one small change (in the 3rd person) to the ending of the verb itself:
1st person singular: I warn 2nd person singular: You (sg) warn 3rd person singular: He/she/it warns 1st person plural: We warn 2nd person plural: You (pl) warn 3rd person plural: They warn
Latin is completely different. Latin has no need of a personal pronoun to express whoever is doing the action of the verb. The same verb in Latin will conjugate as follows:
1st person singular: moneo 2nd person singular: mones 3rd person singular: monet 1st person plural: monemus 2nd person plural: monetis 3rd person plural: monent
One of the most important things for new students of Latin to grasp is this fundamental difference, for it has varied and complex effects upon their ability to read and translate the language competently. To become a confident Latinist, a student must break the habit of reading from left to right and learn to prioritise finding the verb (usually, although not always, at the end of the sentence).
The habit of reading from left to right is extraordinarily difficult to break and students will usually revert to it when under pressure, despite “knowing” their verb endings. For example, a novice will naturally tend to translate the sentence “puellam monemus” as “the girl warns”. But the -mus ending on the verb tells us that it actually means “we warn”, therefore the sentence translates as “we warn the girl”: the fact that the girl is the object, not the subject of the verb, is also something that can be deduced from its case ending, but that too tends to go out of the window when a novice is faced with a sentence such as this – and that’s precisely because we naturally read from left to right. No other reason, really.
It seems to me that the authors of virtually all the Latin reading courses that have made it through the traditional publishing process are either in complete denial about this fundamental difference between English and Latin, or they are utterly deluded in their apparent belief that it really isn’t that difficult for children to let go of the habit of reading from left to right – even though it’s a routine they have been trained into doing habitually from the age of 4 or 5 and is therefore deeply ingrained. Reading from left to right is, for every child – however hesitant a reader – a custom which will have slipped entirely into their unconscious mind; no child picks up a book and starts reading a sentence from the middle or the end.
In my criticism of published reading courses I am thinking in particular of courses such as The Cambridge Latin Course and the much more recently published Suburani, which is so markedly CLC 2.0 that I’m surprised its creators haven’t been sued by Cambridge for plagiarism. Both courses use subject pronouns from the outset (and throughout) as a prop for students to hang their understanding upon. Since pronouns – when used as the subject – appear at the beginning of the sentence, students are actively encouraged to continue with their natural instinct of reading from left to right. This, to be brutally frank, is simply disastrous for their potential as future Latinists.
Here are just a couple of examples from the very first few pages of Suburani (and therefore part of students’ early introduction to reading Latin stories):
ego multum cibum habeo (“I have a lot of food”): what is ego doing there? Why not force students to look at the ending of habeo instead?
tu psitaccum habes (“you have a parrot”): what is tu doing there? Don’t get me started on why the students are learning the Latin for “parrot” in their first few lessons. It may not surprise you to know that it doesn’t come up very often and it’s certainly not a word they will need at GCSE or are likely to need at A level.
ego cibum vendo (“I am selling food”): sigh.
tu amicum habes(“you have a friend”): etc etc. You get the idea.
In all of the above sentences both ego and tu could be removed in order to force students to look at the verb ending. So what are they doing there? It seems to me that they serve no purpose other than to encourage students to read from left to right – excactly the opposite of what they should be doing. This more than anything is my fundamental objection to how courses such as these are designed; I have plenty of other objections too, but this is the one that irks me the most. The authors of these courses are so determined to prove their misguided belief that students will learn how to read Latin via some kind of process of osmosis that they are prepared to lull them into a false sense of security by guiding them to approach Latin sentences in entirely the wrong way. From day one.
In my final few years at the chalkface and as we hurtled into lockdown, I was faced with the prospect of converting all my Latin lessons for online learning and the need to put work on screen. On our return to school I did not have enough text books to go around and was told that they could not be shared between bubbles. Since I had to get all of the stories up onto the screen, this, I decided, was the time to grasp the bull by the horns and edit all the cartoons and the stories in the Cambridge Latin Course to remove all the pronouns and therefore force students to look at the verb endings. I made other fundamental changes too, but this was the one (I believe) which has had the most tangible impact on students’ understanding. One of the most exciting things was the moment when I realised that students were so well-drilled in the process of finding the verb and translating the inflected ending that a strange consequence arose: when first introduced to sentences that had a noun for a subject like “puellae monent” (“the girls warn”), students often translated it as “the girls, they warn” then looked puzzled. Hallelujah. Once it was explained to them (and reiterated several times) that when a sentence contains a subject such as “the girls”, this replaces the pronoun (they) in their translation, there was no problem.
The habit of reading from left to right is so ingrained that it remains something which students need to be reminded of constantly. Once drilled in inflection, however, I find that even with the weakest students, all I need to do is point at the verb ending and they immediately adjust their translation to reflect the verb ending. This gentle process must be repeated again and again. It comes after weeks, months, years of drilling them on their verb endings. All of my students, even the weakest in the class, were able to write down their verb endings from memory and could tell me what they meant. The biggest chaellenge remained breaking that reading habit, but at least my refusal to let them rely on the subject pronoun has given them a fighting chance. By the time students reached the end of Year 8 and the start of Year 9, the habit was all but broken.
That’s how long it takes and that’s how important it is.
A pleasant and heartfelt account of one man’s brief journey into and out of education, Let That Be a Lesson left me feeling sad that our profession is failing to hang on to teachers like Wilson. By his own account in this book, he was frantic to enter the profession from childhood, yet he rocketed through the ranks and out the other side in a frenzied haze of marking and accountability.
From teachers behaving badly to students’ frankly mind-boggling misconceptions, Wilson’s memoir is unquestionably funny. In fact, it’s worth reading just for his hilarious anecdote about inadvertently cupping the headteacher’s wife’s breast. But while that’s a pretty unique situation to end up in (I assume), there is much that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in their local comprehensive. From inadequate training through to achieving local celebrity status, Wilson’s observational humour takes in the gold bullion-equivalent value of glue-sticks, agonising ‘wellbeing’ sessions, speed dating-style parents’ evenings, wasps in the classroom and a kid making you an offer you (almost) can’t refuse of some knock-off DVDs.
Yet for all that there is personal pain in Wilson’s journey. The loss of a much-respected colleague and very close friend to cancer clearly had a profound effect on his feelings about the job, and perhaps his conviction that life is too short to spend it strapped to a desk laden with exercise books.
Wilson also charts his own personal coming-out story. But that comes through as something of a gift in terms of his experience in education. He explains how he found inspiration in the openness of some of the youngsters he met and how this gave him the confidence to embrace his own sexuality.
Wilson does not attribute any of his growing disenchantment with the profession to the students; yet he does catalogue plenty of poor behaviour – what he refers to as “fights, bullying and general thuggery”. In my opinion, that our system somehow persuades someone like Wilson that putting up with this as an inevitable part of the job is an indictment. His positivity about young people is laudable, but would we still count him in our ranks if he’d been trained – and supported – to take a different approach?
Wilson’s journey is also a salutary lesson about early promotion. He seems at every point in his career to have been put under too much pressure, and not simply from excessive workload or accountability. During his first weeks in training, he was left unsupervised with difficult classes; he was asked to teach texts he hadn’t had time to read, let alone study; just five years later, he was in charge of a department of 18 people in an unfamiliar setting as head of English in an inner-city school. Beyond that lay senior leadership. Each moment in his career left me with the feeling that in the long-term this was never going to work.
Although the book reads like a series of anecdotes, divided into chapters with headings rather than numbers, there is a story arc here, and it is Wilson’s own alarmingly rapid trajectory from idealistic newbie to jaded senior leader. He explores some frankly corrosive thinking, culminating in a thoroughly depressing conversation with another senior leader who agreed that the school should hold a minute’s silence for the victims of a terrorist attack on the grounds that “Ofsted like that kind of thing”.
Wilson’s anger is palpable. And to an extent it’s rightly political, too. But ultimately the politicisation of his message is something of a disappointment. His stance that ‘The Two Michaels’, Gove and Wilshaw, have wreaked untold havoc upon our education system is simplistic to the point of naivety. It dates the book, and left me feeling somewhat dejected. The notion that those dastardly villains, the Tories, were behind it all along feels like a Scooby Doo-level analysis for what is otherwise a poignant and very personal account.
Surely a more useful lesson could have been drawn – for us and for Wilson alike.
This post was originally published in Schools Week magazine.
Chapter 2 of Making Every Lesson Count focuses on explanation and starts with an arresting challenge: just how much quality concrete information do students learn from research-based group tasks compared to teacher explanation? This really resonated with me – it’s very easy to be dazzled by the “buzz” that these kinds of lessons commonly used in the Humanities can create in a classroom; as the authors put it, students “have enjoyed the lesson – but how many have learnt anything at a deep level?”
The authors address the inescapable fact that teacher explanation has received a bad press in recent educational theory, as the advice in teacher training has moved consistently away from the “chalk and talk” model. All that guff about being a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage”. Well, you know what? Sometimes the kids need a sage. The authors look closely at the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that teacher-led instruction is actually A Good Thing. They then briefly explore the methodology of how to make your explanations comprehensible and memorable.
Pleasingly, the authors move swiftly onto the importance of building blocks and dispelling misconceptions; they emphasise the key principle that lessons should always build upon prior learning, each building upon the last and addressing problems that may have become apparent in the students’ work.
The authors really put the boot in when it comes to everyone’s favourite sport of “guess what’s inside the teacher’s head”, a game which we’ve all ended up guilty of playing in a desperate bid to keep our lessons interactive and question-based. The truth, of course, is that this is a seriously pointless way of approaching things. Their sound criticisms of this and similar methods has made me reflect again on the Cambridge Latin Course, which is based on the principle that students miraculously work out what’s going on by observing it; anyone that’s tried to teach like this knows that students need a huge amount of guidance to get there and sometimes – frankly – it’s pointless. Just tell them, for God’s sake, before we all lose the will to live.
In their defence of teacher explanation, the authors are never in danger of encouraging a static or dull classroom environment. They advocate storytelling and bringing the classroom to life. They conclude the chapter with some interesting reflections on why teacher explanation has been so overlooked in professional development, as well as a salutary reminder that poor explanations which fail to achieve student engagement will always remain one of the worst ways to teach.
My school has asked us to read Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, completing chapter 1 by the start of term. So far, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
I find it hard to recall and distil information without doing something with it, so I have decided to blog as I read.
The first chapter addresses challenge and the fact that “all too often challenge is presented in the context of ‘challenging the most able'” rather than with the mindset that all students should be engaged in “healthy struggle”. This has certainly been my experience; happily, this culture is shifting.
The ludicrous expectations placed on classroom teachers to differentiate for every child are addressed: “we believe that much that is promoted as good differentiation practice is both unmanageable and counterproductive: it is not humanly possible to personalise planning for each and every child, nor, as often suggested, is it possible to create three levels of worksheet for every lesson.”
Hallelujah! We’ve all known this for some time, but it’s jolly nice to read it in a volume that my Senior Leadership Team has advised me to read! The chapter focuses on the value of “sharing excellence” with students as a method of support, modelling and demonstrating to them what excellence looks like. It also states the truth that one can differentiate much more simply by outcome.
The importance of subject knowledge in exposing students to content pitched above or beyond national expectations is emphasised. Pleasingly, the authors strike a balance between championing the importance of rich, challenging curriculum content and the importance of excellent teaching, stating the inescapable truth that “hard content is harder to teach”. The authors talk about “the long haul” and advise that not every lesson should be challenging – for our own sake and for the students.
The chapter is refreshingly practical but it does draw on other research, most notably Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and work done by The Sutton Trust on motivating students through content.
Chapter 1 has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable read; I look forward to the rest of the book!