Which Latin course book do I choose?

Like most difficult questions, there is no straightforward answer to this. The variety of books now available to support and supplement the learning of Latin is quite remarkable, but very few of them are suitable for independent learners; many of the text books available are designed for use in schools, which makes them somewhat challenging for an independent learner to follow. But do not despair, there are courses out there and support is available for those studying alone or working with a Latin tutor.

The more traditional grammar and translation methodologies used by Latin teachers have been attacked for decades since the progressive movement in education decided that everything that smacked of The Old Days was A Bad Idea. However, if the main goal of learning Latin is to be able to translate the texts that the Romans wrote (and I fail to see why else one would bother!) then I’m afraid you need to learn how to do it. I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to anybody. For this reason I am not a big fan of the so-called “reading courses” which, far from being a course in anything, rather expect grammar to be learned through some kind of magical osmotic process. If you want a Latin tutor that pretends the grammar doesn’t exist in the interests of making the subject somehow more appealing in unspecified ways, then I’m not the one for you! Latin is hard, and shying away from the grammar is doing children a grave disservice in my opinion; you may fool them into thinking that it’s nothing but colourful stories for a while, but if that’s your only plan for winning them over then they’re going to be seriously upset with you when they get to the ablative absolute. Plus, I’ll let you into a little secret: children aren’t only motivated by fun: they are also motivated by challenge, so long as they are given the tools to succeed. I have taken numerous students from loathing to love, simply by demystifying the grammar for them. Give them the tools and they will fly.

Anyway, I digress. Below I take an (admittedly irreverent) look at the Latin text books most commonly used as core text books for Latin teaching in schools, including the most recent additions to the canon; but for our review to be complete, we need to start right back in the 1970s …

The Cambridge Latin Course (first published in 1970)

The oldest of the “new style” progressive Latin text books and the one that everyone’s heard of. If I had a £1 for everyone who has asked me whether Caecilius is still in horto I’d be a wealthy woman. Why is it so popular? There is something magical about the first book and even I can’t quite explain it. For some reason, the students just love Caecilius. Who knew that a middle-aged white banker could inspire such joy amongst the youth of today? But somehow he does, and there is the problem (or one of them at least); the students never really get over the loss of Caecilius at the end of Book 1 and they lose interest and heart from the second book onwards.

In the latter half of my career as a Latin teacher in schools I tackled this head-on, writing more stories about Quintus, the son who survives the eruption and carries the narrative forward; this approach meant that students were more invested in the character of Quintus and felt the loss of Caecilius less keenly. In the original version of Book 1, Quintus plays a very limited role and in one famous scene, which I decided to delete, he punches a dog! (Yes, really! Not the way to win the kids over, in my experience). So I invented a whole new storyline in which Quintus falls in love and tries to elope with the household slave-girl Melissa, but then loses her in the chaos during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I then spun out the story of Quintus grieving her loss and ultimately finding her again as a replacement to the thoroughly tiresome stories in Book 2, all of which I ditched.

Aside from the fact that the books decline in their ability to hold students’ interest, the Cambridge Latin Course also falls down on the grammar, as pretty much everyone who isn’t invested in the publications will now admit. All Latin teachers who use this course supplement the grammatical content to a greater or lesser extent, and who hasn’t been frustrated by the fact that many of the chapters introduce a new grammatical concept and then give a load of exercises about something completely different? It truly is weird. I took my grammarisation campaign much further in later years, re-writing the stories I still used to remove all the personal pronouns (which forced students to focus on the verb ending, an essential skill in Latin translation) and replacing some of the more bizarre vocabulary choices with selections from the OCR GCSE list. By the time I’d finished with the course it was something completely different: a grammar course with the characters of the Cambridge Latin Course as a backdrop.

While the Cambridge Latin Course has started so many students off on their love-affair with Latin, it was never enough to carry them all the way to GCSE and beyond without some serious supplementation on the part of the teacher. If I were starting my career again as a classroom teacher, I’m not sure I would choose it. The much-awaited 5th edition is being launched as we speak, in which the authors have addressed the lack of strong female characters (Quintus gains a sister) and also the pervasive narrative of the “contented slave”, which without question dates the series, as does the fact that all the female characters tend to fall into the stereotypes observable in 1970s situation comedy: pretty girls and nagging wives.

Ecce Romani (first published in 1971)

It seems that vanishingly few schools use this series now, although it appears to have some popularity as a homeschooling text in the US. Ecce Romani was another reading course designed in the 1970s but just like the Cambridge Latin Course it has been updated in terms of appearance (less so in terms of content). I have tutored only one boy whose school is still working with this series and he hated it (although I suspect he would have hated it whatever the teacher had chosen!) One thing to be said for Ecce Romani is that – unlike its rival – it did a much better job of portraying female characters with prominence from the beginning, something that the Cambrigde Latin Course is only just addressing now in its 5th edition: this is pretty poor given that the 4th edition came out in 1998: not exactly the #metoo era, but not exactly the dark ages either.

The Oxford Latin Course (first published in 1987)

The Oxford Latin Course was published, I am told, as a direct answer to the problems with the Cambridge Latin Course, yet I fail to see how it addressed any of them. Do any Latin teachers use this course any more? Genuine question, as I have not heard of a Classics department that does so for some time. I did my second training placement at Brentwood School in Essex and that was my sole exposure to the text book, which they used with their KS3 and KS4 students. The Oxford Latin Course was at the time (and we’re talking more than 20 years ago now) the less commonly-used but well-respected alternative to the Cambridge series as a Latin reading course. Generally it was considered to be a little more challenging and robust on the grammar and certainly it introduced concepts such as 3rd person verbs without a subject much sooner than the Cambridge Latin Course; it also included some mythological stories, which the students enjoyed. Yet as an “answer” to the problems in the CLC? No. There is still too much expected on the part of the student, no clarity of exposition and very, very little repetition: this is the main problem with all the so-called “modern” reading courses – they consistently fail to grasp that the only route to full understanding is repetitive practice.

Still, it might seem a little puzzling why the Oxford Latin Course never really took off to the same extent; my suspicion is that it simply wasn’t as obviously engaging as the first book of the Cambridge Latin Course, and – for better or for worse – engaging is what teachers were looking for in the 1980s. As the CLC surged in dominance throughout the 1980s and 1990s, schools that had invested in the OLC must have felt like they’d been the ones to buy a Betamax instead of a VHS.

Suburani (first published 2020)

Suburani was heralded as the Cambridge Latin Course for the 21st century and it certainly continues in the fine tradition of the CLC in making the grammar thoroughly obscure. My heart sank when I first opened the book and found it repeated exactly the same mistakes, not least the immediate introduction of a plethora of declensions and conjugations right from the outest, sending all students into guaranteed cognitive overload when it comes to morphology. Likewise the introduction of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person but with no grammatical terminology used (why not?) plus the consistent use of the pronouns ego, tu, nos and vos in translation passages, meaning that students will fail to focus on the verb ending and will never develop the habit of examining the verb first. Talk about setting them up to fail. Add to this the constant use of prepositional phrases, with the ablative case completely unexplained and ignored, and this is simply the CLC with all its mistakes on auto-repeat. So why have some schools bought into it with alacrity? Well …

Suburani was a brave attempt at producing a Latin text book that would satisfy teachers who crave a richer and more diverse reflection of Roman society, with women working (not just sitting in the atrium), the realities of urban life (dangerous yet expensive rooms in insulae, beggars in the street, chatting in the latrina) and society as a whole being a little bit less middle-aged white banker territory. I applaud the sentiment and there is much that I think is genuinely laudable, for example the focus on the slaves who worked in the heat and the dark below ground to run the public baths; the slave labour that produced and maintained the apparent “wonders” of Roman invention is something I have always endeavoured to remind students of.

Yet one quick search for reviews of Suburani throws up plenty of people keen to tell them that they’ve got it all shockingly and offensively wrong again; such is the issue with marketing yourself as the go-to choice for people who crave diversity and universal representation in all things – they’re pretty hard to please. (This blog is my personal favourite of all the reviews that address how apparently “problematic” Suburani remains).

My reaction to Suburani is I like it as an attempt to reflect Roman society more honestly. I have no personal experience of using it as a classroom text book but have worked with several tutees who are using it in their schools: they’re all at sea with the grammar, which is why they need my help. Quod erat demonstrandum.

De Romanis (first published 2020)

There was much to recommend this Latin text book when it came out and I seriously considered switching to it as a classroom teacher. Latin grammar is tackled in methodical detail and the text book is supplemented with a far more comprehensive range of grammatical exercises, reducing teacher workload for sure and certainly going some way to address the lack of repetition, which is a consistent fault in all of the courses above. Translation is promoted from the outset and students are explicitly taught dictionary skills. When it comes to engagement, there is considerable focus on gods and goddesses, a subject hugely popular with youngsters and strangely not exploited in full by other modern courses. The layout is also much less cluttered than that of Suburani, which has come under fire for its chaotic appearance.

However (I bet you knew there was a however coming) there are a couple of reasons why this much-heralded new text book with a more robust approach to grammar didn’t quite win me over. I felt that the decision to introduce the perfect tense before anything else was a mistake in a book that claimed to have grammar at its heart and I really couldn’t get past that. In addition, I don’t know if every single Year 9 class in every school other than mine has children that are infinitely more mature than the ones I have taught over the last 21 years, but for me the “willy count” was simply way too high for my Year 9 students to cope with: yes, yes I know that most classical representations of the male form were full-frontal, but really: I simply couldn’t bear the thought of the inevitable sniggering, I’m afraid.

Latin to GCSE (by Henry Cullen and John Taylor) (first published 2016)

Now this is a serious tome and my goodness me the tutees I have worked with that are using this course at KS3 are challenged. In terms of its focus on grammar and detailed unpicking of morphology and syntax, this course is by far the most robust that I have found that is aimed at the secondary sector. It is also the first of its kind in that this text book is co-written by the Chief Examiner for GCSE (John Taylor) and ratified by OCR. It focuses on the vocabulary contained on the OCR vocabulary list and forms a guide to the grammar that students need to know at GCSE level. It is followed up by the equally excellent Latin Beyond GCSE by John Taylor, designed to take students onto AS and then level.

The Taylor and Cullen books are suitable for independent Latin learners as the authors provide extensive explanations as well as vast amounts of practice. Furthermore, you can create a login to the Bloomsbury website and obtain access to the authors’ own translations and answers, which makes it entirely suitable for independent learners and homeschooled students. I have found numerous errors in the ones posted for the Latin Beyond GCSE – unfortunately, I had got too far through before I realised that there were enough that I should have been writing them down to let the author know, and then I simply couldn’t face going back to find them all again – maybe I’ll find the energy in the summer.

The Taylor and Cullen books are used by schools with the curriculum time to take students through the morphology of Latin in rigorous detail (and boy do I envy them that!) They also have the advantage of being tailored specifically to the examinations (whereas other courses encourage students to waste a considerable amount of time learning vocabulary that will not be relevant at GCSE or A level). The very fact that this is so unusual indicates the disadvantage that our subject has been placed in compared to others – can you imagine teaching a mainstream subject without access to text books that are ratified by the examination board? Advantages aside, the only markers against these text books is that they are pretty weighty and unforgiving monsters and I can understand why students used to big glossy pictures in their text books might find them a little daunting.

So You Really Want to Learn Latin? (first published in 1999)

I have recommended this series of books by NNR Oulton to students in the past who want a user-friendly way to revise the basics. Okay, the jokes are a little cheesy but the author voice coming through is quite nice when you’re working alone, as you feel he is cheering you on. The author also drops in little snippets of useful “did you knows” that can demystify some of the Latin phrases that most people are vaguely aware of. The author’s style may not appeal to all as he is robustly open about his desire to tackle “properly difficult grammar”, so the books may not be reassuring to a student who is already anxious or struggling; for an adult, or for a confident child who wants to develop their understanding, the tone is ideal.

Although ostensibly aimed at prep-school students and hence dominated by the vocabulary used at Levels 1-3 and Scholarship, the course makes some strange decisions about what grammar to prioritise in the early stages, for example introducing students to the historic present quite early on; that said, the historic present is pretty common in Latin, so well done to him for not letting a syllabus totally dominate his methodology, I guess. Again, access to the answers is made available, another advantage for independent learners and making it entirely more suitable for those purposes than the course books commonly used in secondary schools. The series is also supported by the author’s own YouTube channel.

Other prep school courses

My shift into private tutoring has been an education in terms of text book usage as well as a revelation in discovering what prep schools were demanding of the youngest of students. Having worked in the state sector all my life, I was used to teaching students who were ab initio at the age of 11. My teaching of the grammar has also been hampered at the state comprehensive I worked in by limited time and a two-week timetable; there were times when, due to poor timetabling and a Bank Holiday Monday, I might not see my Year 7 students for almost a month. Working with prep school students who were already being asked to tackle grammar concepts I was not teaching to my students until year 10 made me question everything I was doing and encouraged me to rip up the rule book. It also exposed me to the variety of course books used in prep schools – far from being stagnant, this is another area where things are changing fast.

Latin for Common Entrance by RC Bass

The text books by RC Bass have formed the backbone for prep school teaching for years and the majority of students I have tutored in the prep school system come to me waving a copy of this course, in one of its many manifestations. The course has been revamped and republished several times and, like any good course in the modern era, comes with answer keys to support the independent learner. Bass switches regularly between Latin to English and English to Latin and his books contain meticulous detail and explanation. He approaches the grammar far more methodically than any of the courses aimed at secondary schools, introducing students to the morphology as well as the grammatical constructs. Some find his approach old-fashioned and bemoan the lack of pictures but frankly I was a convert from my first exposure. Yet Bass is not the only option available to teachers in the prep school system.

Who Said Latin’s Dead? by Rhian Rivers

These workbooks were created by a teacher who says she wanted to combine the rigour of traditional prep school grammar teaching with the engagement brought by story-based reading courses such as the Cambridge Latin Course. Students follow the stories through the eyes of some fictional fellow classmates who are transported back in time (but who also need to keep up their Latin studies – of course!) The course is produced as a series of workbooks, which is something being trialled in state secondary schools all over the country. I moved towards a booklet format for my Year 10s at GCSE level and I would never go back; the format provides students with a comprehensive learning guide that they can look back on and it is also outstanding for homework and cover work, a fundamental practicality that always needs to be considered; it must have been a godsend in lockdown too. The course has much to recommend it, with a good deal of practice exercises on morphology. I particularly like the way it frequently switches between translating from English-Latin to Latin-English.

The author offers an “express” course for schools that are more pressed for time. She does not, however, offer an answer key, so the course could not be used by independent learners or home-schoolers without the regular support of a tutor. She says that this remains a project for the future, so watch this space!

Clarke’s Latin by Ed Clarke

Written explicitly for the recently-refreshed Common Entrance course by one of its creators and examiners, Clarke’s Latin is quite frankly a revelation. My overriding criticism that applies to every single one of the courses above is that there simply isn’t enough practice included at each stage for students to achieve mastery or indeed anything like it. The funny thing is that all the authors must know this – they’re all teachers themselves, so they all understand that mastery is only achieved by repetition; in the classrom, they’re all no doubt supplementing their own courses all the time, a process replicated ad infinitum by every single Latin teacher across the country. When you think about it, it’s madness. But Clarke’s Latin is different.

Clarke has made use of modern technology to produce a course that almost overwhelms you with exercises – never before have I been blessed with the option of saying to a student, “okay, I think you’ve completely grasped this, let’s skip the next couple of pages”. But now, when working one-to-one with a particularly gifted student, I am saying it a lot. In the classroom, it would allow a teacher to differentiate by outcome and enable students to work at their own pace – even the terrifyingly clever ones, who for once will not clean you out of material within 5 minutes.

Clarke has exploited the power of Excel to generate morphological exercises and short practice sentences at a fraction of the speed it would take a Latin teacher to produce them manually; this has enabled him to provide the classroom teacher with a bumper-pack of resources that will never, ever run out. I mean seriously. Imagine it. No more resource-writing. Just a series of course books containing everything you need. More than you need. I’m still slightly in shock! Then I find myself wondering why on earth this hasn’t been thought of before. Latin is famously a structured language and we are in the business of teaching its rules. Of course it was possible to harness technology to assist us in the process of resource-generation. What on earth have we all been doing since 1985?! Well, while we were fiddling about, Clarke has come up with the method and the result is golden.

Like Who Says Latin’s Dead, the new Clarke’s Latin is presented in booklet format, a real boon for classroom teachers and a methodology that’s working in the state sector. Clarke also provides an answer key and extensive written explanations, making the course ideal for independent learners. Personally I am using the electronic licence as I am an online tutor and it is working very well in that format. My guinea pig ab initio student, the first I have tried out the new course with, is loving the rigour: and that rigour is second to none.

Conclusion

In my 21 years as a teacher I have worked with numerous text books and indeed made use of works that are much older and less user-friendly than the modern courses explored above. My shelves are weighed down with text books from the past, all of which have their uses (especially when desperate to provide a gifted student with something he or she has never seen before and might find in some way challenging!) Never have we been so blessed with choice and the latest additions to the canon are in some cases revolutionary.

Why Study Latin?

I am still slightly stunned when apparently well-educated people ask me this question.

Studying Latin helps with so many other languages; as the root of all Romance languages, it can help you find cognates when there appear to be none in the English language. For example:

Latin English French Italian Spanish
arbor tree arbre albero arbol
pes foot pied piede pie

Ah, I hear you cry – so what of it? Why study the dead language and not just its living derivations, noting the similarities between those languages as one acquires them? Well, the study of Latin is of value precisely because it’s a dead language – this means that it’s taught to be read, not spoken, taught entirely through its grammatical rules, not conversational usage. Learning Latin promotes an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language; someone who has studied Latin can use it to grasp the rudiments of any language – not just the “Romance” languages which have their origins in Latin but also others such as German and Polish, which have complex inflection like Latin does.

Latin also improves and enriches your English vocabulary. If your job is a sinecure, should you quit? If something is indubitable, what is it? What exactly is juxtaposition? (Most trained English teachers get this one wrong). What is an expatriate? Would you consider yourself to be audacious? These words are all easy to deduce if you know your Latin.

Modern sciences began their development about 500 years ago, when all (yes, all) educated people studied Latin and Greek, so the technical terms in biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy derive from Latin and/or ancient Greek. To take one example: trees that lose their leaves in winter are described as deciduous — not an easy word, unless you know your Latin. A Latinist also understands why the plural of fungus is fungi and the singular of bacteria is bacterium.

Beyond the sciences, Latin is also the language of law and government — all legal and many political terms are lifted straight from the Latin. Here are just a few examples that you may have heard of … referendum; veto; habeas corpus; subpoena; in loco parentis; de facto; de iure; caveat emptor; pro bono; quorum; quid pro quo; ad hominem; non sequitur.

Still not convinced? Well, learning Latin enables you to read the great Roman writers, from Virgil to Cicero. These men lie at the head of the western tradition in writing from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Milton to Keats and beyond. When it comes to understanding English, Irish and American literature, a knowledge of Roman literature puts you at an incalculable advantage over other students; I genuinely struggle to comprehend how anyone can study Western literature at a high level without this knowledge. If you think you understand Milton and you haven’t read Virgil in the original Latin … then I’m afraid you don’t really understand Milton.

There is a reason why Latin is highly respected by the top universities and has one of the strongest recruitment rates in business and commerce as well as in the law and in politics. Latin teaches you to think precisely and analytically and develops your intellectual rigour. This, combined with the fact that no one can even begin to understand the purposes and merits of Western culture without a grasp of its Classical origins, makes the study of Latin a sine qua non.

In Defence of “Teaching to the Test”

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that
“teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn’t happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn’t?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.