Leading Grade-Schoolers to Latin

After singing, reading & hearing familiar stories in Latin, students were eager for more



I taught Latin to Catholic grade school students from 2010 through 2018. Admittedly, the course was not demanding since we met for only 40 minutes once weekly (on Saturday mornings). But from the outset I never intended to concentrate, as is typical of Latin instruction, on grammar or, shall I say, the memorization of grammar. Here was my game plan, as published in my parish bulletin:

The instructor is Mr. James Thunder, a parishioner, an attorney and a writer on public affairs. He has studied Latin, French, Chinese and linguistics. He initiated the Chinese language program at the University of Notre Dame where he double-majored in theology and government. He relied on his knowledge of Latin in writing his thesis, Aquinas on Marriage, for his M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. In teaching Latin, he (1) utilizes methods used in teaching modern languages; (2) prepares students to study other languages; (3) builds their English vocabulary; (4) helps students appreciate the Latin heritage of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church; and (5) has students read passages from the Latin-language Bible.

In our classes we covered the following:

  • Greetings: This was conversational and introduced students to the imperative. It also introduced students to how a Latin word changes depending on whether one or more persons are being addressed.
  • Introductions: Every student was given the Latin version of his or her name by which he or she was addressed by me or other students. This was also conversational and introduced students to the vocative case. It demonstrated to students how Latin words change depending on their case, that is, how a word is used in a sentence.
  • Imperative: The use of this mood is common in everyday speech and I taught it early – well before most curricula. We used “dog commands” and prayers (for example, “pray for us”) to introduce students to it.

Additional ways I taught Latin as though it were a modern language, included:

  • Numbers (among other things, adapting the card game “Uno”)
  • Directions (right, left, straight ahead)
  • The names of rooms in the home
  • Family relationships (mother, father, etc.).

To introduce them to prepositions, we recited a portion of St. Patrick’s “Breast-Plate” prayer: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”

When we studied the names for parts of the body from head to toe, this introduced students to Latin nouns — which are always memorized with two cases (nominative and genitive) — and it introduced them to the notion that nouns in Latin have gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter). It also introduced students to the roots of English words, particularly English words used in medicine.

We sang songs, including a Latin translation of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and of course Latin hymns. Songs are enjoyable because of their rhyming schemes. The students enjoyed other examples of rhyme, such as a Latin translation of Cat in the Hat.

We also read out loud from Latin translations of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And we read and dramatized Bible stories. When the students read, they pronounced words that they have never seen before. They grew comfortable, and good, at this. This was also an exercise in using a pedagogical tool, namely, proceeding from what is known to them (stories they’ve heard before in English) to what is unknown to them (seeing the same stories in Latin).

I wanted to show students how Latin is used in today’s world, so we explored:

  • The names of the 88 constellations
  • The scientific classification of plants and animals, including new dinosaur species and hominids
  • The scientific classification of clouds
  • The Ordo Missae, the Latin language Mass in the ordinary form.

We went online for an introduction to Chinese and Arabic, not only to hear the sounds of these languages but to see how they are written without a Roman alphabet. Ah, yes, we English speakers use the Roman alphabet and Arabic numbers.

We followed the Catholic Church’s liturgical year – with Scripture, hymns, and prayers for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This is what they were hearing in English in church, in school (if at a Catholic school), and at home. And we followed the news of the day by reading and/or listening to five-minute news reports on a Finnish radio station reproduced on a website.

By the time the students had read, listened to, and sung this much Latin, they were eager to study grammar. Grammar is not a drudgery but a key, a Rosetta stone, a computer code, that allows them to unlock meaning. They are equally eager to begin thinking in Latin by reading a Latin text that uses the “Natural Method” (also called the “Direct Method”), learning grammar and vocabulary intuitively through context: Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (2010). Several of my students chose to study Latin in high school and excelled at their studies.

In my next post I’ll discuss teaching high school students.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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